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Tommy’s Birthday Party

Summer 1993 | Volume 9 |  Issue 1

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. : On a February weekend when the NBA’s All-Stars were in Utah for their annual contest, an equally stellar (though somewhat less wealthy) group assembled at the University of Virginia for a symposium on trends in technology. There were no acrobatic jams, but the scholars did occasionally slamdunk one another’s theories; and while they may not exactly have lit up any scoreboards, many impressive points were tallied.

The occasion was the 250th birthday of Thomas Jefferson, who did much to promote technology in the early days of the Republic. When he founded the University of Virginia, Jefferson included “technical philosophy” in the curriculum—one of the first collegiate engineering programs. As Secretary of State he established the American patent system, and he examined the first applications and models himself, as one of the original patent officers. Jefferson included many modest technological advances in his design for Monticello, even as he railed against the advent of the Industrial Revolution and put forth a pastoral vision of society. The symposium’s organizers hoped that Jefferson’s writings and experiences would help us understand some of the transformations going on in technology today.

The first day was devoted to an examination of Jefferson’s legacy and time. Leo Marx of MIT pointed out that in his early writings Jefferson envisioned a republic of citizen farmers, not for reasons of economic efficiency but because he thought it would make a better society. Later on he reconciled himself with some aspects of industrialization. Who could have foreseen, Jefferson asked in 1816, that we would become unable to rely on Britain for our manufactures? Edwin T. Layton of the University of Minnesota told how Jefferson encouraged James Rumsey’s work on steamboats and turbines (see “‘The Most Original,’” Invention & Technology , Spring 1987), which led to awareness of the difference between scientific and technological knowledge. Merritt Roe Smith of MIT detailed Jefferson’s role in promoting the idea of interchangeable parts, thus helping set in motion events that would lead all the way to modern mass production.

The second day dealt with changes occurring today in engineering education and practice. John M. Prausnitz of the University of California at Berkeley led off with a paper called “Against Babelism: Hermeneutics, Diversity, and the Decline of Reductionism.” As the title suggests, it was an examination of the fragmentation and overspecialization that prevail today in engineering, with a look at trends that may signal a return to cooperation and integration. Other speakers discussed the bewildering pace of advances in medical technology and how the enormous increase in government funding has changed technological research since World War II. Don Voelte of Mobil Oil added a Stockdalean touch by noting that he was the only nonacademic speaker and asking, “What am I doing here?” He went on to describe Mobil’s continuing efforts to restructure its engineering operations.

After the papers were finished, Professor Thomas P. Hughes of the University of Pennsylvania, a founding father of the history of technology (and a University of Virginia graduate), gamely tried to connect the two days’ proceedings. Just as Jefferson’s era saw a change from agrarianism to industrialism, Hughes said, today the industrial world faces a change from hierarchical management to fluidity and decentralization—postmodern engineering, as he called it. Ford’s River Rouge plant, which took in raw materials at one end and spit out cars at the other, was a paradigm of the old way, which had begun to take form in Jefferson’s day. The development in the 1960s of the Defense Department’s DARPANET , a computer network that allows researchers across the country to communicate and collaborate with no centralized direction or guidance, is a paradigm of the new.

When it was all over, a walk through Jefferson’s superb classical campus made manifest his continuing presence. The spirit of the founder resides in the grounds of the University of Virginia as it does at few other colleges. Behind the stately colonnades and ivied bricks, engineering researchers were working with gene splicing and supercomputers. What would Jefferson’s reaction be to such developments? It’s impossible to say, of course, but surely he would have smiled to learn that his beloved university had hosted a gathering of scholars dedicated to evaluating where technology was heading—and that 250 years after his birth, his views on industry and society remain pertinent.

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