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
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.
I remember stories about Americans insisting that a certain kind of insulation be used on electrical lines in India. The Indians said, “Well, we have various insects and natural forces that would destroy the kind of insulation you are using.” And the Americans replied, “Oh, no, we’ve got the best insulation.” So they used it, and sure enough, what with the Indian environment and its particular animal life, they did find that the insulation failed to work. In other cases, we exported labor-saving technology to areas in which there was an abundance of cheap labor. The local population would point out that they needed a technology that would allow largescale employment, even though it might not be as “efficient.” So Americans in time readjusted and began to recommend more labor-intensive technology. What I’m saying is that technology is culturally shaped. When you move technology from one culture to another, the technology must be adjusted to fit the new culture. Or—and this suggests the threatening aspect of technology—you can insist that the culture conform to the technology . But then you have a technological imperative that is threatening to the culture. So I suppose there must be some adjustment of the culture and some adjustment of the technology.
I use the concept of style to cover the subject that I’m now discussing. Various cultures exhibit various technological styles. A case in point is the small European automobile of the fifties, a time when Americans were still driving large cars. The small automobile suited the European culture, in which there was a horsepower tax—the consumer was charged according to the size of the car’s engine. Therefore, it made sense for Europeans to drive a small car with a small engine. We Americans didn’t have such a tax, and our gas was inexpensive, while European gasoline was expensive. To impose our large automobiles on Europeans in the fifties would have been imperialistic. To have imposed the small European automobile on the Americans would have been inappropriate.
There’s an interesting twist here. Now that the price of energy has skyrocketed, the small European automobile has become appropriate to our culture!
In Networks of Power you show that electric power networks, which should have spread like wildfire in Victorian England, actually encountered great resistance. That to me was one of the most startling aspects of this altogether surprising book.
One reason large-scale electric light and power systems did not initially spread into England was that the British highly value their local governments. Patchwork local governments and large, integrated technological systems do not suit one another well. For many years the British protected their local governments by rejecting large, interregional technological systems. So there you have a nice example of a culture defending itself against change brought on by the imposition of a technology that is not harmonious with preexisting values.
You’ve used a striking term, reverse salient , to describe lagging, backward areas within an expanding technology. Where does this expression come from? And what would be an instance of a reverse salient?
When I was studying European history in college, one of my most dynamic instructors was discussing the World War I battle of Verdun, and he described a certain deep German penetration of the French lines as a reverse salient. That is, this bulge into the otherwise even French line created a dangerous situation. So the French concentrated their energies on correcting that reverse salient. This image of Verdun remained in my mind as I began to work with technology, studying people like Edison who approached technology systematically, and who looked for the weaknesses in such technological systems as electric light and power networks. I liked the image because, like a battle line, the technological frontier is extremely complicated. Inventors are always looking for reverse salients in a system which need to be corrected, just as the French needed to correct the Verdun line. For Fxiison the lack of durability in electrical filaments was a reverse salient in the lighting system. Until that filament salient was dealt with, the entire system could not be developed. I preferred the concept of reverse salient to bottleneck because bottleneck is too rigid, too simple. The concept of a military front advancing, then falling back, with attendant irregularities along the whole line—that to me closely resembles technological change.
Have you ever applied the reverse salient idea to present-day technology?
I suppose one example of a reverse salient in technology is the problem of disposal of waste from atomic power plants. We are now faced with the problem of this toxic waste: How will we deal with it? A nice case of reverse salient.
In the field of computers, I think of the recent reverse salient that the Apple Macintosh experienced. The consumer was saying, understandably, “Look, I’ve got a fine piece of equipment here but I’m not able to fully utilize it because I don’t have the software that is appropriate.” Well, that’s a clear case of a reverse salient. The Apple Computer people had pushed the artifact—the computer—ahead of the availability of the software. They had to adjust that relationship.
Then there’s a friend of mine who is working on the history of the development of missiles. He is using the concept of the reverse salient, and he says it’s working well. He says that the engineers look at missiles as systems, and they are scanning missile technology, looking for areas which have fallen behind the general advance and which keep the entire system from functioning as efficiently as it might. I think the reverse salient is a concept that is used unconsciously by a number of inventors and engineers. They may not think of what they are doing in terms of reverse salients; they often think of it in terms of identifying problems. But one has to take a systematic view in order to see these problems.
