The first issue of this magazine was published just seventeen months ago, in April 1985. In a letter from the editors in that issue we wrote, “American Heritage of Invention & Technology will not compete with the many periodicals that bring us news of the cutting edge. On the contrary, we intend to look behind the edge to the nature of the blade itself: its heft, strength, and resiliency—all those qualities that support the cutting edge and cannot be separated from it. Our province, in short, is the whole of the history of invention and technology and the people, machines, and ideas in our past that have brought us to our present degree of mastery.”
A popular magazine about the history of technology may have seemed an unlikely proposition, but we felt we were sitting on a gold mine, a subject area virtually unknown to most of our potential readers yet full of all the drama of the making of the world we live in. We were experiencing the journalist’s dream of discovering a big and crucial story waiting right before one’s eyes—the story of how the present was built.
We are now at issue number five, and the reception that greeted our first four issues continues to surprise us. We have received hundreds of letters simply thanking us for existing. We have heard from teachers on all levels who are using the magazine in their classes. Managers have made it required reading for the engineers working under them. Officials at federal agencies circulate the magazine to their staffs.
Although it has been a satisfying beginning for us who work on the magazine, it has not been such a great time for technology itself, in the popular view. The world has been shaken by the Challenger disaster, by the spate of space-program failures surrounding it, and by the meltdown of the reactor at Chernobyl. Equally unsettling is news of the hole that has opened in the ozone layer above the Antarctic—possibly the first step in a global calamity of technological making that mankind may not yet be prepared to deal with. As every editorial writer in the nation keeps noting, we have all been reminded over and over of the price we can pay for our miracles of technology. Perhaps it’s not surprising, therefore, that two of the articles we have received the most mail about are “A Disaster in the Making,” about the collapse of the Quebec Bridge in 1907 (in the Spring 1986 issue), and “A Good Crystal Ball Is Hard to Find,” about the difficulty of predicting the technological future (same issue).
In Invention & Technology we have tried to keep a steady eye on the limitations and pitfalls of technological advancement even as we have explored and celebrated its triumphs and joys. In this issue we recount the origins of the technology that industrialized war—Hiram Maxim’s machine gun. And we detail the often slow and painful progress that has been made in engineering buildings to withstand earthquakes. But we also tell the glorious tale of the Zephyr, the streamlined train that transformed railroading in the 1930s; we profile one of the heroic American bridge engineers of the late nineteenth century; we look back at the first American visions of urban, high-tech Utopias; and more.
As we said in our first issue, “Our most heartfelt wish is to show how technological history uncovers clues that may prepare us for the blind alleys and breakthroughs of the future (and so we arrive ‘at the cutting edge,’ after all).” We hope that you, the reader, will continue to let us know how we’re doing—to advise us and criticize us—with all the verve you have shown so far.