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The Rationalization of Technology

Date: 4-Mar-1995


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Note I found this essay I wrote in college on a disk. It sort of fits with the theme of technology, so I'm going to go ahead and put it up in case someone finds it useful or interesting. I made up a date for it, but it would have been written sometime in 1994 or 1995.
One doesn't have to understand buoyant forces or fluid dynamics in order to build a boat, nor does one need a terribly organized approach. As an example, a possible process of boat development for someone who is completely ignorant of the physics involved might be as follows:
  • Step 1: Notice that some things can float (perhaps by observing a leaf on the surface of a lake).
  • Step 2: Try making seafaring vessels from different materials formed into different shapes.
  • Step 3: See which ones stay afloat, and tend toward the characteristics of those that float better.
With enough trial and error, a working vessel can be made. Then, after generations of craftsmen have contributed to the process, a design can evolve that might even be extremely effective. Of course, the resulting rules for making good boats probably won't be very generalized. It is more likely that they will be empirical in nature, and involve the adjustment of a few basic characteristics to achieve certain improvements. For example, if it is important that a boat be fast but not carry much cargo, then the designers might just make use of their past observations that small and narrow boats usually go faster.
This process of design lacks a basis in scientific thought and ordered techniques. There aren't any friction equations being minimized here, and no 3D models being tested in wind tunnels--the kinds of things that we would surely expect industrial boatmakers of today to have researched before selling us their product. Yet for a very long time, this chaotic method was prevalent in engineering. The unconditional adoption of "whatever works" is embodied in a quote from Philo of Byzantium, who said of constructing Greek artillery that "a successful missile throwing weapon must be copied with the greatest care" (Klemm, p 31). This mindset is not surprising, since scientific theories of early times were often inaccurate and considered to be academic parlor talk rather than practical information. This is exemplified in the terms for "science" and "engineering" that were in use at the time, which were "natural philosophy" and "practical arts" (Kline, lecture).
The so-called Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries is generally thought of as the turning point in this practice, when the theories of individuals like Galileo were becoming widespread. Yet it actually took much longer for science to become truly tightly bound with technology. For example, we know that inventors during the British Industrial Revolution were still left to work out new ideas empirically, because science could so rarely offer guidance in solving problems at hand (Hall, p 151). This essay discusses some of the prominent figures, ideals, and institutions that ultimately helped to incorporate a scientific approach into technology, and it also examines the more general development of an organized and rational approach to engineering.
John Smeaton was an engineer from Yorkshire who contributed to the movement to put more science into technology. His engineering accomplishments included harbors, bridges, canals, and land-drainage works--but his real claim to fame was his promotion of the use of careful investigation, measurement, and testing before engineering projects were implemented (Pacey, p 156). For Smeaton, the idea of using "laws of reasoning by induction" rather than "trial and error" was more than just a pragmatic choice--it was an idealistic improvement to the process. He had gained a penchant for scientific theory from his early years spent as an astronomer and instrument-maker, and he consistently applied the methods and rhetoric of Newton and other great scientists to his engineering works. As an example of his scientific savvy, he wrote a well known account of his experiments on the efficiency of waterwheels, which was published in 1759. Smeaton felt so strongly about imposing some kind of order onto the growing engineering profession that he encouraged the formation of a "Society of Civil Engineers" in 1771 (Pacey, p 179).
As engineering continued to emerge as an organized profession, it became clear that it would be necessarily to formalize the study of machines. French engineers had already been taught mathematics in schools, but there was not yet a study of the "kinematics of mechanism"--what we currently refer to as the topic in physics called "kinematics". To fulfill this need, the Ecole Polytechnique was founded in Paris in 1794. It was a school with an impressive syllabus that was devised by a celebrated technical drawing teacher. In addition, it functioned as a coordinating institution for the other existing technical schools (Pacey, p 180). The Ecole Polytechnique provided an excellent source of texts on kinematics, and for a long period of time French and German authors dominated the field of engineering textbooks. They were well known for having the most sound and theoretical organization of the subject matter, and both James Watt and John Smeaton had to study French books on engineering because there were so few English works on the subject.
