- Historic Sites
“We Get the Technology We Deserve”
A leader in the emerging field of technological history speaks about the inventors who made our modern world and tells why it is vital for us to know not only what they did, but how they thought
October/november 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 6
When people say that technology is a juggernaut dragging a helpless society along behind it, Thomas Hughes shakes his head. History shows otherwise, he says. In his landmark study Networks of Power , he tells how in Victorian England electrification was stopped cold for many years by apprehensive small-town councils. Such episodes—and the book describes many of them—have convinced Hughes that technology is quite tamable—if we keep close account of its past and present interactions with society. This is an exacting task, but Thomas Parke Hughes, age sixty-two, is ideally qualified for it: his bachelor’s degree is in engineering, his doctorate is in European history, and he was a passionate student of the history of technology long before its importance was widely recognized. Now a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Hughes teaches such pioneering courses as “Inventors, Engineers and Entrepreneurs: Technology in American History.” And all across the country, universities once indifferent to the history of technology have begun offering courses in the field.
Dr. Hughes was interviewed a few months ago at his home in Philadelphia’s Chestnut Hill.
Why the recent flare-up of interest in the history of technology?
I suspect it has something to do with rumors about the decline of American technology. The public is disturbed about the shortcomings of American industry as compared with, say, Japanese industry. We look back to the unquestioned technological supremacy we enjoyed in bygone times and find ourselves wondering whether we still have any part of that supremacy. So 1 suppose we are searching our history for the sources of our past strength, and we’re hoping to rejuvenate that strength in the present.
But why should ordinary people, nontechnologists, care about the history of American technology?
Most Americans are keenly interested in this country’s history, and 1 think there is general agreement that, especially in the twentieth century, our country has been as much influenced by technology as by any other single force. If we wish to understand ourselves as Americans, we need to know about our political, ethnic, and economic history—but we also need to know about our technological achievements. Because if you scratch an American, you will find, somewhere beneath the surface, a person shaped by technology, a person who is living in a mainly technological society. There are many other societies in the world today that are not nearly so deeply influenced by modern technology as we are. In dealing with technology’s history, we are dealing with an American characteristic.
We have expressed ourselves magnificently, as a people, through technological achievements. You might compare this recent search for our technological past to a psychiatrist’s effort to find in an individual’s biographical past events that deeply influenced her or him, events the patient is not consciously aware of today. Technology has, for better or worse, deeply influenced us, for very complex reasons. Strangely enough, we have not celebrated or critically scrutinized our technological roots as much as we have, say, our political roots. I think it’s time we got to know ourselves better by exploring all aspects of our technological character.
You’ve made the point that Edison, who figures so prominently in our technological history, was amazing not only for his inventions but for the systems he devised to make use of his inventions. What’s the difference between such a system and an invention?
Well, inventors create a system from their interacting inventions. Edison didn’t invent just an electric light bulb, he invented a whole system for providing lighting . His inclination, his style, was to take a look at a situation that needed improvement. He would see that situation as a system of components, and he would exclaim, “Ah! There is a weakness in the system as it is now being utilized.” Then he would concentrate on overcoming that weakness through invention. He used this approach whether he was dealing with a system of lighting, or a system of mining, or a telegraph system.
Inventors have this way of seeing situations in terms of interacting problems. They are problem-oriented people, and the systems they invent are their solutions to the problems that they identify.
One point that your book Networks of Power makes is that it isn’t always easy to transfer technology from one country to another. Why is that?
You remember the book The Ugly American ? Part of its argument is that Americans assumed then—it was written in the late 1950s—that they knew the best way and were generously bringing culture and technology to other peoples. We were, that is, imposing the American solution on non-American problems.
I think there is something to that. Engineers, for instance, often assume there is one best way. Certainly in the fifties and sixties it was widely believed that the “one best way” was American technology. But in fact, technology must fit in with the culture, values, job skills, and aspirations of the nation receiving the “transplant.” And if people differ, as they do, in their skills, aspirations, and general objectives, then the general technology needs to be modified to fit into that culture and fulfill its needs.