You don’t know that there is a problem unless it occurs somewhere along a line or broad front. The reverse salient has to be behind something. You can’t analyze it if you only look at it as through a microscope. If you looked at Verdun through a microscope, you would say, “What’s the problem?” But when you look at the whole system, then you can see what is behind and what is ahead. This is why so many of the successful inventors are holistic—they are using this concept of the reverse salient, although they may give it another name.
The famous immigrant inventor and pioneering electrical engineer Charles Proteus Steinmetz—rumpled, bushy-haired, physically deformed—has always struck me as an improbable figure. I think it says something for General Electric that they took him into their corporate setup in the early 189Os and made excellent use of his talents.
Steinmetz is an anomaly. Most inventors and engineers of the 188Os through the early 190Os were rather conservative in dress, rather straight in behavior, rather conforming in their political attitudes. Steinmetz was a socialist, his clothing was unorthodox, and his behavior was far from commonplace. He grew orchids and was interested in pet alligators. Why did General Electric, which was accustomed to hiring conservative types, take him on? Because, I think, there was some innate sense at General Electric that a large organization, in order to change and grow, needs to cultivate the noncpnforming character . After all, what is a major invention but a change in the status quo? General Electric apparently realized that it might become too conservative in its attitudes toward technology—which is to say, in its attitudes toward change—unless it cultivated outsiders, people who saw things “differently.” I’m sure it was an irritant to the management to have a nonconformist like Stéinmetz on the staff. General Electric dealt with Steinmetz in an interesting way. It took him out of the routine managerial structure and gave him his own organization, which was a small consulting engineering unit. His nonconforming attitudes and behavior were dealt with by giving him a special place, an administrative, managerial niche, outside the highly organized, routinized structure. I think that showed great insight on their part.
So if we empty the word radical of any political connotation, it would be fair to say there’s a place for radical, nonconforming approaches to technology?
Yes, and 1 think you can make a useful distinction between conservative and radical inventions. Conservative inventions tend to correct reverse salients. Conservative inventors are those who nurture or watch over an advancing system. They scan the front and see where the corrections need to be made. Large corporations tend to preside over advancing technological fronts that have what 1 call high momentum. For example, General Motors has been presiding over the development of the automobile. Many of the inventors at General Motors have been conservative in that they are essentially correcting, making minor adjustments in, a technology that has a tendency to hold to a set course.
But a radical inventor, like Steinmetz, marches to a quite different drummer. He or she tends to develop systems that are new and different and that are often rejected by the industrial community because they don’t fit into a large, ongoing industrial enterprise. A friend of mine who is a major inventor used to work for a large corporation that not only encouraged him to leave but also funded him in setting up his own invention “shop”! The corporation’s aim was to get my friend out from under the firm’s heavy conservative momentum, its weighty bureaucratic structure. Now people who dream up radical inventions fail more often than the ones who create conservative inventions. So it takes an enlightened management to nurture “radicals” such as Steinmetz.
I also consider Admiral Hyman Rickover a radical inventor. Of course, his realm is not pure technology—it also takes in management and other aspects of industrial enterprise. But he had his now-famous nonconformist approach. Rickover often has been radical, and he has upset the status quo. As a result, he has often had to function outside of existing institutional structures in order to survive. For example, in the Navy, Rickover had to create his own niche. He had to create his own organization, because existing organizations could not adapt to such radical proposals as his plan for a nuclear submarine. Just as Steinmetz was not a typical American engineer, Rickover was not a typical American naval officer. Both men were emphatically outsiders.
Another striking figure was Elmer Sperry. He never became the household name that Edison is, though their lives overlapped. What made you write a massive biography ( Elmer Sperry: Inventor and Engineer ) of this man, who at the time was so little remembered?
When I was a very young man, Sperry’s automatic airplane pilot, and his ship pilot, the so-called Metal Mike, were high technology, and he became one of my childhood heroes. When I began to read about Sperry and to go into his papers, I found that he was a superb professional inventor. If today someone asked me who was the more professional, Edison or Sperry, I would have to say Sperry.
