little-to-big-to-little

There is a fundamental evolutionary patterning in which, with each new era and phase of technology and social-economic venturing, both the tools and their products get bigger and bigger, and the numbers of humans involved multiplies. A period of doing more with more until a mammoth peak magnitude is attained which is followed by evolutionary production of ever more effective results with ever less pounds of material, ergs of energy, and seconds of time, all of which integrating synergy produces ever more comprehensively effective tools with ever smaller technological artifacts produced by ever fewer unskilled human workers—the 1895 to 1929 model "T" waxing to the 1960s Cadillac limo, then waning to the 1980 Japanese Honda.

For example, trans-ocean traffic brought into use ever more gargantuan ocean liners leading eventually to the five-day-Atlantic-crossing leviathans, such as the 81,000ton Queen Mary and her sister ship the Queen Elizabeth. Using the World War II technology's new, lightweight, high-strength, saltwater-impervious aluminum alloys in her superstructures the S.S. United States was built to carry the same number of passengers and the same amount of cargo, and to cross the Atlantic at the same speed as the Queen Mary, though weighing only forty-five thousand tons, that is, 55 percent of the weight of the Queens.

These five-day-Atlantic-crossing passenger carriers are now obsolete. In 1961, three jet airplanes outperformed the S.S. United States in carrying capacity, in hours instead of days and at less expense.

In 1980, ever lighter, swifter "liner"-type steamships are being built, but only for luxury cruise ships. For twenty years, these obsolete ocean liners have been progressively replaced by ten-to-thirty ton, one-third-of-aday-transatlantic-crossing jet aircraft.

Another example of the little-to-big-to-little evolution is manifest in the world of mathematical computing. In developing trigonometry and its solution by logarithms, thousand of monks worked for hundreds of years to produce the one-degree tables of sines, cosines, tangents, and cotangents. During the Great Depression years of 1930 to 1936 the British and German mathematicians were hired by their governments in a joint project to calculate the table of functions to a one-minute of arc exactitude. Then came the big post-World War II calculating machines, Univac et al., filling whole university buildings with thousands of thermionic tubes. Then came the tubeless transistor and computers weighing and bulking far less, until we came to printed circuits and "chips" and table-top equipment doing better work than the whole-building-filling equipment. Before all this, I myself spent two pre-calculator or -computer years carrying out the trigonometric calculations for geodesic domes. I had to do so "longhand." Then appeared seventy-five-pound electric calculating machines, followed by the pocket-size computers with which the trigonometric problems that took me two years of work became solvable in one day by one person.

[Buckminster Fuller - Grunch of Giants]