Although Smeaton and the Ecole Polytechnique used education to bring order to the engineering profession, industry also made a large contribution. One particular type of institution which brought about a stronger relationship between science and technology was the industrial research lab. The first such lab was the brainchild of Thomas Edison, the famous American inventor, and it was in full bloom in the 1870's. Prevalent media of the time portrayed Edison as a lone inventor who slaved away in his private workshop, but this was not the case (Kline, lecture). Edison had hired a full research team, including scientists with doctorates from leading colleges, and put them to work in his lab creating inventions for commercial enterprises (Pursell, p 221). Although Edison recognized the importance of a scientific education, it is important to note that he was a technologist rather than a scientist, and that he and his research lab added little to original scientific knowledge. This was because the scientists he employed worked in the capacity of inventors, and were strongly driven to focus on specific market demands.
The next step in the evolution of the industrial research lab was taken by General Electric (a corporation which had actually been founded by Edison). The GE research lab was started in 1900 and was located in Schenectady, New York. The key difference between GE and other industrial research labs was that it gave scientists some degree of freedom from market pressures, letting them worry less about doing research that would have immediate and direct applications to products. This idea of a more open and scientific facility was what attracted its first director, Willis Whitney, who had been an assistant professor of chemistry at MIT. The role that Whitney served was not as a "scientist-turned-inventor", but rather a new role as an "industrial researcher" (Wise, p 409). Under Whitney's direction, the research team at GE rolled out a plethora of new scientific findings--especially in the areas of metallurgy, electric discharges in gases, and the behavior of electrons (Pacey, p 236). This was a novel new step that brought science--and not just scientists--to engineering.
There were many other developments that did not directly involve science that still helped contribute to the order and rationalization of engineering. Perhaps one of the most striking was the introduction of what became known as the "American System" of interchangeable parts. During the British Industrial Revolution, manufactured items had been produced one by one, and the degree of regularity between the items that were produced was entirely dependent on the skill of the artisan producing the item (Pursell, p 87). Under the American System, special machines were constructed for the purpose of manufacturing exact duplicates of particular pieces of a product. Since any piece from any product would fit with any other, it made it easy for people without specialized skills to repair an item--they just had to pop in a replacement for whatever component was broken (Pursell, p 87).
Although the development of a working system was very expensive, the American government was willing to spend a large amount of money on the production of interchangeable rifle parts--so that weapons could be repaired on the battlefield. After years of research and development, a complete production setup for the manufacture of interchangeable guns was established at the Springfield Armory in Massachusetts. A British delegation came to the armory to witness the successful demonstration of ten muskets as they were randomly disassembled and reassembled from each others' parts, yet still able to work perfectly (Pursell, p 90). The delegation was suitably impressed, and the American System continued to be a big hit with the British at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London. The exhibition of 1851 was the first true World's Fair, and it showcased interchangeable rifles and other novel American products. The Crystal Palace itself was a large glass and iron building that was composed of modular prefabricated pieces, which served as a tribute to the logic of the American System (Pursell, p 185). In the years afterward, the idea of interchangeability disseminated from the military into industry, and uniformity spread to the manufacture of sewing machines, bicycles, and eventually automobiles (Moon, lecture).
So as we have seen, in periods of uncertain and untested scientific theory, inventors had to go with what worked. But as market pressures became more real, and as needs for performance began to rise...rationalist ideals emerged victorious. Engineering became an organized profession with an education grounded in science. The industrial giants began to employ scientists and engineers side by side. Then modern ordered systems like interchangeable parts changed the face of engineering forever.
Indeed, engineers in today's world are expected to at least somewhat understand the scientific basis on which the world operates--and they spend a large portion of their undergraduate education being taught the scientific theories of Physics, Chemistry, and ordered modular design techniques. Few classes suggest trial and error as a viable approach, while they promote understanding the relevant phenomenon and finding the optimal solution. When it comes down to the line, engineers sometimes find themselves in a situation where they have to do "whatever works", but under normal circumstances the process has become undeniably more rational.
And if an engineer today neglects the science and logic background that is necessary, then he or she is missing the boat.
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