Science vs. Technology, Redux and Again

Screen Shot 2012-12-20 at 12.02.14 PMLast week, Jacob Darwin Hamblin posted a great blog entry that struck at least two chords with me. Called “Science vs. Technology Smackdown: Have We Survived the 1950s?” Hamblin revisited the professional divide (of sorts) that is familiar to some historians of technology and science. A brief conversation with a European historian of science served as his point of departure as she asked whether “there was still discord between historians of science and historians of technology.” Briefly stated – historians of science and technology are thought not to play well with one another.

The root of this goes back to 1957 when, at a meeting of the American Society of Engineering Education at Cornell, proponents of including the history of technology under the umbrella of the History of Science Society (HSS) were spurned.1. Consequently, in the shadow of Sputnik, the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) was started. Since then it is standard lore for graduate students starting in either field to hear tales – often over pints of beer – about how the two communities remain “largely separate and mutually wary.”2.  I have no intention of revisiting the consequences of this divide here or reexamining the many ways in which science and technology are both different and complementary ways of knowing about the world.

However, I appreciated Hamblin’s take on this divide with which I agree completely – “Why on earth would I ignore one by choosing the other?” I understand that some people feel greater loyalty to HSS or SHOT…but to imagine that somehow the discord of 1957 should be continued or maintained in some way is self-defeating. Both fields are small archipelagos compared with the larger field of history. Just as seriously, both need to find as many allies and members as they can within the humanities and beyond.

At recent SHOT and HSS meetings there were signs of progress in this area. In 2009, HSS featured a session which explored the historically (and scholarly) contested nature of “applied science.” Papers from this were published in the September 2012 “Focus” section of Isis. And in 2011, there was a jointly sponsored session between HSS and SHOT called “Beyond the Science-Technology Relationship.”

I was the commentator for the papers presented at this latter venue. As I put my thoughts together for it, I recalled how the relationship between science and technology has occupied many excellent scholars over several decades. Each time a new cohort re-examines it, we get new insights into how different historical actors, from different national traditions, have expressed the interactions between science and technology. As a result, we now have many ideas and metaphors that are required points of discussion for new graduate students: Ed Layton’s mirror-image twins, John Pickstone’s “ways of knowing,” Ron Kline’s focus on the rhetoric of American engineers, and Paul Forman’s consideration of technology’s primacy as a sign of post-modernity.

This took me back to a classic paper that looks at the science technology-divide: Otto Mayr’s article “The Science-Technology Relationship as a Historiographic Problem.”3 Otto Mayr was one of the first scholars to advocate a focus on discourse as the place of analyzing the distinctions and similarities between science and technology. In a 1976 article, Mayr – then a curator at the Smithsonian – suggested we treat relationships between science and technology as historically variable entities whose connection with one another was far from fixed. Today this seems almost axiomatic. But this wasn’t the case when Mayr’s article appeared.

Mayr first presented his ideas at a 1973 workshop Bern Dibner convened called “The Interaction of Science and Technology in the Industrial Age.” Historians attending it included Tom Hughes, Nathan Reingold, and Arnold Thackray. Their essays focused on the relative contributions of science and technology – variously defined – to one another. Recall that this conference occurred on the heels of Project Hindsight, the controversial study that refuted claims that basic research was the font of new applications.4 In 1973, debating the science-technology relationship had importance beyond the academy. We’re in similar situation now, I believe, as university administrators and policy wonks talk about post-academic and Mode 2 science.

Attendees at the ’73 meeting greeted Mayr’s essay with some skepticism. For example, one person asked why “we are hung up with the meaning of science and technology” given that “political historians have given up arguing about the meaning of politics?” But Mayr was less interested in definitions and more about discourse. He argued that the historian’s job is to understand the changing relationship between science and technology not as an absolute but as what it was at the time. Which brings us to the papers I commented on back in 2011…

One of the papers from the joint HSS-SHOT session I really liked was by Paul Lucier.5 Paul’s talk & paper takes us back to Henry Rowland’s 1883 classic “Plea for Pure Science.” Now standard reading in many history of science/technology courses, Rowland’s essay is both “eminently quotable” and wonderfully versatile as a tool to get undergrad students thinking about the status and nature of science and technology c. 1880. When Rowland gave this address may have been pleading but, based on Lucier’s new reading of it, I’m less convinced that his appeal was entirely pure.

