According to Wikipedia, September 27 marked a handful of interesting historical technological achievements:
- 1825: Locomotion No. 1 hauled the train on the opening day of the Stockton and Darlington Railway, the first public railway to use steam locomotives.
- 1908: The Ford Piquette Avenue Plant in Detroit, Michigan became the first factory to produce Ford Model T automobiles, which would later be built at many other factories in the US and around the world.
- 1983: Software developer Richard Stallman announced plans for the Unix-like GNU operating system, the first free software developed by the GNU Project.
What links these together? Aside from the date, they all represent "firsts": the first public steam railway, the first factory to produce the Ford Model T, the first free GNU software plans.
We do love firsts when it comes to technology. What was the first steam-driven land vehicle? The first automobile? The first computer? Questions often followed by who invented it first, or more patriotically, which country invented something first?
These are, I would suggest, not very meaningful questions. For one, in many cases they are unanswerable until you drill down and find a very precise definition because otherwise there are too many candidates. The phenomenon of simultaneous invention or discovery means that many "firsts" are competing with other events for recognition. In the history of computing, many different conditions are used to distribute the "first computer" among many projects: the first digital computer, first electronic computer, first stored-program computer, first computer to demonstrate important principles, first to be useful for meaningful calculations, and the first to do all of these.
But what does "first" really tell us about a technology? Not what it replaced. Not who used it. Not what new skills or knowledge were developed or lost when it became obsolete. It's a simple, presentist evaluation of importance that ignores the other possibilities, paths and alternatives that existed and were lost. It's a way of looking at the past through the eyes of the winners and as a series of overly-linear changes, ignoring the more probably reality: technological change is accumulative and gradual, building on what's already there, pulling together diverse developments and evolving continously.
The seal of the Stockton and Darlington Railway shows a horse pulling coal waggons. Which is what railways were used for, before steam engines came along. The Ford Model T is famous as the product of Ford's system of mass production, which was in turn based on over a century of continuous improvements in factory-based systems of production by hundreds on anonymous inventors, managers, and workers. Stallman's operating system was called GNU, for GNU's Not Unix, and was, obviously, based on the existing Unix operating system and on the notion of sharing software for free, which Stallman was already accustomed to and which had been a part of the history of computing going well back to the beginning (I didn't say first!) sometime in the early the 1950s. All examples of building on what was already there; all were improved relatively quickly by others, and in slightly different circumstances all probably could have gone another way. Which doesn't mean they aren't unimportant stories, just over simplified.
So, let's just be careful with firsts. Of course, if you click through the Wikipedia firsts above, you can read complex, evolutionary stories about where our technologies come from--encyclopedias are good at that. And the next time you see a first, feel free to dig a little deeper.