Technology and the Human Dimension
A distinguished historian discusses America’s inventive past—a past that has created “not only new machinery but a sort of new world”—and ponders how we might benefit from understanding it better
Elting E. Morison, Killian professor of humanities emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is one of the nation’s preeminent interpreters of technology. Though a great fan and chronicler of America’s industrial growth, he takes a clear, unawed view of his favorite subject. “The technological universe,” he says, “should be designed to fit and serve the human dimension.”
This view is affirmed in his best-known books, Men, Machines and Modern Times and From Know-How to Nowhere, studies of both triumphs and shortcomings of American technology. Morison has a genius for re-creating the time when American engineers like John Jervis and John Fritz built canals, railroads, and revolutionary new factories with precious little textbook knowledge to go on. His still classic 1942 volume, Admiral Sims and the Modern American Navy, is an account of the way flexible-platform, rapid-fire gun technology was resisted, early in this century, by Navy stand-patters.
Morison, seventy-five, graduated from Harvard in 1932, and his eventful career has, ever since 1946, centered on MIT, which he once called the “great beating heart of America.” From his MIT chair he has long fought to promote the teaching of technology in our schools and colleges —whose curricula are, he feels, much too lopsidedly liberal arts-oriented. He also has long been a familiar figure in the Washington-Cambridge-Berkeley circles where scholars and government people put their heads together. He has served as a Navy historian, a Defense Department policy consultant, and a highly effective adviser on U.S. Information Agency broadcasts.
Despite his official retirement, Morison continues to be a strong voice at MIT. James R. Killian, Jr., former president of MIT, describes him as “a great man, a first-rate conceptualizer and generator of ideas, with a genius for bringing top people together.” He is also prominent in the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s New Liberal Arts Program, which ponders ways to make technology and applied mathematics an integral presence in liberal arts institutions.
The following interview took place recently at Upland Farm, Morison’s country home in New Hampshire.
Your books on technology fairly glow with love of the subject. How would you characterize the joys and disappointments of a life spent in studying the history of technology?
Well, the joys far outweigh the disappointments. I can tell you what some of the delights are. For years I was a political historian specializing in the period from 1789 to 1865, which was a marvelous period in this country. I began to be interested in the history of technology when I went to teach at MIT. One couldn’t live in that environment without becoming aware that much of the work being done there had considerable influence upon the kind of society we were. The first technological study I made was of the relation of naval officers and enlisted men to a new system of gun-pointing and -firing at sea. In this instance, you had a very elegant and clearly defined context that human beings had to work within. And that’s a great joy still to me: to take a ship, or a machine, or a technical procedure, and examine the human responses—intellectual and physical—within it. I like the small case, the clean structure within which you find a reasonably full array of human responses that you can isolate and define.
The disappointments of technological studies are that, having learned something about the interaction of human beings with machines, we have been unable to use that information very effectively to think how more harmonious relationships between men and machines might be established. I think we have not yet been very successful in finding accommodations between the human energies and the physical energies that technology puts at our disposal.
When we were moving across primordial plains and settling them, we had to use every practical means at our disposal. We didn’t have time to think about theoretical or philosophical implications.
One especially delightful thing about your writings is the way you bring to life such largely forgotten pioneers as the canal designer John Jervis and John Fritz, who invented revolutionary iron-milling techniques. Is there any single technological innovator you’re especially fond of?
A particular favorite of mine is Alexander Holley, a graduate of Brown University, who early in his working life was a newspaperman. When Holley got a job on a railroad journal, he became aware that our rails, which were made of low-grade iron, were wearing out too quickly. Railroad people were, he found, looking for a more satisfactory rail metal, and steel was the obvious alternative. At this time America had no large producing steel plants, though we did have some small ones. So Holley became the principal agent in getting the Bessemer process brought over and developed here. He then recognized that the converter was only one element in the making of steel rails—so he organized the first integrated plants. The converter, the blooming mill, the rail mill itself, the whole transport system that moved the ingots and blooms around the plant —out of all these elements he made a closed system. Holley’s system brought together all the various parts of the industry and greatly increased the efficiency of the whole enterprise. He became, in fact, the architect of nine of the first ten steel-rail companies in the country—and the one he didn’t design failed. Beyond all this, he had a kind of aesthetic and attractive philosophical view about the meaning of making things, particularly of making steel. He wrote some perfectly superb descriptions of the excitement that goes on during the Bessemer converter’s operations and in the making of a steel rail. He also wondered about the place of steel in the environment, the meaning of it to the society as a whole. He was a rounded, passionate, excited, very intelligent man. One other small thing about him: when the steel-rail companies I mentioned found that they were losing out in the development of new ways of making steel, they hired Holley to become a sort of confidential agent. He went abroad every year to see what was happening and then wrote long reports to refresh the intelligence of the steelmakers in this country. He was marvelous.
