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Technology’s Troubled Conscience

Spring/Summer 1988 | Volume 4 |  Issue 1

PHILADELPHIA, PA. : “Who is Lewis Mumford?” That’s the question Professor Thomas P. Hughes asked the scholars gathered at the University of Pennsylvania last November for the International Symposium on Lewis Mumford. A simple question, but simple answers are unlikely when academics meet to size up the work of a man whose career spanned more than half a century and focused on a multitude of subjects.

A number of labels have been applied to Mumford: artist, writer, historian, social critic, urban planner. Symposium participants came up with some exotic new ones—axiologist and semiotic animist—but mostly resisted the temptation to categorize. (In this issue Arthur P. Molella assesses Mumford’s place as one of the three founding fathers of the history of technology, the field where Mumford, now ninety-two, made his most significant, if controversial, contributions.)

Most of the discussion at the threeday conference centered on Mumford’s role as technology’s troubled conscience, this century’s leading critic of the machine age. In three books— Technics and Civilization (1934) and the two-volume The Myth of the Machine (1967, 1970)—Mumford lashes out at our society’s failure to integrate technology with a humane, fulfilling way of life. His chief targets are the military and industrial capitalism, both of which, he finds, tend to see the individual as a mere component, fated to a routinized, dispiriting existence.

In the 1930s Mumford anticipated a “neotechnic” era of life-centered technology made possible by electric power and modern manufacturing techniques. Only the persistence of the social and economic institutions spawned by the steam-powered Industrial Age prevented the emergence of a Utopia.

But history told a different story. Fascism, World War II, nuclear weapons, and Vietnam left Mumford disillusioned. The Myth of the Machine , unlike Technics and Civilization , offers no guidelines for the future, only a bitter condemnation of the military-industrial complex and the scientists who supported it.

Mumford’s view of history as moral drama drew criticism from the symposium participants. Professor Rosalind Williams of MIT suggested that a series of crises in Mumford’s personal life shaped his interpretation of history into an attempt to create a “resonance between cosmic and personal events.”

Leo Marx, author of The Machine in the Garden , contended that Mumford’s affinity for metaphor had led him astray. Mumford’s search for the origins of mechanization in the first volume of The Myth of the Machine took him back to the enormous pyramidbuilding operation of the ancient Egyptians, which he called the very first megamachine. Unlike later mechanisms, the pyramid-building machine was made of human parts, but the arrangement of those parts represented a level of technical sophistication scarcely matched until modern times. Professor Marx dismissed this notion as a tempting fallacy. “It’s a metaphor, a powerful trope. But the pyramid ‘megamachine’ was not a true machine.” Donald Miller of Lafayette College disagreed: “The megamachine is a powerful non-metaphor.” Professor Hughes seized the middle ground: “If you define a machine as a system, then the pyramid-building system was a machine.”

Mumford, unlike most of his contemporaries, aimed his work at a general audience; he wanted to change the world. No one at the meeting asked whether he did. Although, in his long and controversial career, he avoided the halls of academe, today he is remembered best by the professors.

THE BIG STORY : About one million years separate the crude stone tools at Olduvai Gorge from the streamlined desktop computers manufactured in Silicon Valley. Trevor I. Williams has tackled the audacious task of telling the story of how we got from chipped pebbles to word processors in a single, lushly illustrated volume, The History of Invention (Facts on File, $35.00).

The book’s simple assumption is that invention stems from man’s efforts to satisfy his basic needs for food, clothing and shelter. The rigors of the Ice Age spurred the use of fire and the adoption of rudimentary clothing and encouraged migration to friendlier climes. From there Williams’s sprawling narrative plunges through centuries of human history, leaving few major stones unturned: the development of rice paddies in ancient China; the use of iron in the Homeric era; the fumbling beginnings of steam power; the origins of immunization; the Manhattan Project’s hurried effort to build the first atomic bomb.