I am referring to the esteem in which the other inventors, his peers, held Sperry. One reason for this was that Sperry knew himself so well as an inventor. He knew the values of the inventor’s craft and he respected those values. He didn’t lose his way and aspire—as Edison did—to be something other than an inventor, even though he may have been tempted by financial reward and fame. From his youth onward, Sperry was always one of the inventive fraternity. But Edison, I think, lost his way, and in later life aspired to be an industrialist. The reasons for this are very complicated, but he embarked on large industrial projects, such as ore separation. These undertakings were very different from his early attempts to solve elegant technical problems, such as those encountered in developing the telegraph.
There was a straight-arrow, Horatio Alger quality to Elmer Sperry’s life. Isn’t it true, for instance, that he got interested in technology through reading science magazines at the little YMCA in Cortland, Mew York?
Yes, that’s true. He was like many inventors—especially inventors of the period from 1880 to 1920, the age I call the era of heroic invention, or the age of the independent inventor. Like them, Sperry yearned for an orderly environment, and much of his effort was given over to ordering the technological world in which he lived. For this reason, there is a certain simple character to Sperry’s career. He avoided social complexities and was deeply committed to his family and his home. Fortunately for him, his wife surrounded him with a very tranquil, supportive environment. He needed this tranquillity in the domestic sphere in order to—and here I’m using his words—“tame the beast in the technological sphere.”
Sperry characterized his machines as “disorderly beasts.” Clearly, one of his psychological drives was to bring order out of chaos. He yearned to put on course those things that tend to wander off course. He wanted to bring to the technological world a certain smooth functioning and efficiency. This wish was manifest in his behavior too: to some people he seemed unnecessarily dignified and starchy. He seemed also to be extremely conservative in his social relations. For example, he didn’t drink. 1 suppose that upset some of his visitors: instead of offering them alcoholic drinks, he served them ice cream! Instead of taking guests out on the town, Sperry would take them home, where his wife—an accomplished musician —might play the piano for them. His was an ordered life, and his achievements were orderly.
Sperry’s accomplishment was that he brought to heel, you might say, some of the more difficult-to-manage aspects of the technological world. He invented the automatic aeronautical stabilizer and, so, “managed” or stabilized the airplane. Having called the airplane a “beast,” he then reined it in, put it on course. He also stabilized ships—ships that were rolling and pitching and making passengers seasick. He stabilized the ship’s irregular behavior. Sperry was on the straight and narrow, and his inventions kept planes, ships, and other machines on the straight and narrow. So there is indeed a Horatio Alger straightness to the man’s life.
In fact, a number of inventors I have studied felt during their childhood a certain lack of order, of tranquillity. We find this in Leonardo da Vinci, for instance. Much of Leonardo’s life was devoted to creating, through invention and discovery, a new environment in which he felt more comfortable than he had in his childhood environment. Inventors who behave in this way are trying to create a safe world, a predictable environment. They are getting rid of reverse salients.
Today we tend to forget independent men like Sperry and Edison because the modern industrial research scientist has put them in the shadows. In the twenties and thirties the corporations were successful in persuading the American public that the center of invention had shifted away from the independent inventor. We were told that now everything was centered on the expensively equipped laboratory, where a man in a white coat methodically solved problems, drawing upon abstract reasoning and theory. As a matter of fact, this public relations effort by industry was so successful that it tended to relegate the solitary inventor to an offstage place in history. Today, some of us historians of technology are trying to resuscitate the inventors, to take them out of the shadows cast by the towering presence of the industrial research labs. The fact is that if you get behind the mythology of the industrial research lab, you will find that independent inventors were the real center of American inventive activity from about 1880 until about 1910, and perhaps even until 1920.
But I’d like to go back to the contrast between Sperry and Steinmetz. They seem so different. Sperry was creating order. His inventive activity was radical but his behavior was conservative; Steinmetz was radical in his inventiveness but also radical in his behavior. What happened? What was the difference between these two men, both of them very successful inventors? I think part of the answer may lie in the European background of a Steinmetz as compared with the American background of a Sperry or an Edison. This fits in with what I was saying a moment ago: the industrial-laboratory era, of which Steinmetz was a part, tended to enthrone European science, whereas the earlier era of the independent inventor tended to denigrate European science. Edison would have nothing to do with what he called long-haired scientists. Steinmetz, by contrast, was an extreme example of the European intellectual in invention. He was more acceptable to the research scientists than was Sperry, who was closer to Tom Swift and fundamental grass-roots American values. This brings us to something that hasn’t been explored very thoroughly—the changing character of the inventor. We are in fact contemplating a shift of scene that took place from an American stage, on which Sperry or Edison types acted out the drama, to a more sophisticated Europe-influenced setting, dominated by laboratory scientists and Steinmetz-type inventors.
