2. History, Creativity - and Did We Invent Technology?
As an academic subject, the history of technology has been a slow developer. The political, economic and social branches of history have been studied for many decades and more recently the history of science has became a full discipline. Technology, on the other hand, usually gets treated as an element of other areas, as part of economic history where it touches industry or transport, or as part of military history when the development of weapons like tanks is concerned. At all events, it has been a subordinate theme - a background to events. In a lot of cases this is perfectly valid. If one is investigating the origins of the medieval English Parliament or the religious disputes of the sixteenth century, then technology played a negligible role. It seems to me, however, that in other areas of history technology itself was a decisive factor.
Take the familiar example of the fight between David and Goliath. The defeat of the heavily armed giant by a young shepherd boy is usually interpreted theologically as intervention by the deity on David's behalf. It can be seen a different way. Goliath wore bronze armour and carried a shield and spear - the weapons of a professional warrior. David, on the other hand, merely had a sling - which presumably he practised with while tending the sheep. It is not commonly realised nowadays that such a sling, which whirls the stone in a wide circle before releasing it, had an effective range of 200 yards.3 We could therefore suggest that David had the superior, long range weapon - Goliath's spear could not kill at 200 yards - and therefore that the best explanation of his victory is the technological one.
Questions of perspective and interpretation are not just academic. They affect our whole way of seeing and doing things. We have to remember that we never perceive the world directly. We only know our sense perceptions and ideas about it. My dog, for instance, has a very different map of the world from mine, based on his superior sense of smell. He is aware of things which I cannot perceive, and this leads him to behave differently. Our behaviour is not governed by our direct perceptions, but by
fig. 1. 'Rabbits'.
the meaning we attribute to them. Professor R L Gregory puts it that our brain constructs the world by the way it processes our perceptions. As an example look at Fig. 1 a rough sketch of two rabbits.
Now look at it again, expecting to see two pelicans waiting for a fish. This ambiguous drawing is well known, but it illustrated the point very well, that our expectations and ideas shape the world that we see.4 At a more complex level, this is also true of the way in which we approach technology. It has such a profound influence on human activity that we must understand its function in our lives as well as we can. In this paper, we will be raiding a number of different academic territories - psychology, anthropology and archaeology, as well as parts of engineering and history - to synthesise a broader way of seeing technology.
Putting things simply, historians usually approach science and technology in one or other of two ways. The first way, the 'internalist', focuses on the content of technology and science. In this approach, the historian concentrates on the way that some piece of engineering or scientific work has been done. It may be the building of a famous bridge, or the development of a series of ships or steam engines. The approach may consider scientific theories, and investigate the way that physicists and engineers arrived at the ideas of thermodynamics or the behaviour of beams. In general, this internalist approach concentrates on describing the technical process itself.
The other approach takes things from a human science standpoint, and tries to explain events as a social phenomenon. Probably the best known work in this genre is T. S. Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions. This is a general description of what happens in a process of radical scientific change, when scientists exchange one mental model or 'paradigm' for another. Kuhn's interest is not in the truth or falsehood of either paradigm, but in the social interactions which accompany the shift - the period of doubt and crisis, the formation of hostile schools of thought taking radical, conservative and intermediate stances. Incidentally, the differences between the schools of internalist and externalist historians of science have led to bitter disputes - which themselves clearly illustrate the Kuhn hypothesis!
In general, then, the history of technology has been approached through its context or its content, but I would now like to suggest a third approach and look for the origins of engineering as a function of the human mind.
It seems to me that there are three levels at which technology can be approached in history. At the first level, i.e. context, it does not matter how something works. We do not need a detailed understanding of printing or steam locomotives to recognise the enormous effect that the press had on the diffusion of knowledge during the Renaissance, or railways' transformation of economic activity in the 19th century. At this level, the externalist one, we can see technology in its historical context and examine, for instance, the forces which tried to resist or to encourage change. A typical question of this kind might be about whether canal owners or landed gentry tried to hinder the building of a new piece of railway to protect their own interests.
At the second level, however, the technology itself has to be understood in order to understand events. In the 1830's the railways were challenging the canals' dominance in transport, but themselves were challenged in turn by steam carriages running on the ordinary roads. It is easy to understand how desirable such road carriages appeared, for they could use the roads just as cars and lorries do today. If we ask ourselves why railways were successful, yet steam carriages were not, we have to look at the technology. We need some idea of the engineering difficulties which steam road carriages faced.
