The March of the Machines

Published June 7, 2007

Wall Street Journal, p. D7

A Culture of Improvement: Technology and the Western Millennium
by Robert Friedel, MIT, 588 pages, $39.95

There’s a certain dark pleasure to be had by thumbing through the pages of futurist books and magazines from decades past to see how wrong the authors’ projections turned out to be. Flying cars, jetpacks and the Y2K apocalypse never arrived; radio, newspapers and affordable oil haven’t gone away. Sometimes futurism fails for narrow, technical reasons: An avenue of research turns into a dead end, or a technology doesn’t develop as quickly as expected. More often, though, projections fail because they do not account fully for the human factor — the unexpected, unintended complexities of social and political affairs.

This lesson is best taught not by futurists, but by historians conveying something of the contingency of unfolding events. Robert Friedel is one such historian: He can not only impart the lesser-known details of a familiar story but masterfully show how strange and wonderful it is that things happened the way they did. In the past, Mr. Friedel has written about the plastics industry, Edison’s work on the light bulb and (of all things) the triumph of the zipper. In each case, he has shown how everyday technologies were born of creative genius, hopeful investment, clever marketing, shifting social arrangements and, often enough, sheer serendipity.

In A Culture of Improvement, Mr. Friedel widens his gaze to survey the entire past millennium of technological advancement. It’s an ambitious project, seeking to explain how the West moved from horsepower to jet engines, from Gothic vaults to skyscrapers, from Gutenberg to Google. Mr. Friedel zooms in and out, sometimes describing long trends, sometimes dwelling on a pivotal figure (Galileo, Daguerre) or a startling invention. In a chapter called “Land and Life,” he takes up all sorts of things: cheese-making, the use of guano as fertilizer, the process of pasteurization, the discovery of antiseptic medicine. In “Airs and Lightning,” he covers the early scientific study of gases, the invention of ballooning and the discovery of electricity. In “Scale,” he moves from massive engineering projects like the Hoover Dam to Henry Ford’s assembly lines to the monumental enterprise of the Manhattan Project.

Along the way, Mr. Friedel takes a special pleasure in busting myths. James Watt made a fortune from the steam engine, he notes, but that “enormous personal success has interfered with [the] historical appraisal” of both Watt’s contribution and the role of steam power in remaking 18th-century British industry. In fact, Watt didn’t invent the steam engine; he critically improved an invention already a half-century old and widely in use. The line middle-schoolers are fed about how Eli Whitney’s cotton gin “was responsible for the rise of the cotton South” — and, by extension, for solidifying slavery and causing the Civil War — is one of “oversimplification and hyperbole,” Mr. Friedel argues. The South had already turned to cotton because of international markets and its commitment to the plantation system, and Whitney’s invention was only an improvement upon an extant mechanism. Similarly, Robert Fulton shouldn’t be remembered as the father of the steamboat, especially since Fulton himself well understood that major technologies don’t have one father but are “incremental and derivative,” as Mr. Friedel puts it. Working steamboats had already been demonstrated, but their inventors lacked Fulton’s “capitalist vision and fortitude.”

Here then is one of Mr. Friedel’s major themes. Key inventions were often “preceded by similar machines that incorporated most if not all of the principles of the famous devices,” he writes. “Too often the existence of a key patent or the success of a manufacturing enterprise has diverted attention from the long and gradual history of creativity.”

Despite quick leaps — from artillery to windmills to gliders in one paragraph — Mr. Friedel’s book never achieves the wild-eyed, madcap fun of James Burke’s Connections romps through modern science and invention. Nor is A Culture of Improvement a celebration of man’s impulse to discover and create, like Daniel Boorstin’s majestic histories. Mr. Friedel’s intentions are more down to earth; he seeks to put technology in its proper place as a human activity.

Technology is not, he seems to say, the inevitable expression of advancing human reason or a great, impersonal force directing the course of history. Rather, it proceeds by fits and starts — held back, pushed forward or diverted by social and biographical contingencies. One inventor, Mr. Friedel shows, was stymied by his lack of “social grace and diplomacy”; another prevailed thanks to “social connections and focused ambition.” The Royal Society’s motto — nullius in verba (“on no one’s word”) — derived from the attitudes of 17th-century Protestantism, “with its reliance on personal witness rather than received orthodoxy.” The flood of cheap Indian cottons into 18th-century England — protectionists protested with “calico riots” — goaded the textile industry into its storied labor-saving innovations.

Mr. Friedel’s emphasis on the complexities of history unfortunately makes it difficult for him to tell stories with beginnings and endings and vivid protagonists. But A Culture of Improvement is far from dull, and Mr. Friedel doesn’t truck in high-flown academic theories and abstract models. To the extent that he makes a broad claim, it is that the Western world has come to institutionalize the means of “improvement” — using patent laws, organized research, best practices and countless other ways of remembering and building on what has come before.

Note that it is “improvement,” not “progress.” As Mr. Friedel observes, some technical advances — like those behind the eugenics movement or the 20th century’s powerful new tools for dealing death — surely do not represent progress in a morally defensible, human sense. But that is part of Mr. Friedel’s achievement: to show that technology’s development is as flawed, tangled, wondrous and unpredictable as man himself.

—Mr. Keiper is the editor of The New Atlantis and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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