Williams, who was the managing editor of the acclaimed eight-volume A History of Technology (1960), valiantly attempts to chronicle how the interaction of political, economic, and social factors shaped the course of technology. But the book’s brisk pace and allencompassing scope render it largely anecdotal. A chapter on medicine reveals that the Sushruta Samhita , a twothousand-year-old Sanskrit encyclopedia of medicine, described detailed procedures for removing cataracts. Trivia buffs will be happy to learn that Sir John Harington installed the first water closet in his Somerset home in 1589, but his penchant for scatological humor hindered acceptance of his innovation.

A splendid array of illustrations enhances the volume: pictures of Turkish windmills, the magnificent stainedglass windows of Notre Dame, garish 1920s advertising posters, and diagrams explaining how the photocopy machine works give full texture to the story of how and why we created the world in which we live.

ENGINEERING AMERICA : Daniel Schodek’s Landmarks in American Civil Engineering (MIT Press, $50.00) surveys ninetytwo projects named as the most important historic landmarks by the American Society of Civil Engineers. All the expected bridges and dams are described in this coffeetable-size reference book, as are entries of lesser erandeur but equal significance.

Scholars meet in Philadelphia to ponder the legacy of Lewis Mumford

Among those highlighted is the Eads Bridge, which spans the Mississippi at St. Louis. Completed in 1874, it was one of the first major bridges to rely exclusively on cantilever construction, and it made extensive, innovative use of tubular steel in its three arch spans. Miscalculation nearly prevented closure of the first span. Stresses and changes in temperature pulled the half-arches out of alignment. The chief engineer, James Buchanan Eads, was in Europe at the time, leaving one Colonel Flad to grapple with the problem. Flad tried packing the arch ribs in ice, hoping contraction of the metal would bring the half-arches back into line, but scorching late-summer heat made the effort futile. Fortunately Eads had prepared for such a problem, devising special adjustable members to join the ribs. After three tense days Flad was able to install the members and close the arch.

Tunnels cited in the book include the Holland and Hoosac, of course, and the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, connecting the business districts of the Motor City and Windsor, Ontario. This subaqueous tunnel, completed in 1930, employed three different tunneling methods: for the terminal sections, a simple cut-and-cover technique was employed; for the approaches to the subaqueous portion a compressed-air shield was used to bore through the earth; for the section under the Detroit River, engineers sank nine tubular sections into a trench dug in the riverbed. The variety of landmarks chosen for the book bespeaks the breadth of civil engineering innovation that has gone into building this country. The surveying of the Mason-Dixon line, plotted between 1763 and 1767, is described; it was both a signal event in the history of geodetic measurement and a milestone in the making of our national self-identity. The Kansas City Park and Boulevard System, completed between 1893 and 1915, revealed the potential for the grand planning of American cities, dividing and structuring urban districts, and arraying parkways and boulevards as well as platting parks. The daringly ambitious Chicago water system of 1869 set a path-breaking standard for big-city waterworks for decades to come. Throughout, the appeal of this book is its vision of the very sinews of the nation and the imagination and hard work that formed them.

RALEIGH, N.C. : The Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) convened at the southeast vertex of the Chapel Hill/ Duke/North Carolina State Research Triangle last Halloween to rouse the ghosts of technology past. Scholars offered their views on everything from the evolution of the New York City sewer system to the social construction of the personal computer.

Robert P. Multhauf, past president of SHOT, won the coveted Leonardo da Vinci medal. The Dexter Prize went to David H. Hounshell for his book From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932 (Johns Hopkins). James H. Capshew won the Robinson Prize for his paper “Engineering a Technology of Behavior: B. F. Skinner’s Kamikaze Pigeons in World War II.” A new award, the Dibner Prize for Excellence of Exhibits in the History of Technology and Culture, went to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History for the exhibit “Engines of Change” (see Invention & Technology , Fall 1986). Robert Post, the editor of the SHOT journal, Technology and Culture, announced the forthcoming publication of In Context , a collection of essays dedicated to Melvin Kranzberg, the don of the history of technology.

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