In 1830 it was much easier to put steam onto rails than on roads. An iron railway has a hard smooth surface capable of carrying almost any weight, and a steam locomotive could haul fifty or more waggons. The railway locomotive did not need steering gear or a differential to help it round corners, and the rails were strong enough to carry a heavy high-pressure boiler. By contrast, the road steamers were hard to steer, carried only light loads, had intractable transmission problems, and their boilers blew up regularly because they had to be so lightly constructed.5 The engineer of 1830 was simply not able to build a truly satisfactory steam carriage. The point of this example is that we need to look at the state of the technology to understand why things turned out as they did. It is 'an argument for studying the content or internal side of things.
The third level of understanding the history of technology concerns the creative moment when something new is coming into being. It is hard to pin down this fleeting instant between non-existence and the existence of an idea. Our brains cannot un-think a successful solution, or imagine how messy and uncertain the problem looked before the Eureka event. Inventions are like the pictures used to explain Gestalt theory. It is very hard to see them; but once seen, they are hard to forget. It takes a little time to see the cow in this picture (see Fig. 2), but once we have seen it, it leaps into view every time we look. Unless we can unthink our knowledge of an invention, we cannot grasp the doubts and difficulties which beset the mind of the inventor - or understand the creative moment.
Fig. 2. Dallenbach Cow.
Failing to understand the creative moment of key inventions also makes it harder to see how they change the future course of history. The 'externalist' approach to history tends to minimise the role of inventors, by suggesting that new technologies come into existence through the workings of broad social forces. This may be true of some invention; there will always be a market for a better can-opener or more efficient light bulb. Yet I find it hard to imagine a broad social force inventing anything of a more original nature. What specifically was the social pressure for the zip-fastener or 'cats eye' road-markings before their invention took place? When one examines cases like the Newcomen steam engine, Stephenson's Rocket or the Wright Brothers' Flyer, one finds that these individual inventors were years ahead of their competitors, and that things might have taken a different path without them.6
It is well to remember that even where there is a need, it does not make an invention predictable or inevitable. By 1700, Britain was struggling with the problem that as coal mines were dug deeper, it became harder to pump out the water flooding them. This situation did not make Thomas Newcomen's invention of the atmospheric steam engine inescapable or its success inevitable. One cannot say much with certainty about things that did not happen, but I know of no other inventor or machine at the time who had any prospect of succeeding if Newcomen had failed. As for changing the future, Newcomen was the most influential inventor in history. James Watt is more famous, but he started off with a Newcomen engine to repair, and decided to improve on it; Richard Trevithick, the pioneer of steam railways and high-pressure portable engines, started off initially trying to get round Watt's patents. The first internal combustion engines used the basic layout of steam engines. Even today, a motor car engine has the same organs as the Newcbmen engine - piston and cylinder, inlet valves and timing, a means of transmitting the power to do work.7
Newcomen's engine was an outstanding example of an invention which was both creative and therefore unpredictable; and it changed the future so much that it has become hard to 'unthink'.
For a contemporary example, we could take the microprocessor. Who, in the early 1950's, imagined such a minute but powerful device? Nobody foresaw its industrial and administrative impact, or the way that it would put computing power into the ordinary home. Science fiction stories of the 50's would describe the captain of a space ship about to make the jump to light speed - and taking out his slide rule to make the calculations. The microprocessor was unexpected and it profoundly changed the future.
This is not an argument for believing in technological determinism. On the contrary, I think that the unpredictability of new technology gives a powerful reason for thinking that the future is undetermined. It only seems determined to the kind of mind which does not appreciate the originality and unknowable consequences of new ideas.
It is hard to ask the right questions when we think we already know the answers to the wrong ones. Externalists and internalists both assume that technology came into being by an act of human will. They assume that technology was established to meet basic human needs such as food, warmth, shelter, defence, or transport.
But perhaps we are begging a big question here. Was there ever such an intentional establishment of technology? The argument resembles the 17th century idea that the origins of government could be explained by assuming that men in the primitive natural state made some kind of Social Contract and decided to establish the state.8 Of course this 'Original Contract' of the old political theorists was nonsense. Perhaps its is equally unreasonable to assume that in some way, at some time, technology was deliberately invented. Let us seek a different approach to our engineering origins, and look for different roots of technical inventiveness. Of course, we cannot ignore the social context or the engineering content of what mankind has built, but we must now try to get at the human behaviour and motivation which underlie them.