Disruptive Technology, 1934-Style
What an unexpected pleasure to see one of my “must see” items earlier this month while I was in Chicago for an ACHE Exam Committee meeting. My wife and I stayed for an extra day and visited the terrific Museum of Science and Industry where the first thing we saw upon entering was the famous Pioneer Zephyr train that revolutionized rail travel. I had seen pictures of this beautiful train for years but didn’t know it is still around.
The year was 1934, and conventional locomotives – “iron horses” – were heavy and slow. But on May 24, a new Art Deco-style train left Denver for a record-breaking trip to Chicago, cutting the time almost in half to just over 13 hours. Historians credit the Pioneer Zephyr with revitalizing the train travel industry and boosting the streamlining craze.
In a sense, the designers of Pioneer Zephyr didn’t invent anything new. Instead, they combined four other breakthrough technologies in a way that no one else had before. These four were:
Using a diesel-electric motor
Replacing heavy iron with light-weight aluminum
Applying principles of streamlining
Designing cars with shared undercarriage wheels, reducing the number of wheel trucks and saving considerable weight.
The result was an ultra-sleek train weighing only about one-eighth as much as a comparable conventional train. Incredibly, the diesel engine was able to pull the four full-sized train cars with an output of only 600 horsepower. (As a point of reference, that’s less than the 2019 C7 Corvette’s 650 horsepower motor.) But by combining diesel technology with lightweight aluminum, streamlining principles, and an innovative undercarriage structure, the designers were able to upend an industry and relegate steam locomotives to the history books.
This is typical of many technology disruptions. Some innovations are true ground-up breakthroughs, but many of the most significant breakthroughs involve tapping into other innovative technologies and applying them in revolutionary ways. Apple didn’t invent the mobile phone or the tablet, but it figured out the critical functional and customer-desired elements that propelled those devices to the must-have category.
Developers of health-related apps aren’t reinventing the Internet, using new IT communications protocols, or creating brand new devices. Instead they’re using the smartphones and tablets patients already have, identifying a legitimate need, and applying these existing technologies in creative and cost-effective ways.
I tell my clients that, individually, no breakthrough is such a blockbuster that it will single-handedly totally transform the healthcare system. Because of the Pioneer Zephyr, train travel in the 1940s bore little resemblance to its 1930 counterpart. Similarly, with hundreds and even thousands of successful health tech innovations introduced each year, the healthcare system of 2028 may look totally different from today’s. I consider it an honor to be playing a small role in helping bring exciting breakthroughs to the market.
May you and your family experience all of God’s blessings during this special season and in 2019.