Should the history of technology be taught as a subject apart, or should it be made an integral part of the general history courses taught in our schools? And is there a readable general history that does integrate technology?
To arrive at an answer, let’s consider the various stages through which writing on the history of technology has moved. In the discipline’s early days, in the 1930s, such historians of technology as Lewis Mumford or Roger Burlingame were reaching a general public with their histories. But these two men were not academics. They did not have established positions in the academic community. So their base was a limited one. Nonetheless they survived, because they were remarkably talented writers and highly intelligent people. However, no discipline can depend on such gifted pioneers, but must develop professional academics. So in more recent years the discipline has tended to stress academic standards and credentials. As a result, the history of technology has not been reaching out to a broad public during the past twenty or thirty years—roughly since World War H. Today, I think, there is an inclination and a desire to reach out, because the discipline’s base has been established. Now that technology historians feel more secure about their scholarly credentials, they want to communicate with the general public. They want their ideas to have an influence outside the academic world. The history of technology will in the not too distant future be integrated into general history more than it has been. Take, for example, studies on the establishment of our nation—that is, on the integrating of the various regions into a national community. Certainly a part of that narrative will be the story—told in lively, interesting fashion—of the telegraph, the railroad, and the large technology-based institutions that created a nationwide market. We will also have more detailed and persuasive histories of the way technology played a role in the two world wars. And we will try to understand the relationship between technology and economic depression. In other words, we will take some of the major themes in American history—depression, war, nationbuilding, democracy-creating, and social change—and try to show what the technological factor has been. One historian who has done that with considerable success is Daniel Boorstin.
Many inventors have claimed that simple experiments, just tinkering around in the woodshed, can yield results that far outstrip scientific theory. Is that so?
The front-edge inventors are indeed beyond scientific theory. Science is often simply the analysis of what the inventor has already done. If one is working in an area that is beyond science, then the approach should be empirical and exploratory. In such areas you don’t have any rules or road signs to direct you. Invention wouldn’t be much fun, in fact, if it were nothing more than applied science. The field just wouldn’t attract the highly creative people it does. The best thinkers want to be out there where the rules and guidelines are not yet laid down.
There is a certain mystery to invention—not as much mystery as many popular books suggest, but there is lots of risk-taking and exploring of the unknown. You probe, and you depend on wisdom, on adventure. You can’t depend upon packeddown knowledge, to use a favorite phrase of the late Yale historian Derek de Solla Price. You must resort to highly imaginative analogy. Let’s say we find ourselves in a social situation with which we are familiar. It’s a situation in which we can count on the prevalence of certain rules and certain stylized behavior. There are no surprises. But adventure means going into a social situation that one has never known before. Then you must probe, and make mistakes, and rely on analogies with other, familiar situations. That’s what the great inventors do.
Sperry once said that he always looked for engineers who “could use their hands.” Are engineers nowadays “hands-on” people, or has the profession become too abstract and mathematical to need rolled-up sleeves?
Before World War II, engineers tended to be visual, tended to be hands-on rather than head-on. That’s one reason, when one writes a history of technology, that it is very important to illustrate it. Because you are dealing with people whose most impressive works are physical artifacts. I have not generally found writing done by engineers to be very stimulating. But I’ve found their physical creations elegant, aesthetically satisfying, fascinating. If you want to really know engineers and properly appreciate them, stay with the visual, not the verbal—stay with the hands-on.
