Invention & Technology Turns 20
WE FIRST PUBLISHED INVENTION & TECHNOLOGY 20 years ago this issue, and we announced that we were doing so because “for both good and bad, the modern is the technological in almost every arena of life.” We also observed that “although interest in the history of technology has grown in the last few decades, the field itself is relatively new…. A gap exists between the findings of the scholars and the educated public.”
From the sound of that last bit, we could have been covering not the technological flowering of America but an arcane and obscure field like semiotics. And indeed, not a few people hearing about the new magazine reacted with comments like “Technology? You mean the steel mills that have closed down in Pittsburgh? The car companies dying in Detroit?” And we knew what they meant. In one early issue we shocked our readers with the headline AMERICA’S HIGHTECH TRIUMPH . (The subject was the chemical industry.)
How the world has changed. By the late 1990s America’s high-tech triumphs were everywhere, and they were making more sudden fortunes than had come along since the 1920s. Of course, many of those fortunes have gone the way of the 1920s’ fortunes, but there has been no going back to technology as the dusty province of a few academics somewhere. In fact, nowadays technology is so omnipresent that the first thing some people think of when you say the word is the guys in the office who fix your computer.
Invention & Technology has flourished through all of this —as has American inventiveness itself—and we’ve relished our task of telling what technology really is and how it got that way. Our subject matter is actually nothing less than the making of the world we live in, and the stories of all the extraordinary people who made it. We’ve found over the years that the chronicle of inventors and inventions and their consequences is as broad and varied as life itself. That’s why when humanity turned some of its most impressive peaceful technical achievements—jet airliners and tall buildings—against itself on September 11, 2001, we recalled an observation by the late historian Melvin Kranzberg: “Technology is neither good nor bad, nor is it neutral.”
The same truth is illustrated by another moment no less epic whose sixtieth anniversary we mark in this issue, the dawn of the atomic bomb. As Stephen Zanichkowsky argues in his essay, the bomb is both terrible and wonderful, and it has touched our lives ever since in ways both appalling and nearly miraculous. Many of those contradictions are plainly visible in the character of Edward Teller, one of the formidable scientists and engineers who built the first bomb, and the father of the hydrogen bomb that made even that device seem small. We also offer a very surprising final interview with Teller.
We observe another signal anniversary in this issue too, beyond that of the bomb. A hundred years ago, in an oddly rustic setting—a pasture where cows had to be shooed out of the way—the Wright brothers turned their nascent Flyer , which had gotten off the ground for mere seconds, into a true airplane, able to cover long distances controllably, maneuverably, and reliably. Two self-taught men, working with wood and cloth and a 16-horsepower engine, watched by virtually no one but the editor of Gleanings in Bee Culture , spent two summers making possible a new world they couldn’t begin to imagine—a world of aircraft carriers and personal jets and frequent-flier miles, of unmanned drones and the Gossamer Albatross and seven-day, six-night vacations in Rome, of Federal Express, of sightseeing above the Himalayas, and of September 11.
As this magazine shows over and over again, and I hope will continue to show for a long time to come, the inventors of our world are people who make the inconceivable real. How inconceivable? Look how the editor of Gleanings described the Wrights’ fragile flying machine, in the only terms he had, the ill-fitting terms of what had come before: “Imagine a locomotive that has left its track, and is climbing up in the air right toward you…. now, imagine that locomotive with wings that spread 20 feet each way….”
He hardly needed to add that it was “the grandest sight of my life.”