Pickled onion spoons, the Eiffel Tower and how Bitcoin cements its future

Published 7 Mar 2017

By William Byrne

My father was once given a pickled onion spoon - a miniature clawed hand on a foot long handle moulded of 1970s plastic.  He rarely ate pickled onions.  He never ate them from a preposterously long jar.  Once the family hilarity died down, the packaging was retrieved and neatly kept in anticipation of ‘gifting away’.  Then, one evening, my father found himself with a particularly itchy back. 

He still has the spoon.

Recent articles on the emerging asset class of crypto-investment have given me pause for thought.  My interest has been particularly piqued by the revelation that bitcoin, designed as a currency, is being increasingly utilised in a number of entirely unconnected but fascinatingly parasitic ways – ways which might conceivably one day work to prolong bitcoin’s very existence.  Future value might not lie where one might expect.

While cryptocurrencies are rather new, the developments we are seeing call to mind tales of innovation from more than a century ago. In 1889 the Exposition Universelle in Paris was unveiled, an international exhibition designed as a showcase for new technologies and inventions and an event that attracted a staggering 28 million visitors.  Given its raison d’etre was to be innovative and daring, it unsurprisingly prompted some powerful and sustained objections from influential Parisians of the day.

The main bone of contention was the ‘useless and monstrous’ 300 metre tower that Monsieur Gustave Eiffel was proposing to build.  Gustave had built a lot of bridges in his day but this was a showstopper – more than twice the height of the recently completed Washington Memorial. 

Three hundred prominent artists and writers – one for each metre – convened into a wailing committee of aesthetes to express their revulsion.

“…imagine for a moment”, one of them wrote to Charles Alphand, the Minister of Works and Commissioner for the Exposition, “a giddy, ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black smokestack, crushing under its barbaric bulk Notre Dame, the Tour Saint-Jacques, the Louvre, the Dome of Les Invalides, the Arc de Triomphe, all of our humiliated monuments will disappear in this ghastly dream.  And for twenty years … we shall see stretching like a blot of ink the hateful shadow of the hateful column of bolted sheet metal.”

The intended life of the tower was just 20 years, providing Eiffel the opportunity to repay investors.  Yet 120 years later, its ‘hateful shadow’ still stretches across Paris.  And the primary reason why city officials decided not to tear it down in 1909?  It had found a new and unique utility as a radiotelegraph station.  It was also proving a very convenient venue for the developing science of meteorology and, although not acknowledged at the time, had just played a key role in the discovery of cosmic rays.

And let us not forget that innovation leads to innovation.  The next World Fair in Chicago in 1893 was determined to rival Paris and needed its own tower.  A multitude of bizarre tower proposals were submitted: a tower with rails to distant cities which would allow visitors to toboggan home; a tower from which guests would be ‘pushed off attached to an enormous rubber band’. Preposterous. 

One young engineer answered the call for something ‘original, daring and unique’ and, with more than an eye to the steel lattice of Eiffel’s tower, it was George Washington Gale Ferris who got to build his big wheel.

The use of bitcoin as a transactional currency is innovative and intriguing and there is every chance that it may survive and grow.  But it seems to me that there is an equal chance that the functionality afforded by the underlying blockchain could prove to be the store of real value – immutable registers of property ownership, artistic provenance, medical history, identity.  Once established, who will propose to jettison these?  This functionality might just prove to be bitcoin’s ‘radiotelegraph station’, extending its natural life beyond anticipation.  I personally like the idea of a currency that does more than a currency should do.  It reminds me of how much I appreciated having a credit card in the heavy frost of a Norfolk winter morning.

And innovation leads to innovation.  Not satisfied with offering the up and down experience of a currency (or a tower), Ethereum, and other ‘Ferris Wheels’ of crypto-innovation are looking to see if the same blockchain technology can’t also be used to make everything go around and around.

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