Thomas P. Hughes on Control

Thomas P. Hughes: during the interview on Friday, 6th of April 2001 in his house in Philadelphia, PA.

Manfred Hulverscheidt : Why did you focus on Thomas Edison as a predominant figure in the historian of technology?

Thomas P. Hughes: I turned back to Edison, because he is a representative American. He is a self made person, he grew up on a farm, did not finish grammar school, worked as a telegraph messenger then as a telegraph operator. And then he responded to America’s desire in the 1860s and 70s for material goods because Americans who came from Europe were mostly quite poor. They came from simple circumstances and so they dreamed, when they came to America, not only to have political freedom, but also to have economic goods. And Edison responded to that with the things he invented. He invented consumer technology, phonograph, electric lighting. So he became an American hero. And so I studied Edison to understand the essence of the American character.

MH: What’s been left of the technological enthusiasm of his time?

TPH: Well we thought, when I say we, I’m thinking of Americans, Americans thought early in the 20th century that machines such as the ones that Edison invented would produce the goods that Americans desired so avidly and we weren’t deeply concerned about the impact technology might have on us, because we thought of it as being a source of those material goods that we wanted. And it wasn’t until after WW I and WW II that we began to doubt our ability to control technology. The atom bomb for example is technology, that’s very different from an electric light system, and electric light systems we feel comfortable with, what Edison invented, atom bombs we do not feel comfortable with. So this technological enthusiasm associated with Edison’s inventions and the many other independent inventors of the early period, this enthusiasm tended to evaporate after the two world wars when we saw the destructive face of technology.

MH: Could you describe the impact of the electrical potential for people before the first world war?

TPH: Well electricity was probably the most exciting, stimulating technology that had ever come into the possession of human beings. It was mysterious because one cannot see it, one can feel it, it can be used to produce light, it can be used to send telegraph signals and it was thought that people such as Edison that worked with it and understood it were wizards or and were bringing us gifts of a quality that we didn’t dream existed. So electricity was much more exciting than steam. And I have some quotations from persons alive in 1900, 1890 and they said that steam would not compare in its impact to the influence that electricity would have upon our lives. And I remember one of my professors years ago when he heard that I was studying the history of electricity, this was a history professor, he said what is electricity? And this was only a few years ago. Again this mysterious force that one can’t see that can move trains, that can light cities. It’s still an exciting technology, electricity. And Edison was thought of as a person that could bring it to us and control it. And I think that electricity is one reason why he is such a heroic figure, more so than the inventors of mechanic devices.

MH: You pay much attention to the independent inventors of this period. What is the reason for their historical decay?

TPH: The independent inventors were responsible in 1880, 1890, 1900 for the remarkable array of systems. Think about it for a moment: Edison, an independent inventor, gave us electricity light and power systems. The Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, gave us aviation as a system. Alexander Graham Bell is responsible for the telephone system, he was an independent inventor. And then we could identify radio inventors, wireless it was called then, who were independent, such as Reginald Fessenden, an American major radio inventor. The list is long of independent inventors who gave us the systems within which we live today. We’re surrounded by wireless radio, we’re surrounded now by television of course, we’re surrounded by electric light and power systems, surrounded by aviation. Well they initiated these systems and then after the systems were established, lets take electrical light and power, large corporations began to manufacture the components of these systems. Like General Electric Company, Siemens in Germany for example, AEG in Germany. So large companies were now manufacturing the components of the systems that Edison and other independent inventors produced, innovated. And the large companies didn’t initiate, didn’t originate large systems, they improved them. And scientists in the early 20th century at a place like General Electric Laboratory were much more conditioned, encouraged, asked to improve what the independent inventors had brought into the world. And scientists would make these minor improvements say in the filament of an electric light, whereas Edison invented the whole system. The scientists in the laboratories were making minor improvements and the scientists argued that they were the ones who would now advance technology, not the independent inventors. But remember they are making cumulative improvements, not coming up with new systems. And that’s because the companies for whom they worked had what we would call a product line: Electric light and power.

MH: Great inventive personalities have also existed during the Renaissance-period. Can you descibe the major difference between inventors like Leonardo and those like Edison?

TPH: The independent inventors of the late 19th century were as innovative, imaginative creative as the great inventors of the Renaissance such as Leonardo da Vinci, he being the outstanding example. I think the major difference between the Edisonian inventors and the inventors of the Renaissance–but remember that both groups were remarkably resourceful and inventive–is by 1900 because of the development of technology we were able to remake the world according to the circumstances by which we wished to live. We had such power over nature by 1900 that we could transform the natural world into a human built world. And therefore we had the responsibility or they had the responsibility to create a world in which humans would feel comfortable. But the Renaissance inventors and scientists didn’t have that much control over nature. So nature was still the environment in which most people lived during the Renaissance but our human built world was the environment in which people in at least the western industrial world were living by 1900. And we, that is humans, were creating this world for better or for worse and no longer could we blame the inadequacies of our world upon God or upon nature, we had ourselves to blame. Because we were making it, we were designing it, we were deciding what would be in it. In the case of the Edisons it would be electricity, in the case of the Bells it would be telephone and in the case of military inventors it would be submarines and machine guns. I don’t think we realised or our fathers and forefathers and mothers who lived around 1900 did not realised the responsibility they had for the world they were creating.

