Peter Cochrane's Blog: Unbelievably resilient technology

Tales from the sea...

I leapt into the sea - and my phone still works
02.05.05, 15.30 GMT, Colyton, Devon

I don't want to go into the detail of how and why but I just had to leap out of an 8m boat into the sea. We were stuck on a gravel bar, run aground, being pounded by the waves and not making any headway. It was obvious that getting off and pushing was the only likely solution.

It didn't look too deep and it didn't look at all dangerous, so over the side I went, and only up to my knees - initially anyway! As anyone who has done any sailing can imagine, it kind of developed fast, and yours truly got into deeper and deeper water really fast. The upside is we refloated the vessel. The downside? The crew was left to wade back to shore, and I was submerged in water up to my chest.

Suddenly I remembered my watch, car keys, pedometer and mobile phone. All had been underwater for 15 minutes or so. The boat returned to the harbour and we got out of wet clothing and dried off. Everything was dripping - money, wallet, phone, electronic key... everything!

We returned home to affect what repairs we could. Phone, keys and pedometer were placed into the oven at 40 degrees centigrade, whilst paper money and receipts were carefully ironed and dried at the same time. My pedometer, keys and phone all worked by some miracle, after 30 minutes in the oven. In all of this I made just two mistakes. First, some of the receipts were from thermal printers and immediately turned 100 per cent black. Second, whilst my keys and pedometer survived perfectly, my mobile phone lost the screen back-light within an hour of removal from the oven.

For the next day or two I had to use my mobile in conjunction with a torch! But then I got a replacement model, and set about dismantling my damaged phone. Sure enough, the salt water had cased the bridging of circuit tracks leading to a build-up of carbonisation. At the points of very high current density the damage was gross and defied my attempts to fully repair the device.

And the moral of this story? If you are going to jump into the sea, leave your electronic devices on board - although in an emergency it is real easy to forget. And should you get your phone submerged in fresh water, stick it straight in the oven at 30 to 40 degrees for half an hour. If it is submerged in salt water, then dunk it thoroughly in clean water to dilute and/or remove the salts before the oven treatment.

You can imagine the fun this all invoked. But the stories that followed were even more interesting. You can't imagine the number of people who had dropped their mobiles into puddles, the sea or down the toilet - or put them through the washing machine whilst in a shirt pocket, run over them in the cars and so on. And the number of phones that survived after a thorough wash and oven dry was near 100 per cent. Amazing!

Before this incident, my worst mobile phone accident was to drop one 20m onto concrete with no serious damage. Over a 59-year lifetime I have seen technology transform everything we see touch and do. I have also seen the technology transformed by micro-miniaturisation and advances in new materials to the point where we can do almost anything. But what amazes me most is the sheer reliability and resilience we are now achieving. Every aspect, from the plastics and metals to the electronics and performance - absolutely unbelievable!

Anyway, I have a new routine, as soon as I get on a boat, all my valuables go into a sealed plastic bag. Oh, and I take even more dry clothing spares!

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Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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