The first bridge made entirely of iron spans the River Severn in Shropshire, England. It was erected in 1779, when new blast-furnace technology made it cost-effective to produce large quantities of cast iron for the first time.
The men who built it had only ever seen bridges made of wood, brick or stone. So when assembling a structure of iron bars, they naturally followed the principles of carpentry. Look closely at the bridge, and you’ll see girders held together by dovetail and mortise-and-tenon joints, as if they were wooden beams.
It was several years before they were sufficiently familiar with the new material to develop new approaches, and build bridges that could never have been made out of wood.
The banks of the Severn were rich in coal, iron ore, limestone and clay, making it the perfect place to experiment with new manufacturing technologies. And the river itself enabled the manufacturers to ship their goods to market via the sea. Their innovations sparked a chain reaction of industrial, social and economic change that transformed the world.
The bridge now stands as a symbol of the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, and Ironbridge Gorge is a designated World Heritage site.
A few weeks ago I was working at Ironbridge, teaching emotional intelligence and internet marketing to a group of young creative entrepreneurs, as part of the Advance programme run by the wonderful Venu Dhupa. On the Saturday morning before I delivered my workshop, I walked along the gorge to look at the bridge.
On the one hand I was full of admiration for the engineers who had achieved such a remarkable first. On the other, there’s something old-fashioned and comical about a wooden bridge made of iron. The bridge showed how hard it is for us to break out of existing paradigms when trying to create something new.
A few years later, the bridges being built looked completely different. We’d entered a new world, and the Ironbridge looked like a throwback to an earlier time.
Yet the men who had built this quaint structure were pioneers, early adopters, creative pathfinders. They were the geeks of their age – the first ones to learn computer code, the first online, the first with mobile phones, the first bloggers, the first ones on Twitter.
Standing in the shadow of the old bridge, it was hard not to draw comparisons between the first Industrial Revolution and the one we’re going through at the moment.
And it made me wonder how our brave new world of social media and Web 2.0 will look in a few short years. To us, it’s new and exciting, and we feel like we’re at the cutting-edge. But if you look around, most of the things we’re building are still based on earlier paradigms.
The internet is a metaphorical world, and many of the metaphors hark back to physical structures and objects. So we have virtual ‘sites’, ‘stores’, ‘forums’, ‘mail’, ‘pages’ and ‘bookmarks’. The same goes for our ways of communicating and doing business – they are all unavoidably influenced by ways of living and working in the industrial era.
So the chances are a lot of our shiny new technology will soon look very quaint and old-fashioned. In future, people will look back and see the paradigms that constrain our thinking. It will take an effort of imagination for them to look at us without smiling indulgently.
Maybe that’s the irony of being an innovator. You can be so far ahead of your time that it’s hard to persuade people around you of the value of the new way of doing things. You don’t have the full picture yet, so you have to wing it and improvise. It feels new and daring.
Yet when history looks back, you will look provincial and old-fashioned. Like people posing for sepia photographs. Wearing knee breeches and funny hats. Stuffing arrows down the barrels of their muskets. Using dial-up modems. Clutching enormous mobile phones. Building wooden bridges out of iron.
Image by Anthony Kelly
What Do You Think?
Can you think of other inventions that struggled to escape from old ways of thinking?
Do you agree that much of our current technology and social structures will soon look like wooden bridges made of iron?
Have you seen any recent innovations that look like the start of something genuinely new?
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a Coach for Artists, Creatives and Entrepreneurs. For a free 25-week guide to success as a creative professional, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.