MH: Do systembuilders cut it both ways?

TPH: Well, system builders want control. And the great system builders, Walter Rathenau in Germany was a great system builder, in the United States Samuel Insull was a great system builder and Henry Ford was a great system builder–the automobile man. One characteristic is they want to control all that could result in constraining their freedom of action. In other words Henry Ford wants to make automobiles, in order to make automobiles he wishes to control the source of raw materials, he wishes to control the energy, he wishes to control the worker, control everything that could in any way limit or constrain his ability to make automobiles. So system builders are very positive in one sense in that they are putting together a great means of production like automobiles plants and so forth, but at the same time there’s a negative side to the system builder in this drive to control what they are ordering and what they are creating.

MH: Those systems exclude the experiment, the uncertain outcome; isn’t it a remarkable contradiction to the aims of the genuine independent inventor?

TPH: One controls and if one controls, that eliminates the unknown supposedly, the unexpected, that which cannot be predicted. So sytem builders have a certain psychological insecurity that’s driving them to wish, driving their desire to control. So there are positive and negative characteristics of the system, of the system builder. Napoleon was certainly a system builder in a non-technological realm.

MH: Are system builders megalomaniacs?

TPH: When system builders want to control the development of a large project, they find usually, that they are unable to control it, the development of a large project, highway project, weapon project, whatever it may be. So system builders become realistic when they are brought up against risk and uncertainty. So the best system builders are the ones who steer a path in between unpredictability and control. Because they know, that some things cannot be controlled, other things can be controlled and they make a good choice as to what to control and what not to control. And a good system builder for example will not control highly imaginative people, because they need their freedom in order to explore their imaginations. On the other hand the routine workers can be controlled. So the best system builders steer this path between predictability and risk. But the ideal would be to have complete control from the beginning of a project until the end, but if the project is sufficiently complex, that’s impossible. Only engineering schools, where they teach students how to solve problems sets where everything is controlled. That’s one of the problems of engineering school education: the students are taught to think, that the world is controllable, and when they get out into it, then they learn that it is not.

MH: So it’s still war as “the father of all things”?

TPH: The national reseach council established a comitee to investigate the origins of the computer industry in the United e United States and I sat on this commitee, I was chairman of this commitee, and we found that the government funded the computer revolution in the United States. The military funded the computer revolution in the United States. In the 1950s, in the 1960s and into the 1970s when computers were being developped rapidly and coming into use extensively, it was military funding and the Air Force played a major role in this. After the 1970s then private enterprise begins to take over the research and developmental function. But until then it was military, yes..

MH: I see few people who take the challenge seriously that maybe we will not survive into the next century if we carry on as we are.

TPH: I think that usually in history when problems become serious enough, when the pressure upon us is great enough we will respond but we wait until that pressure is great and the problem is quite serious. But I think we will. We know that oil is becoming short, probably then we will begin to devote our energies to other forms of energy. But you see there’s a heavy momentum, I use the term momentum, we’ve invested so much in oil. I mean look at all the service stations, look at all the big companies that are in oil. Think of the enormous resources and number of the people who live off of oil. You’re not going to change that over night, because the momentum is too great. It will only be some relatively catastrophic event or some catastrophic problem rising before us, that will lead us to break the momentum of the way things are being done now. But it will probably happen. It may come a little late but the momentum is usually broken. I’m trying to think of a good example for you. Well yes, after WW II most of the air force generals were commited to airplanes with pilots and they resisted the development of unmanned missiles. But that momentum, the momentum of the commitment to airplanes with pilots was finally broken for some complex reasons. But you see the generals who came out of WW II they were mostly pilots, they liked the airplanes, they liked the sitting up in the pilot seat and they didn’t want these missiles without any pilots. But the momentum was broken and the missiles were developped. And also the movement towards automobiles that are run on alternative fuels is moving ahead slowly. But something as massive as Detroit or something as massive as Daimler Benz or VW is something you can’t change it over night. But it will change if the pressures that are brought to bear are great enough.

MH: Can one say that the momentum of the system builder is over?

Thomas P. Hughes: Yes, the large corporations do not nourish independant inventors because independant inventors often bring what we call now a disruptive technology. A disruptive technology is one that will destroy the status quo. For example General Motors that makes automobiles with internal combustion engines doesn’t want an inventor to come with a disruptive technology that will destroy the internal combustion engine industry. So large corporations generally are not supporters of independant inventors and radical invention. Remember, Edison was not employed by a large corporation. Alexander Graham Bell was not employed by a large corporation Elmer Sperry was not employed…and now with large corporations generally shaping technology in most fields except the computer field, now remember where many of the major inventions came out of garages and came out of universities not from large corporations that’s where the independent inventors flourished for about 20 or 30 years in Paolo Alto in Silicon Valley to be more precise or to be more descriptive. So there you have a good example of change. Computers had radical changes. I know it took some time to bring the desktop and the laptop to us but on the general historical perspective changes in Silicon Valley have been very rapid and very impressive. But again small start ups have been the innovative places not large corporations, generally speaking.

Manfred Hulverscheidt: Thank you very much for this interview.

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