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Pistons Versus Jets

Many American sports fans might be thinking this title is referring to the Detroit Pistons and New York Jets, except that the Pistons are a basketball team, and the Jets are a football team! What a game that would be!

Nonetheless, that stark contrast between two entirely different kinds of sports serves well to show how piston and jet engine technologies can be equally illustrative of a major roadblock to innovative and objective thinking. A well known phrase says much the same thing: we don’t know what we don’t know!

If before the time of jet engines you had proposed to the pilot of a piston airplane that one day soon most commercial and military aircraft would fly much faster but would have no propellers, you’d have likely been on the receiving end of some very strange looks. After all, especially during during the time of World War II, piston engines had been developed to a very high level of technology. Piston engines enabled the fighter planes of the day to reach speeds over 400 miles per hour, which even by today’s standards is very fast indeed. Highly modified piston aircraft intended for air racing and record attempts have reached speeds well in excess of 500 mph.

Living now in an age where jet travel is routine it might be hard to put yourself in the shoes of someone involved in the early days of aviation, well before the time of jet engines. Nonetheless, as mentioned above, talk at that time of propeller-less aircraft that could travel much faster and more efficiently often did result in strange looks from the person on the listening end.

When confronted with such talk, pilots, aircraft mechanics, engineers, and designers, surely must have been thinking such things as: “How could you possibly make it any better?” “We’ve designed these engines to be as powerful, reliable, and smooth running as you can possibly make them.”  “Sure, there might always be some room for improvement, but there is only so much power and speed you are going to be able to get out of an engine.” “If you tried to make it go any faster it would tear itself apart!” “How could you possibly make the engine work without propellers?”

To bring a modern phrase into a historical discussion, the problem is that most of the people who made comments like those above were thinking “inside the box.” That is they were thinking only in terms of what they already knew. And, if one thinks only in terms of what they already know they are unlikely to be able to see things any other way.

All of the above comments about the limitations of the piston engine were actually factual and true. The limitations in the thinking process were in the fact that few people were willing to consider the possibility of an engine that worked in an entirely different way! The fact that the new concept was entirely foreign or unknown did not make it any more or less possible, or any more or less factual. Yes, it is true that only so much power and speed can be derived from a piston engine. But what if there is an entirely different way to build an engine!

The same analogy can be applied to numerous innovations both big and small. Many, of course, responded with utter disbelief at the thought of one day landing a man on the Moon. However, a quick review of innovations past and present would quickly show that even less momentous innovations have been and continue to be greeted with the same mode of thinking. Something as simple as the carburetor, for instance. Not that many years ago if you had told someone that soon carburetors would be obsolete, you would likely have been on the receiving end of those same strange looks. Especially for those who designed and worked with carburetors it would be difficult to imagine life any other way. That is, of course, until the technology of fuel injection came along!

While we’ve rapidly moved from the time of the piston engine into the age of routine travel by jet airliner the way in which the vast majority of us respond to something new has sadly not changed much at all. Most still operate with “inside the box” thinking, continually missing opportunities for improvement simply because such opportunities often come in the form of concepts with which we are unfamiliar.

Don’t believe it? Well, we can illustrate that this mode of thinking is still alive and well simply by expanding upon our original title topic. Currently we are all familiar with jet engines. Most people in modern developed counties have seen or flown in a jet airliner. Compared to their much slower piston powered ancestors today’s passenger aircraft must surely appear to be the ultimate. Of course, we know that aircraft can be made to travel much faster than the speeds at which commercial airliners typically travel, military aircraft and aircraft like the supersonic Concord demonstrate this on a regular basis.

There is even talk of a next generation of hypersonic passenger aircraft that will carry passengers at up to five times the speed of sound or more using scramjet/ramjet technology. But these are all still jet engines. What if there is an even better type of engine than the jet?

Just as talk of something better than the piston engine was often met with stark skepticism before the advent of the jet, it is very likely that most even today would be skeptical that something better than the jet engine is possible in the near future. Is it possible that there exists in some secretive facility somewhere or in the mind of an imaginative inventor an engine technology as superior to and different from today’s jet engines as jet engines were/are to the piston?

While our skepticism and lack of openness to new and innovative concepts will never change the reality of whether they are possible or factual, it can severely limit the speed of development, adoption, and the resulting improvement and benefits that come about as a result.

The myopia of thinking inside the box is of course not limited to engines or carburetors, and is equally widespread if not more common than the physical nearsightedness experienced by millions of eyeglass wearers. Each and every day millions of workers, executives, scientists and others worldwide continue to operate on piston engines as they go about their jobs while using inside the box methodologies. Just as piston engines worked fine before the development of the jet (piston engines continue to work beautifully, for that matter) many are unable to see or consider ways in which their organizations’ practices or products might be improved upon.

If you were to consider your own practices or products would your position be that like a well tuned piston engine everything is humming along smoothly, with little room for improvement? Is there at least the possibility that drastic improvements are possible over the current level of performance?

For more historical and current examples of thinking inside the box click here to see: “The Final Frontier.”