- 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
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.
The engineer knows he is manipulating reality with gears just as the writer manipulates reality with words. But society discounts the hands-on and the visual.
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?