You shocked many people recently by writing that you were less than impressed with the Disney people’s EPCOT, which has been touted as a kind of shrine to technology. What caused your misgivings?
EPCOT impressed me as being a remarkable continuation of the Disney World and Disneyland installations. It is entertaining and distracting in exactly the same way that those places are. It’s a first-rate amusement park. However, EPCOT makes larger claims for itself. For instance, it speaks of being a continuous world’s fair that would instruct its visitors in the meaning of technology. On those grounds, not surprisingly, it fails. It is very difficult today, I think, to educate people about the nature of modern technology by having them just look at it in action. At the Chicago World’s Fair of 1892–93, you could see a steam engine at work and understand what it was doing. But when you hook up a computer, it’s very hard to know what’s going on inside it, let alone how it can be used to control the workings of other devices. So EPCOT’s designers have a real problem. Moreover, the means they use distract the onlooker’s eye from the essential processes of making things. Instead, they focus your attention on what fun it is to be a passenger on board one of their rather admirably contrived, frightening rides.
Disney’s original aim was, of course, to set up a model community near Orlando that would experiment with all kinds of evolving technology to see how to put together a good city and a good community—one that was clean, safe, efficient, and attractive. He said that it would be continuously changing throughout its life, as new modes and new instrumentations developed. Well, that would have made it an entirely different kind of installation and one that obviously wouldn’t yield the financial returns of a Disney World. And I think that those who came after Disney took the obvious—and for their purposes, sensible—route of using at EPCOT the fun formulas that had worked so well at Disney World. They gave EPCOT’s visitors what they knew people liked, hoping that, incidentally, the customers might pick up some interesting technology.
To the layman, science and technology and invention all seem part of the same mix. Can you actually study technology as a thing in itself?
I think that technology includes invention and science and what we used to call engineering. Technology is the entire system of things and forces that we have put together to create not only new machinery but a sort of new world that, in its sophistication and in its present development, pretty well displaces much of the natural environment. Technology takes in the entire interaction among science and invention and engineering. Now clearly there are kinds of science that may seem to lie outside this definition. But, as we have found, the farthest-out scientific investigation, which seems to be conducted without attachment to results at all, frequently produces findings that turn out to be useful. And there are times when a new machine like the steam engine—produced in the absence of any theoretical surround—forces people to think about theoretical considerations inspired by its operation. The development of thermodynamics, for example, owed a great deal to the steam engine. But then, as the steam engine became a more widespread prime mover and efforts were made to improve it, what had been discovered in the field of thermodynamics was in turn of great help in the development of the steam engine.
Tocqueville criticized Americans for depriving themselves of such civilized delights as the “pure desire to know” and the “proud, disinterested love of what is true.” Are we Americans really so hostile to theory, so obsessed with things practical?
At the time Tocqueville made those remarks, Americans were far more interested in questions of application than in speculative or theoretical things. And for a good reason. We were engaged in the development and ordering of a brand-new situation that was not like Europe’s—the scale was quite different. We were huge and most European countries were small. We were moving across primordial plains and settling them. And to do this we had to use every practical means at our disposal. We didn’t have time to sit down and think about the theoretical or philosophical implications.
The question of theory versus practice actually dogged the entire nineteenth century. In England, beginning around 1870, when the Industrial Revolution was very far advanced, there were increasing anxieties in British learned societies and journals that the engineers would use up with their applications what the scholars saw as a reservoir of general ideas. What should they do to refresh those reservoirs?
The Germans, more systematically than any other group, recognized the need for a continuous refilling of the reservoir. Especially in chemistry, they showed the way in two areas: one, in systematic investigation, and two, in the exploration of ways in which the results of such investigation could be related to practical applications. They were pretty good at this too. You know, in Germany, just one of the big, early chemical companies employed 148 “scientific chemists to whose originality every scope is left.” This was around the 1890s.
Here in the United States we did not think very much about this question until late in the nineteenth century, when we began to make use of electricity. Unlike steam, electricity required a high degree of theoretical understanding before it could be used effectively. And the first really serious industrial lab to do very basic research was that of General Electric. The research they did was considerably ahead of that done in most universities at the time it got started, at about the turn of this century. For whatever reason, we tend to take more interest in producing the general idea that can be put to immediate use than in having fun with it for its own sake. But we’ve turned out to be pretty good at developing general ideas for use.