It’s interesting to note that most computer engineers prefer to be called computer scientists. I guess that’s because they feel they deal with abstractions, not lab-bench glassware. But soon you’ll be seeing books about computers that show there are still a lot of hands-on engineers around, people who think visually. The technological world today couldn’t function without them. I’ve taught in a lot of engineering schools and I try to make allowance for the fact that the brightest students may be verbally inarticulate. We are very unfair when we insist that such students display their qualities verbally. What to do about it? I’m not sure it’s generally advisable, but when I taught the history of engineering to engineers, they had to write papers, yes. But I also gave them the opportunity to build models, so long as the project was a disciplined exercise. They had to build a telegraph apparatus, say, exactly as Edison had built it, solve the problems he solved. And the difference that made in the quality of their work was dramatic.
The problem is, how do we persuade our verbally oriented schools not to characterize the engineer as a second-class intellect simply because he—or she (there are many women in engineering)—has more visual facility than verbal talent?
In your studies of great inventors, have you run across any secret qualities —qualities that, if they were encouraged in your own children, might produce a new generation of Edisons or Sperrys or Kelvins?
Yes, one such quality is a person’s willingness to be considered an outsider and to consider one’s outsider status a distinction, despite all the pain that comes with it. People who have this quality derive great satisfaction from knowing that the way they repair autos is quite as impressive as the way someone else manipulates words. They know they are manipulating reality with gears as you are manipulating it with words. But they must live with the fact that society generally discounts the hands-on and the visual.
Thank God there is art: the historians of art see to it that the visual is appreciated in their realm. And some engineers and historians of technology have been very cleverly—I use the word advisedly—trying to associate the word engineering with art. This emphasis on “arts” can be misunderstood as a certain pretension on the part of some engineers. But other engineers and other historians of technology sincerely believe that there is an aesthetic quality to engineering work that is comparable to the aesthetic quality of the artist. The engineer’s hands-on aesthetic is simply a way of saying to society: “We recognize this visual gear. Why can’t you recognize it too?”
But there is a negative side to this. Some engineers, including those who flourished in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries as inventors, accept and even perversely exaggerate their nonverbalism, almost as an act of defiance. They trap themselves into a limited means of expression, Edison being a case in point. It wasn’t necessary for Edison to attack intellectuals, as he constantly did, just because he wasn’t himself given to verbal abstractions. But he damned them, having felt unfairly evaluated by them—which he wasn’t. And in damning them he was hemming himself in, in a perverse way, cutting himself off from many theoretical insights. Many engineers do that today. They are defiantly anti-word and antiintellectual, not knowing that they are themselves in a way intellectuals. So you get a kind of know-nothingism—which is an unattractive and self-limiting characteristic. Fortunately, you don’t find this anti-intellectualism in Sperry, or Steinmetz, or Lee De Forest, the inventor of the audion vacuum tube. They aspired to be thought of as creative geniuses and they enjoyed being able to express themselves, not only visually but also verbally. They didn’t box themselves in the way Edison did.
The word systems often comes up in your writings. Who are some of the great systems thinkers whose work has influenced you?
I’m certainly influenced by the concept of systems, probably more so than most historians. But my interest in systems stems less from reading the philosophers and social scientists than from the fact that I studied engineering as an undergraduate. The course I enjoyed most was electrical engineering. One of the models or images that burned itself into my mind is that of an electrical circuit system, with its interconnected resistances, energy sources, capacitors, and conductors. In an electrical system there is no cause-effect sequence. There is simultaneity . One doesn’t think of the resistance causing the behavior of the capacitor or the capacitor causing the behavior of the inductance, in a linear this-causes-this, this-causes-this sequence. What goes on in an electrical system involves simultaneous interaction . Many historians have mechanical models in mind. They think of one gear turning another gear turning another gear, sequentially. But my model of reality—of technical reality, at least—is grounded in simultaneous interactions that have no linear cause-effect relationship . In short, I tend to think in terms of systems.
The engineers, inventors, and managers of technology whom I have studied have also tended to think systematically. They don’t think of a machine as a collection of linear processes. They think of it, instead, as an organic whole made up of interacting parts. This difference of outlooks—the systems approach versus the simpler causeeffect approach—sometimes carries over into politics. I’m surprised how many engineers in the 1920s, for example, wanted to organize the whole political system like a great system of smoothly meshing parts.
Lenin used to wax lyrical about electricity some day transforming Russia into a paradise. Yet it’s the Western countries that have outdone Russia in electrical power development. Is there a point or lesson here?
