Even quite competent engineers can be very unreliable

Tuesday, October 17th, 2017

While discussing how development programs can go awry, Techniques of Systems Analysis paraphrases the cover story from Time magazine’s January 30, 1956 issue:

The ICBM program suffered from a lack of support because the guidance problems were so severe that the rest of the program was not pushed. The unexpected development of the H-bomb suddenly made even very inaccurate ICBM’s useful. We were unfortunately at that time in no position to benefit immediately from this development. We would have been in an even worse position but, luckily, an entirely different program — the rocket booster for the Navaho cruise type missile — had been pushed so far that we could use it as a basis for the ICBM engine.

Time Magazine 1956-01-30 The Missile

Techniques of Systems Analysis continues:

It is also important to realize that even quite competent engineers and technical people can be very unreliable when it comes to estimating either the short or long range performance of systems undergoing Research and Development. This seems to be particularly true in the fields of electronics, aeronautics, and nuclear engineering. In the past 20 years there has been an exponential increase in the state of the art of all of those fields. Both as a cause and an effect of this exponential increase, these same fields play a central role in current military technology. For this reason military technology is much more unstable than most civilian technology and as a result the two very common mistakes mentioned occur. (Even first rate engineers will overestimate their ability to apply the new ideas in the immediate future and at the same time underestimate the rate at which long term development is proceeding.) To give a recent unclassified example form the electronics industry, let us consider the high-speed computer.

In 1945, 1946, and 1947, a large number of very competent engineers were going around promising to have wonderful electronic computers available in a year or two. In spite of these promises, by 1949, only computers of very modest attainments (as compared to the promises) had been built an the slippage of the more ambitious machines had become a joke. For example some of the engineers were saying “We are really very reliable. No matter when you ask us we will always reply that the computer will be ready in 18 months.” However, by 1950, a number of these better machines had achieved semi-reliable operation and, by 1951, they were almost all working well. Today, only 5 years later, there are machines on the shelf whose performance exceeds even the wilder and most futuristic extrapolations made in 1946. Furthermore, computers which will soon be available are an order of magnitude better than the current ones.


  1. Kirk says:

    As the great Yogi Berra said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future…”.

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