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“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
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?