Nowadays we take basic research centers for granted. But when GE set up that research lab, it created quite a sensation. Are these centers nowadays prestigious adornments, or do they continue to pay for themselves?
I think there are all kinds of these labs. Conceivably, some are mere exercises in public relations and advertising. But after all, in the steel business, from 1880 to recent times, original metallurgical research didn’t really seem necessary. About all a company had to do to meet the steadily growing demand was to worry about increasing production and lighting off another open hearth. So the United States steel business had very little interest in finding new metallurgical solutions. One of the great engineers, “Wild Bill” Jones, of Andrew Carnegie’s steelworks, once said it was possible that “these damned chemists are going to ruin the steel business.”
We have spent our time figuring out how to make our machinery fit together into nicer mechanical or electrical systems. This doesn’t create an environment that is wholly satisfactory to live or work in.
Today, much of American industry—as is most obvious in the electronics trade—rests on intellectual, general, theoretical concerns. You have to do extensive research simply to hold your place in the market. My brother has an interest in a casting company in which a great deal of modern metallurgy is involved, a company of about a thousand people. The company’s operation rests on a process that goes back to ancient Egypt, but nobody thought of doing a lick of research on it until very recent times. Now the firm has a technical center that does research and development, in which there are about eighteen or twenty people, and on which the welfare of the company signally depends. So I think you are having a gradual infiltration, not only of ideas but of research, to produce further new ideas. This kind of research can only energize the industrial process, keep it alive.
How do you feel about thinkers like Jay Forrester, your MIT colleague, who says that we can set up working models of society and extrapolate the future from them?
Forrester is one of the most intelligent men you could hope to find. He is, among other things, the designer of the magnetic memory core, on which the modern computer rests. He began life as, I think, a mechanical engineer, and then moved into a series of new areas. After working on the memory core, he went to the Sloan School of Management at MIT, because he had become interested in the way in which industries of any size might be more effectively organized. And he began to make models reflecting the way industrial processes are organized. That got him interested in the wider implications of social organizations. My view of him is the same as my view of economists who are busy making models of all sorts: their models may not yet be very precise approximations of what either is happening or may happen. But they are ways of beginning to get a fuller understanding of the interactions within a social or economic or industrial situation. In time, perhaps, they may provide us with ways of thinking more clearly than we can now about organizing future situations. I am for these models as instruments of learning, with the qualification that they have not been fully refined.
Alfred North Whitehead said that mankind needs a saving vision of the world. What form do you think such a vision might take? Should it be spiritual? Technological? Or what?
I feel that today we have all kinds of technical competence and special kinds of machinery that we haven’t been able to fit together very successfully. We need some sort of understanding of how to organize them into a harmonious structure that will make life within that structure more satisfying to us all. We have spent most of our time since Watt thought of the condenser figuring out how to make our machinery fit together into nicer mechanical or electrical systems. And we have found that this approach doesn’t work out in creating an environment that is wholly satisfactory to work and live in. The essential reference point we should seek as a basis for organizing our apparatus is ourselves. What can human beings stand, what do they need, what do they aspire to, what kinds of things must be taken into account in creating an environment for human beings that will satisfy them, in terms of a comfortable, decent life? For me, the reference point is man. What sort of life do you want to lead? Knowing that you can build any kind of structure to support that life, you then determine what kind of structure you want. And you create it.
Let me put this another way: I would like to see us believe we can decide what kind of world we want to live in and then build that world, so that the machines can be put into a civilizing context, one determined by us. I would prefer this to our saying, “What kind of machine can we build to go to the moon?” and then trying to figure out why and how to colonize the moon after the fact.
We keep hearing that society’s technological problems are looming larger than life and twice as unmanageable. Is there any way we can go about scaling these problems down to manageable proportions?
Our capacity to do things with machinery has presented us with problems of scale that may be too big for us. I don’t know how one reduces the size of these problems. I was at a factory the other day in which there were about 180 people working on a process that 500 to 600 people in another factory were finding difficult to manage. But the 180 did it. And I was told that there had been some work done to suggest that the ideal size of a factory, in terms of satisfactory human, economic, and technical relations, turned out to be between 180 and 200 persons.
Some years ago I spent some time at the Volvo plants in Sweden. They had begun to modify what had been a classical Detroit assembly line by building smaller plants. They found that smaller units of human beings working with machines were more effective than largescale units. Acting on this lead would involve us in rather a radical reorganization of the economy, I imagine.