In Lucier’s telling, the very categories that actors like Rowland used – inventor, pure science, applied, and so forth – had already been contested for decades. The idea of pure science as “science for its own sake” goes back to people like Charles Silliman, and Alexander Dallas Bache in the early 19th C – in other words, Rowland was continuing a long-standing conversation. Definitions, Lucier notes, of pure science changed over time – for Simon Newcomb it bespoke of membership in a select group with common goals. Later, during the Gilded Age, “pure” was re-interpreted to mean not membership but motivation. As Rowland saw it, pure science was an activity safely disconnected from the era’s political and financial corruption. (There is some irony here as Rowland himself achieved considerable renown for his development of tools to make better gratings for astronomical spectroscopy).

The distinction between pure and applied was, for actors like Rowland, more a matter of distance than kind. Pure science might indeed prove useful one day but, to paraphrase St. Augustine, “yes, but please…not just yet.” Discourse in the 1880s around “applied science” suggested a third and more desirable option. As explained in the journal Science – re-launched in 1883, the same year as Rowland’s plea –  so-called applied science could be an even more noble pursuit than pure science; such activities give us the “investigator-utilizer” a hybrid creature compared to the pure scientist or pure inventor. As the union of science and art (that is, technology) the practitioners of applied science had the potential to advance both knowledge and the public welfare.

Whereas people like Rowland were pessimistic about the effects of corruption, proponents of applied science, playing John Locke to Rowland’s dour Hobbes, imagined a world where patents and research advanced the pubic interest. Pure and applied were not separate and opposed but conjoined. Pure science, then as now, reflects prevailing political and economic realities. This is important not least because of our own work as historians as we, for example examine conceits such as the linear model of innovation.

National contexts are vitally important in unpacking discourse around the sci-tech relation. As we think about other ways to examine the science-technology relationship we might start to ask: How do formulations of this relationship cross national borders and languages? How do they move and change between time periods? And I wonder what this landscape will look like when we begin to look at other languages and contexts. A palette that includes Mexican, Russian, Brazilian, or Chinese examples is exciting to think of.

Looking more broadly, recent work on the histories of so-called emerging technologies – nanotechnology, biotech, genetics research, synthetic biology, green tech – shows the relationship between science and technology remains both fluid and a productive site for future inquiry. Consider this example. More than 20 years ago, Eric Drexler, arguably the most influential popularizer of nanotechnology, had the goal of designing nanoscale devices that were theoretically possible but could not yet be built. Drexler referred to his activities as “exploratory engineering” and the even more enigmatic “theoretical applied science.” Consider the semantic challenges of parsing “theoretical applied science”…

I suspect similar blurry boundaries can be found in other fields of techno-scientific research that have emerged in the post Bayh-Dole period. These contemporary examples – when researchers call “science” with a nudge and wink as “technology” and when visionary engineers blur already indistinct boundaries between science and engineering suggest that new graduate students who are less beholden to either the SHOT or HSS camp – will have plenty of new terrain to explore.

Note: I’ll be taking a break from Leaping Robot for a few weeks…I should be back at it right after the New Year starts. Best wishes for the holiday season! 



  1. This is recounted in Ch. 1 of John M. Staudenmaier, Technology’s Storytellers (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1985 []
  2. James McClellan III, “What’s Problematic About ‘Applied Science’ in The Applied Science Problem, ed. McClellan (Jersey City: Jensen/Daniels, 2008 []
  3. this appeared in Technology and Culture, 1976, 17, 4: 663-73. []
  4. C.W. Sherwin and R.S. Isenson, “Project Hindsight. A Defense Department Study of the Utility of Research,” Science, 1967, 156, June 23: 1571-7 []
  5. A version of this appears in the October 2012 Isis as “The Origins of Pure and Applied Science in Gilded Age America,”pp. 527-536 []

2 thoughts on “Science vs. Technology, Redux and Again

  1. One “blurry boundary” shows up in theoretical condensed matter physics. Papers on such recondite topics as, say, the quantum spin Hall effect, topological insulators or Majorana fermions often close with a nod to eventual applications, however far-fetched.

  2. I like the Rowland article as well, and yes there are lots of great quotes in it. When I teach that period, I put Rowland in context of the changing face of science at the end of the nineteenth century, including the story of the Morrill Act in the USA. People were hypersensitive about what science was becoming and who should be doing it (i.e. lots of fields seemed to be feminized because of the influx of women, leading to now-hilarious defenses of botany as manly sciences). Fast-forwarding here, but by far the weirdest things that happened during the heady early SHOT years, for me anyway, were the Soviet publications. Reading through Zvorykin’s articles from the early Sixties, you can just imagine some historians of technology muttering, “please, stay off our side of this.” Zvorykin believed that the history of technology was itself a science, since the Marxist view of history was so deterministic. Highly recommended reading, with perhaps a glass of wine.

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