Ten Years Old
TEN YEARS AND THIRTY-FIVE ISSUES AGO we introduced American Heritage of Invention & Technology , hoping that people might enjoy a magazine devoted only to the history of technology. To our surprise and delight they responded far more warmly than we ever expected, and we soon knew we had struck a real nerve. Our readers were thrilled to see a magazine about engineering history and cared deeply about what it said.
They still do, and they’re nothing if not passionate. In our current mail, about the Summer 1995 issue of Invention & Technology , a typical letter begins (as our “Letters” page shows): “I greatly enjoyed your collection of articles on the atomic bomb. It provided welcome relief and reassurance after the dreadful fiasco the Smithsonian almost created with its Enola Gay exhibit.” Another letter begins: “I object to your issue glorifying the atom bomb and belittling atomic energy.” Two other typical sentences: “I thank you for producing such a fine magazine; I enjoy reading it from cover to cover” and “Keep your glossy rag for a member of the NRA.”
Why does the magazine provoke such a powerful response? Its amazing subject matter. Over the years we’ve found the stories we cover growing more diverse than we ever imagined they would be at the outset, beyond bridges and planes and trains and phones and all the other basic paraphernalia of engineering history to—in this issue alone—luxury hotels, stunt pilots, dentist’s drills, candy, and tea bags. Of course, all our articles are ultimately stories not just about things but about people. But what is it about the history of technology that touches on so much and means so much to people?
Well, as we the editors ourselves appreciate more and more, the history of technology is much more than some narrow discipline. It is a fundamental way of looking at almost all of human activity. What, for instance, is the history of the last two centuries if it is not the history of technology, of people building and rebuilding, creating and destroying, endlessly reshaping an ever more complex world they inhabit?
In fact, you can argue that everything in life that is not purely biological or purely intellectual is technological. And that is what our readers have seen from the beginning. They have known that understanding and appreciating the world around us requires seeing it as the product of technological endeavor. They have known that technology is not an insensate presence out there like the sky or the ocean; it is the sum of human undertakings. It is creativity made tangible.
Edison’s creativity in developing a light bulb, or Ford’s in designing a moving assembly line, or Salk’s in perfecting a polio vaccine is no less remarkable than Keats’s in writing a sonnet or Mozart’s in composing an opera. And Edison’s and Ford’s and Salk’s achievements have certainly altered our lives no less than have Keats’s or Mozart’s. Their works are all around us, the material of the world we live in.
That is why Ben Franklin said so much so succinctly when a fellow witness of one of the first balloon flights asked him what possible use that invention could have. Franklin knew that a nascent technology was a delicate thing whose future must lie undetermined until shaped by unknown others. He knew that an invention is a human creation, one by which humanity multiplies its power, for good or for evil or both. He knew that any major invention contains the very seeds of an unknowable future. So he answered with a simple question of his own:
“What use is a newborn baby?”