I do not think that by an act of the will we could achieve the “small is beautiful” ideal when the social inertia is toward centralization and unification of things. I think we could only get an agreed-upon way of proceeding if we had a clear, widely understood view of what we were trying to accomplish. We must simply decide what kinds of return we want from our physical plant to serve our human needs. That’s our scale.
Now vision is too strong a word for all this, because I don’t think people could comprehend for the human race the kind of world they want. But I do believe that there may be ways of finding out, through experiments of some kind, the kind of support system that one needs to become a satisfied human being.
I am at the moment involved in an enterprise with the Sloan Foundation that is endeavoring to get science and mathematical thinking and technology into liberal arts colleges. And one of the things that we have thought of in that enterprise—because it’s very hard to teach technology—is to bring what I would call some of the unfinished business of society into the classroom. You take a small problem like the one centering on the dialysis machine for people who have had kidney failure. That dialysis machine raises all kinds of questions: Where does the money come from to develop it and make it available? From government financing? What about medical costs and charges? Who gets the first opportunity to use these machines, which are in short supply? These are social questions. Then there are technical questions: Can you make a cheaper, more readily available machine that will do the same job? Then you have the moral and cultural questions, of who should ideally have an opportunity to use the machine and for how long. Does it sustain life unduly? There are some interesting questions here. By grappling with them, students could begin to work out early on in their lives the answers to deep-reaching social problems. They’re going to be dealing all the rest of their lives with questions such as, “Where is the energy coming from?” and “What do we do with the new medical technology?” The situations we confront are created almost invariably in some way by machinery. It can’t ever be too early to begin thinking about solutions.
As a teaching method, bringing an actual machine-related problem into the classroom permits representatives from each field—engineering, economics, government, sociology, and philosophy —both in the student body and in the faculty, to deal together with these questions. It makes them work out collectively the answers to the problems that are presented.
Here’s an unfair question: How do you see the future? Is it grim and gray? Green and joyous? Or what?
Well, I think it’s almost impossible today to be unaware of the great difficulties and opportunities for disaster that lie before us. We’ve got just incredible power for destruction, which everyone is now aware of. We also have an intricate and rather fragile technological structure that can get out of whack in one way or another and cause great damage to one part of the people, one group of people. We also have the possibility of finding that if we build a total technological structure on the basis only of technological convenience and requirements, we may produce a programmed environment that will make us all rather dull—a people who can no longer summon the energy to try and change the machinery, but just live within it, in a dronelike way.
On the other hand, there is an awareness of some other things. The power to destroy gives us equally the power to create and do all kinds of new and interesting things, if we can figure out what to do. And though the cards in many ways seem stacked against a concert of nations—not only of nations but of people agreeing on what to do—there is no point in being around here if we don’t act on the optimistic view that we just may have the wit to know how to make the new environment we’ve created work in our own interests.
The urge of engineers to do and make something is the source of their strength. To involve them too much with social consequences in the course of their learning would complicate their lives considerably.
I would like to imagine a scenario in which someone you think well of says, “What frank advice can you give my son, or daughter, who is interested in a career in technology? What are the things he or she should look out for? What is the best way to get a running start in the field?”
I have been party to various attempts to broaden engineers, to give them a sense of the social consequences of what they do. I have also for a time been party to attempts to involve people who are generally educated, to interest them in the technological realities of the world they are living in. On the basis of these experiences I don’t think we can hope to solve the problems that we have been talking about by focusing separately on either the engineer or the humanist. In the first place, the legitimate urge of the engineer to do and make something is one that should be respected and understood to be the source of his great strength. And to involve engineers too much with social consequences in the course of their learning would complicate their lives considerably. In the second place, regarding the liberal arts people, it is extraordinarily difficult to interest them in the nature of the technological processes by which they live. So I would say to the aspiring technologist: “Go out and find yourself a peer who is concentrating on history or philosophy. Pick one of the areas of difficulty that you can agree on in the world around you, and work together to try to solve the problem. You will learn from each other, to your advantage, things which you now do not know. The only way in which you can bring your different attitudes together is to attempt to solve a problem in which both of you have a legitimate interest, by pooling your information and attitudes.”
What books would you recommend to the young technologist?
I can recommend one book that isn’t on technology but which has to do with the meaning and the possible structure of the world today, and that is Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World. Another quite different book that has impressed me is Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. He packs an awful lot, in a surrealist way, into this. Pirsig is a very serious, earnest man who deals earnestly with these issues.
