Surprise's Part in History

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright July 2015


One of the important elements in major historical events is surprise. How these events evolve is a surprise to everyone involved at the time.

This element of history is often forgotten, and just as often mistold -- the telling is shaped by editorial opinions. But if history is to become a valuable tool in helping to predict the course of current events, surprise must be taken into account.

Why surprise is important

Surprise is important because it explains why the people of the time don't respond better to the issue. They are surprised, they haven't had time to think about the problem, or the ramifications of what they are offering as solutions.

To those watching with the benefit of hindsight, these choices look silly, but they didn't look silly at the time. The difference is surprise.

Some examples of surprises

World War One

The biggest surprise of World War One was not that it started, but how long it lasted, and how much social upheaval it generated because of its length and expense. (expense in all its meanings)

Before World War One the countries of Europe had been fighting wars quite regularly. Just two years prior to World War One there had been a war in the Balkans. What all these wars since 1815 had in common was they were limited in size and fought briefly -- winners and losers came quickly.

The war World War One was predicted to be like was the War of 1870 between France and Prussia. The major fighting in that war lasted only three months and the casualty count was in the 150,000 range. Instead World War One went on for four years in Western Europe and six-to-ten years in Central and Eastern Europe and the Ottoman Empire regions of the Middle East, and the casualty count went into the millions.

As it was going on, this war was a never-ending surprise. One surprise result of this surprise was the violent social revolutions in the Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. Another was how badly the peace treaty, The Treaty of Versailles, worked out to be. (Conversely, the peace treaties of World War Two worked out much better -- the people working on those were not as surprised, they had learned much from the World War One experience.)

World War One was such a surprise, and so scary in the damage done, that people of the time, and historians who have followed, got distracted. They spent a lot of time and attention on placing the blame for starting the war. But "Who started it?" is a small-potatoes issue compared to the issue of why no one could end it sooner. (But it was a lot easier to think about.)

The 1929 Crash and the Great Depression of the 1930's

The 1920's in America were the post-World War One era. There were a lot of changes sweeping across America, one example being mass production producing faster, better and cheaper automobiles. Henry Ford was the icon of that change. There were booms and busts during the 1920's, but the busts were small and recovered from quickly.

Then came the big one in 1929. This one was surprising in how fast and deep the crash was. It was so surprising that a bank panic followed and a deep economic recession followed that. These too were surprises. No one had experienced anything like this.

Many people searched for a solution. The government, under president Herbert Hoover, tried to turn things around with some stimulus spending. But nothing anyone tried at the time worked! This was deeply scary as well as adding to the surprise. In response the people of America were getting deeply frustrated. And did I mention scared! Would this strangeness ever end?

In 1932 Americans tried changing presidents to solve the problem and Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) was elected. Inspired by the new-at-the-time theories of John Maynard Keynes, he tried even more vigorous intervention. His package of intervention became known as the New Deal. It didn't work any better, but FDR became legendary and deeply admired for trying harder, and not letting things get any worse.

The Great Depression didn't end until America began preparing to fight World War II.

And, as was the case with World War One, a lot was learned by this trying economic experience. In 2007 the experiences with the 1929 crash were used to keep the 2007 surprising crash from becoming as deep and traumatic.

The IC and PC Revolutions of the 1980's

Unlike the wars and market crashes talked about above, the integrated circuit (IC) and personal computer (PC) revolutions were a fun surprise.

Since the end of World War Two digital computer technology had been steadily changing. It was evolving through many different kinds of technologies that were making the results faster, better and cheaper -- mechanical relays to vacuum tubes to discrete transistors. In the 1970's IC's were added to this list.

Each of these changes brought changes to what computers could be used for, and each of the new markets was bigger than the previous one, and it served different people by using computers in different ways. The change just before personal computers was creating minicomputers. These were well adapted to automating the accounting of medium-size businesses. One of the surprise uses for these was making the "conglomerate" company a profitable business form. These conglomerates worked well because the bought-out businesses got their accounting automated on minicomputers.

IC's made the personal computer possible. They were smaller, faster and cheaper than the discrete transistors used in minicomputers. At first the IC's were used to make faster, cheaper and better minicomputers -- this was their commodity use. Then came the idea of making personal computers. This was the surprise use for ICs.

The personal computer brought in lots of changes in how computers were made and what they were used for. These changes were surprises. Some of the "killer apps" for those 1980's computers were computer games, word processors and spreadsheets.

Another surprise was open architecture. Because the pioneer users for these PC's were hobbyists who loved to tinker, the popular computer makers became even more popular when they showed their users how the computers were designed, and let them participate in the designing by letting them create "daughter boards" and new kinds of programs. This kind of revealing was unheard of in the minicomputer world. The minicomputer companies kept tight control on the developing and designing -- they kept what were called "software fortresses".

All these differences made the personal computer environment very surprising for seasoned computer industry veterans -- those who learned their ropes in minicomputer companies, and those companies did not adapt well. The net result was the minicomputer companies (such as DEC) declined over the 1980's and 1990's and the upstart personal computer companies (such as Apple) took their places -- very surprising for all those involved.

Not quite so surprising was when the upstart personal computer companies added these seasoned veterans as they grew, the veterans often brought their old thinking with them. Apple retreated into becoming a niche player after Steve Jobs left in part because it was so well stocked with minicomputer company veterans. It started embracing "software fortress" mentality. The company didn't turn around and become legendary again until Jobs came back and shook things up.

Adding a cherry-on-top to this decade of surprises was that IBM (an older, mainframe computer company) managed to adapt to this personal computer world quite well and became one of its leaders. One of IBM's managers, Don Estridge, was a company visionary. He figured out this new playing field and got IBM playing successfully on it.


Surprises are part of history. Current events are filled with them. If studying history is going to be a useful tool for coping with current events, then the surprise elements of the times need to be recognized and be part of the history telling.

If the surprising elements are not kept in mind, then what the people of the times are doing often looks foolish. This is true... but only from the perspective of 20/20 hindsight.


--The End--