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20th century science and technology July 10, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in 20th-Century-Science Historiography.
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I’d like to jump back to the 20th century historiography problem for a bit, one of the biggest ongoing problems seems to be how to integrate the histories of science and technology in this period. Telling a history of R&D is a part of this, but, the more I try and think about this, the more it seems to me that you either have to tell a story about science or technological research. I was talking to Tom Lassman about this a few weeks ago–he used to do contract history for the Army, and is now at the Nat’l Air and Space Museum–and he felt that the business and technology historiographies presented the most rigorous approach, which may well be true. I need to do more reading there. But I thought it might be useful to try and run through a few quick preliminary (and likely incomprehensible) thoughts on how these historiographies might come together.

The reason I’ve always leaned more toward science history than technology history is because it’s always seemed to get at deeper issues. Where else can you turn without blinking between political, intellectual, legal, technological, art, and philosophical histories? Whereas the technology and business histories have always seemed a bit more dry: “first there was this kind of rocket, and then another kind of rocket, and then a third kind of rocket was canceled because of budget cutbacks or because it proved infeasible, but, in reaction to Sputnik, a fourth kind of rocket was approved”. It doesn’t have to be rockets, but you get the idea. The most conceptually problematic issues seem to revolve around the introduction of political considerations, or maybe the technology benefited some, but not others.

This view is, of course, unfair, but it’s just a perception. The converse perspective on the history of science is that we are so preoccupied with problematizing everything and demonstrating the integration of such a diverse scope of activities that we actually forget to tell a history.

But, as I’ve been working on our new AIP web project (this is moving forward; more soon), it’s clear that it is unexceptional for the technology history to be a very recognizable part of scientists’ everyday experience. In assembling a list of physicists to include in our project, we get a lot of “science of the atmosphere”; or “science of circuits”; or “science of solar energy” which makes separating the physicists from engineers seem tedious and somewhat fruitless. (This speaks to the “problem of the problem” as well). What stance to take? Are we all technology historians now? I like to think there’s an alternate route than resorting to actors’ narrative perceptions of “well, first we worked on this technology, and it worked pretty well, but then there was a big controversy, etc.” but what is it?

My concern is that it would be easy to simply write an endless series of histories detailing the emergence of different problems on which scientists worked. Besides, emergence is only half the story. Are things really so uninteresting after things have emerged and stabilized? Surely this is when things are at their most important (see Edgerton’s Shock of the Old). Traditionally, there’s been a lot of writing on the tensions between basic vs. applied science (stuff like Forman’s “Behind Quantum Electronics”), but that seems too macroscopic for a history that deserves a finer point. The fact that most science is, in some sense or another, “applied” is the nature of 20th century science. The challenge is to find histories within that reality.

Here’s a little speculation: I think the way forward will come by nailing down in what ways science matters in engineering. What is interesting about various kinds of technologies for sciences, and in what ways does science contribute to engineering practices that would otherwise be constrained? I imagine that the organization of different kinds of expertise, and people with different motivation will offer clues, as will a deeper understanding of what it takes to develop a company- or laboratory-level science policy. Odds are good that the history of biology and medicine has useful things to say here, but I’m not well-versed in that.

As I said, I’m just trying to get my head around this at this point, so none of this makes much sense, but expect more in future posts.

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