Another book that I am fond of deals with one aspect of the problem you had in mind. That is Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden. And I think that the young people in this scenario certainly ought to read Lewis Mumford from first to last, including the first volume of his autobiography, Sketches from Life. It’s a very interesting book about how he formed his ideas. Sigfried Giedion too. I think if they read Science and the Modern World, all of Mumford, and the available Giedion, they’d be doing pretty well.
Another tricky question. In terms of their technology, are the Japanese now ahead of us, or is the picture so mixed that you can’t make generalizations?
I can’t make generalizations because, in part, the picture is mixed, and because, in larger part, I am not familiar enough with all the variables. But I can perhaps talk more fruitfully about earlier periods. In the nineteenth century virtually all the important technologies, from the steam engine through the Bessemer-converter open hearth and the electric generator, came from Europe. This was because the Europeans had a reservoir of knowledge that enabled them to foresee applications faster than we could. There’s no question about that. We obviously refined the uses of these things and saw the problem in terms, naturally, of superior quantities. This was not only an intellectual matter—it also fitted our cultural scheme. When we first built railroad coaches, they were like cattle cars, because all we wanted was to get enough people cheaply from here to there, as fast as possible. The European trains, divided by class, were in some of their sections far more elegant in their appointments. We had a different kind of use for the technology from theirs. Many Europeans still think of automobiles as sports cars. And we think of them as transport. You get these cultural differences, which in this country produced a greater interest in manufacturing in quantity. This outlook has governed our thinking up to fairly recent times. The general idea was to produce more goods and services for everybody. Our earlier railroad passenger cars, built in the Jacksonian period, were built in accordance with republican principle—so that everybody would have equal travel opportunities. We knew what we were doing.
As for the Japanese and the present moment, they have, of course, made some damn good automobiles and television sets and computers. I don’t know how long their ascendancy will go on, or what its ultimate meaning is to America. Many people say we’ve passed our peak and lost our fastball, but I am inclined to believe that we still have plenty of velocity, if only we can figure out where to turn this energy in a way that will satisfy us. I think it is possible that we may now be less interested in high volume than we used to be. For all kinds of reasons. As everybody from Thorstein Veblen to Studs Terkel has explained, the way we have made things in volume has produced a set of working conditions that people find unattractive. And people have begun to find that high pay and long vacations are not satisfactory permanent substitutes for satisfaction on the job. They would rather, in many instances, have work that would be interesting than have to think up new ways of spending more money during their increased leisure time.
It’s my impression that young people shy away from careers in technology because they think engineers are grim, dull, inflexible people. Have you found this so?
Of course, engineers, like racehorses and generals, come in all shapes and sizes, so I wouldn’t try to put them all in one category. But I can say something I thought I discovered when I began teaching at MIT. I had known very few engineers before that. The institution was then in the middle of a very revolutionary change produced by World War H. There had been a proliferation of knowledge and fast development of new fields, and this was reflected in the universities in what was, in effect, a shift in power. Engineers were, in fact, losing power within the Institute to the sciences —especially physics. And I found them conducting a carefully designed, thoroughly decent and thoughtful rearguard action.
I was amazed at the equanimity with which they conducted this fight, and with their generosity in relation to the people they were dealing with. Nothing has since made me change my mind. These engineers, technologists if you will, may not have been wits, but they were certainly good-humored. They were open and frank and magnanimous to an extent at least that many of my faculty friends who were trained in the humanities do not seem to be. It may be because they work more with things and natural forces than with people.
Should everyone have a grasp of technology, or should it be studied mainly by people who plan a career in it?
I’ll give you two remarks that I think are relevant. One is by Samuel Alexander, a British philosopher, who said in 1920 that if he were asked the distinguishing feature of a university, it was that it included technology as a principal study. In fact, he went on to say, technology was the single distinguishing feature. Reflecting on that remark some years later, Sir Eric Ashby, who is a biologist and was a master at one of the Cambridge colleges, said it was a very important point, because it suggested what Eric Ashby believed to be true—that science, technology, sociology (by which he meant the study of man in his various forms), and a liberal education were indivisible.
I subscribe to this view. I think that in the world we live in today, it is necessary that young people of all kinds—preparing not just for jobs but to live in the world and to assist in some way in managing it—have as part of their liberal education an understanding of technology, and how it acts to create the environment we’re in. As the other part of that education, of course, they should learn about themselves as both individuals and members of society and acquire those civilizing attitudes that will enable them to put their marvelous machinery in its proper place.
Hal Bowser has been a senior editor of Saturday Review, Geo, and Science Digest magazines.