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PowerPoint Goes Boom

This summer re-run is a favorite of mine from over 3 years ago.  It’s a fun story with a great moral – nothing is as new as we’d like to think.  Enjoy!

You find yourself in a dark room, dazzled by charts and graphs and pictures that go by just fast enough to lose you.   The speaker at the front is well intentioned and trying desperately to make you as enthusiastic as they are, but it’s no use.  Your mind wanders, desperately trying to find something to daydream about that will keep you from nodding off, drooling on yourself, or both.

Here’s something to think about before you drift off into an embarrassing situation:  Franz von Uchatius, General in the Austrian Artillery – and Grandfather of PowerPoint.

General Uchatius had a little bit of a problem in the 1850s.  The cannons he had were of absolutely top quality and more accurate than most people believed cannons would ever be.  The only problem was that ballistics – the science of hitting your target – involved a lot of complex geometry that a lot of the brave young Austrian gunners simply didn’t understand.  Apparently, bleeping over that part of school has always been a problem.

Uchatius knew that to do a good presentation to an artillery class, he needed visual aides.  These had been around since the very beginning of practical presentations on how to do things like whack your enemy over the head.  But when the weapon is a club or battle-axe it’s a lot easier when it comes to show and tell time.  You can’t exactly take a large number of students out to the artillery range and cover the fine points of Euclidean geometry without a few of them getting more interested in the things that go boom.  General Uchatius wanted a captive audience.

Since nothing existed to provide handy visual aides, Uchatius decided to invent a system.  He decided to project an image using carbon arc light (an early kind of very bright light bulb) and lenses.  It took him years to perfect the system, but in 1853 he was able to hold a lecture on the fine points of gunnery in a darkened auditorium of young artillerymen.  How amused the audience was went unrecorded.

Uchatius was a man who invented many things, such as a bomb dropped out of a balloon and better steel for cannons.  He’s most remembered, however, for his unnamed device that went on to be the father of the motion picture projector.  He should also be remembered as the Grandfather of PowerPoint, since its basic idea was what his ballistics presentations were aiming for all along.

What’s particularly funny about this is that it all started with a military presentation.  The military has become famous for relying on PowerPoint to destroy, er, rely information from one place to the next.  Academic papers have been written on the value of these presentations in a culture where information is absolutely critical, but the use continues on.  What would General Uchatius think?

When you find yourself nodding off during a presentation, remember the use of cannon.  I don’t mean you should use cannons to obliterate the presenter, but if that fantasy helps you stay awake it could be in order.  Remember that the same setting you are in was developed over 150 years ago to teach the military of an empire that hasn’t existed for 90 years – so in the long run, it didn’t do them a lot of good.  Also remember that as surely as cannons don’t kill innocent people but artillerymen do, PowerPoint doesn’t slaughter a good topic.

If you do have to blame someone, don’t blame Bill Gates and Microsoft – it’s all General Franz von Uchatius’ fault.  And things haven’t changed all that much in 150 years.

8 thoughts on “PowerPoint Goes Boom

  1. Fortunately (I think), Being retired, I haven’t been subjected to a sleep-inducing PowerPoint presentation in at least two years. I consider that a benefit. 😛

    • That looks great, I should read it. To me, the real problem is the hierarchical approach to information – a one way street from “expert” to novice. PowerPoint seems to stifle dialogue in a rather blunt way!

  2. I think Power Point is the most abused software program ever invented. I have attended some amazing presentations where power point was used. I have one friend who is the master. He uses on picture per slide or three to seven words. The presentation is like listening to a story. If the dialogue is being stifled blame the presenter not the software.

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