I think there is a major point. One of Lenin’s characteristics, as a politician, as a revolutionary, was his appreciation of technology, not just of isolated machines. He wasn’t interested in gimmicks. He was interested in large-scale technology. He thought the essence of modernity was a society founded on large, integrated technological systems. And when Lenin was flourishing—in 1917 and 1918—the high technology of the day was electrical light and power systems. He thought that to modernize his country, to give it a firm material base, he needed to introduce electrical light and power systems. Furthermore, he thought that if he systematically organized the material aspects of society, then he could impose on that substructure a systematic political and economic organization. So he tried to organize Russian society using technological imperatives, especially the systems approach—his aim being to make that society modern and strong, the better to control and manage it. So I consider Lenin an intellectual child of twentieth-century technology. He didn’t know it in detail, but he officiated philosophically over technology’s development in Russia. He said, “Communism is Soviet government plus the electrification of the whole country.” By that he meant, a socialistic society requires modern managerial techniques and political organization plus high technology. And yet the Soviet society is not a high-technology one when compared with our society. A historian of technology might explain that the reason Russia today hasn’t got its system together —has, you might say, so many technological reverse salients—is that organizing such a large land mass, such a large number of people, and such a diverse environment is technologically and politically an overwhelming problem.
Take a country like England. The British flourished during the early Industrial Revolution because the means of achieving social and technological control were available in the eighteenth century for a relatively small society. Today we are developing techniques to control enormous populations, large land masses, and large, complex technological situations. So the United States, too, is flourishing. The Russians may, of course, at some future time develop the organizational, communications, and transportation techniques needed to pull their society and political organization plus high technology together.
It strikes me that one of technology’s weak points is the fact that the public is perfectly willing to reap the benefits of technology but has very little notion of what technology is all about. We just stand there and wait for the cornucopia to produce. Is there some way of getting around this problem?
One reason 1 believe the history of technology should be taught early on in our schools is that technology is something we have created. I’m not so interested, as some are, in teaching about the way technology influences us . Such an outlook is too passive. It was common in the sixties to write articles about the influence of technology, as if technology were something “out there” doing things to us. Instead, 1 prefer to think of technology as something we have done. Which is to say that we express both our virtues and our sins in our technology: we get the technology we deserve .
But there is another complication. I’m drawn to C. Vann Woodward’s concept of the burden of history: he speaks especially of the “burden of Southern history.” This is a very powerful concept. My application of Woodward’s concept is that we also labor under the burden of technological history. That is, much of the technology we deal with is out of the past—maybe only ten, maybe only five years, maybe only a year ago, but it was created by people who had widely different objectives, so now we have to live with an inappropriate technology, created under different circumstances by people with motives different from ours. I see that as the burden of technological history. Just as you need to understand general history if you want to get out from under it, so you need to know the history of technology if you want to get out from under the technological burden.
It seems to me sad that engineers, the practitioners of technology, are not more aware of this need. By contrast, the more sophisticated politicians are keenly aware of the burdens of political history: they are aware of Munich, of the Napoleonic Wars, and of the injustices in our social history. But many engineers and managers of technology act as though technology has no past. Take a very simple case that I mentioned earlier: we drove big automobiles during the energy shortage. These automobiles were made for the cheap-energy thirties, but we were still driving them in the forties, fifties, and sixties, despite the sharp decline in the availability of petroleum. So I’ll say it again: If you don’t know your technological history, you are doomed to live under the burden of it.
Not so long ago Henry Kissinger was complaining about the inability of the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff to respond to new technological opportunities. Now Kissinger would never be so naive as to think you could change an entire political structure overnight. Yet he seems to think you can change a technological structure overnight! He can’t seem to understand why the military doesn’t swing with the times, technologically. Well, technology has a tremendous momentum. It imposes a horrendous burden and has its own arrogancy. The truth is that there are few radical shifts and swerves in technology.
In fact, military men seem to be much more aware of the burden of technological history than our politicians are. Military men have the wit to know that the past is a heavy burden. They study military history with a deep commitment and a seriousness of purpose that you don’t find among engineers and managers studying technology. I hope this situation will change, and that engineers and managers will one day grow wise from contemplating the history of their subject.