“Technology feeds on itself. Technology makes more technology possible.”
– Alvin Toffler, Future Shock, 1970
When we think of how business process automation (BPA) got its start, Ford’s assembly line comes to mind for many people. For others, the invention of the steam engine was a pivotal moment in BPA history. Though the assembly line of a century ago only loosely fits our modern, narrow definition of BPA, it was an impetus to push forward with the idea of automation. Needless to say, Onit’s Apptitude platform rests squarely on the shoulders of many centuries of advancements in automation.
There is evidence that by 250 BC the Egyptians were using a water clock called a clepsydra. Clepsydras had already been around for centuries before, but this one was different than older ones. This special water clock featured a simple but effective feedback control device, which is a critical component of automation. In earlier clepsydras, the outflow of water from the clay vessel wasn’t constant. The water flowed out faster when the vessel was full, and gradually slower when the water level was lower. Ctesibius came up with the idea of using a simple float regulator to control a constant rate of water flow, and at the same time ushered in a new era in automation history.
In later centuries, various other automatic controls were invented. In 50 BC we find that the Chinese were using water-powered trip hammers as a simple automated process. Around 20 AD Heron of Alexandria wrote about various types of automation that used feedback mechanisms. In the 17th century, automatic devices for controlling temperature were invented. Similar in principle to the more ancient clepsydra water-float clock, these devices controlled the temperature of incubators. Other thermostatic devices followed up through the 19th century, each with varying improvements over previous devices.
The steam engine not only helped propel the assembly line, but also deserves a prominent place in automation history. In the 18th century, a mechanical governor was invented to automatically control the speed of the steam engine. Perhaps the most important automatic control device of the period, the idea for the steam engine governor came from a most unlikely source. A century before, the centrifugal governor was being used to control the gap between the upper and lower millstones. When grinding grains it was necessary to carefully monitor the gap in order to achieve consistency in the final ground product.
In part II of this blog series we’ll discuss some later efforts in the drive toward modern business process automation.