February is special to me because it was on February 1, 1908 that the USS Plunger, SS 2, was launched. I kept a line drawing – basically an outline of the ship and its components – on the wall of my office for many years. It was a constant reminder to me of the complexity and genius of the founders of the modern submarine.

It’s a modern arrogance to assume that the ancients were idiots because they believed the world was flat, witches could cause your cow to go dry, frogs caused warts to appear, or other beliefs we know to be false. But they weren’t – they just started with less than we have and had to CREATE everything. This is brilliantly illustrated by Thomas Thwaites in his TED talk “How I built a toaster — from scratch.”

I was a program manager at The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in the Submarine Technology Program in the early 90s. Because I had a lot of money to farm out for new submarine technology I was constantly receiving requests to meet with new companies that had the answer to my problems. All but a few would end up being the CEO (and sole employee) of the company and a retired flag officer, usually an admiral. The conversation would go like this:

The CEO: “Hello, I’m Dr. Blah Blah, CEO and this is Admiral So-And-So.
Me: “Oh, Really! My Ph.D. is in physics, what’s yours?”

(Watch them mentally go, “Oh, $#!*! I’m going to have to talk real technology!”)
Presentation would be given, then….

Me: “That’s interesting. Let’s check it against my ‘02 submarine.”
The CEO: “The 2002 submarine?”
Me: “No, my 1902 submarine, SS 2, USS Plunger, built by the Holland Electric Boat Co.”

I would then explain where their idea was already incorporated in the design of the SS 2. It’s not hard to do because generally the original creator was a genius – And Holland was definitely a genius when you consider the number of problems that he had to overcome to build the first real submarine. He came up with some truly remarkable solutions. We could only come up with comparatively minor improvements.

As much as our world appears to be changing, most of the change is simply small incremental “improvements” – but our marketing culture always announces each as a giant leap forward – but really, what’s the difference in the first iPhone and the latest iPhone 5s – more memory, faster processor, smaller (or larger) screen?

Meredith and I will be exploring historical examples of “modern” problems in historical contexts in the month of February in our blog – sort of an exercise in “purifying” ourselves from modern arrogance. If you want to move your business forward, the best place to start is often in the past. You’ll discover that most of the time, there really is nothing new since the Greeks!

From Wikipedia:

“The Roman month Februarius was named after the Latin term februum, which means purification, via the purification ritual Februa held on February 15 (full moon) in the old lunar Roman calendar. January and February were the last two months to be added to the Roman calendar, since the Romans originally considered winter a monthless period. They were added by Numa Pompilius about 713 BC. February remained the last month of the calendar year until the time of the decemvirs (c. 450 BC), when it became the second month.”

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.