“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 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.
Many inventors make minor adjustments in a technology that tends to hold to a set course. A radical inventor marches to a different drummer—and fails more often.
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.”
If it were no more than applied science, invention wouldn’t be much fun.
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.