Thomas Hughes, a Distinguished Visiting Professor at MIT and Mellon Professor Emeritus of the History of Science at the University of Pennsylvania, passed away Feb. 3, 2014 at age 89. Hughes, who pioneered the field of the history of technology, was also a founder of the Society for the History of Technology. Below is a reflection on his life and contributions by his MIT colleague Rosalind Williams, the Bern Dibner Professor of the History of Science and Technology. 

MIT is justifiably proud of its “lifers”: individuals who enter MIT as freshmen, continue here for graduate school, join the faculty, and live out their entire professional lives under the Great Dome. In some cases — Paul Gray and Sheila Widnall come to mind — the character of the individual becomes so intertwined with the character of the Institute that it becomes hard to know where one stops and the other begins.

Thomas Parke Hughes (1923-2014) was a non-lifer. He came to MIT in the 1960s for a short stint as an assistant professor. He soon moved on to other institutions, where over time he developed into the nation’s pre-eminent historian of technology. When he returned to MIT as a Distinguished Visiting Professor in the 1990s and early 2000s, he brought with him a deep understanding of how the history of technology transforms our understanding of general history, as well as of the role and responsibilities of engineering. 

Would he have developed such perspectives if he had spent his whole career at MIT? This is an unanswerable question, but without question Tom Hughes reminds us of the invigorating role of non-lifers in our community.

The nation’s pre-eminent historian of technology 

Born and raised in Richmond, Va., Thomas Parke Hughes served in the U.S. Navy during World War II before earning his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Virginia. He stayed there to get his doctorate in modern European history in 1953. Tom came to MIT in the mid-1960s, when the relatively new School of Humanities and Social Science was trying to figure out how to stock a faculty for an amorphous Course XXI. He was part of a cohort of 13 junior faculty; only one of them (Bruce Mazlish, in history) was ultimately tenured. Along with the rest, Tom departed MIT, first for a temporary appointment at Johns Hopkins University and then for a professorship at Southern Methodist University.

At SMU, Tom published a biography of Elmer Sperry (1971), still valuable reading for anyone interested in engineering control systems and their role in 20th-century history. Primarily on the strength of this acclaimed study, he was invited to become a professor in the Department of the History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania. He was 50 years old when he accepted the appointment, which elevated both him and the department to academic fame and glory. Graduate students applied to Penn to work with Tom, and the Philadelphia area became a magnet for historians of technology.

Conceptualizing technological systems, defining structures of modern life 

Tom sealed his pre-eminence in the field with the 1983 publication of “Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930.” This was more than a comparative history of electrification in the United States, Britain, and Germany: It was also a manifesto declaring the concept of technological systems, which reoriented the history of technology from a focus on the invention of devices to a focus on the construction of large complex systems. Because such systems are defining structures of modern life, this reorientation confirmed the history of technology as an element of general history.

Tom began to write for broader audiences, most notably in “American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm, 1870-1970″ (1989), which was a finalist for the 1990 Pulitzer Prize in history. Also in 1990, Tom returned to MIT as a visiting professor. He taught here for a semester and returned for shorter visits to help supervise graduate students and to run workshops on technological systems. The latter involved faculty from across the Institute, especially from the Program in Science, Technology, and Society and from the School of Engineering. 

An enduring affinity for MIT

After retiring from Penn in 1994, Tom was elevated to Distinguished Visiting Professor at MIT, and spent even more time here. In 1998, he was on campus for two months giving a series of lectures on “open technological systems,” which he defined as ones exhibiting “a complex mix of technical, economic, political, social, and environmental factors.” His favorite example was the Central Artery and Tunnel (CAT, better known as Boston’s “Big Dig”), with Fred Salvucci playing the role as chief system-builder. The CAT, along with the SAGE computer-based defense system and ARPANET, were featured in Tom’s book “Rescuing Prometheus” (1998), an influential cluster of case studies of open technological systems.

In a 2002 email to Philip Khoury (then dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences) requesting a renewal of his visiting appointment, Tom wrote: “I am so pleased to have the MIT appointment. For years, even decades, I have felt close to MIT, sharing its notable achievements and sensing its problems and opportunities.”

He went on to explain why he felt this closeness: “Over the years, I have tried to understand the character of the engineering profession and, in a limited way, broaden its horizons by helping it to see the central role and daunting responsibilities that it has in the modern world. Engineers lament that they are not appreciated. They do not need the appreciation of others so much as they need secure self-esteem. This would come, I believe, if they accepted the messy complexity and moral dimensions of their calling.”

Technology as a part of a broader human history

Tom was already engaged with the problems and opportunities of engineering when I first met him in the mid-1960s, as a Radcliffe College senior serving him as a research assistant. I enjoyed visiting Tom to discuss my assignments, but the questions he asked me to research were sober and difficult. The imprint of World War II was pronounced. He was already studying the Manhattan Project as an engineering project, a topic he later wrote about in “American Genesis.” He was also, with obvious emotional difficulty, trying to understand the mechanisms of slaughter used in the Holocaust. Many years later I heard him discuss in a seminar the concept of “technological sin” as something both historians and engineers need to contemplate, because the historical world is a sinful one. 

Like William Barton Rogers himself, Tom Hughes came to MIT from Virginia with a vision of what technology and engineering mean in the broad context of human experience. Providing scholarly grounding for that vision was a difficult problem — but Tom would quote Sperry to the effect that he chose the most difficult problems because doing this was a way to avoid vulgar competition.

It took Tom many years in the academic wilderness to redefine technological systems and engineering practice as part of larger history. These views do not come naturally to MIT. We have too much invested in defining engineering as a specialized or semispecialized activity that brings order and moral clarity to the world. But engineering cannot assume “the central role and daunting responsibilities that it has in the modern world” unless we confront its messy complexities and moral ambiguities. They inevitably arise because engineering is inseparable from political, economic, social, and legal structures and activities. By reminding us of this broad historical perspective, Tom Hughes, MIT non-lifer, made an immeasurable contribution to the life of the Institute.

_________________________________________________________________________________

Prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Communication and Design Director: Emily Hiestand
Associate News Manager: Kathryn O’Neill
Communications Assistant: Kierstin Wesolowski 

By School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

Thomas Hughes, a Distinguished Visiting Professor at MIT and Mellon Professor Emeritus of the History of Science at the University of Pennsylvania, passed away Feb. 3, 2014 at age 89. Hughes, who pioneered the field of the history of technology, was also a founder of the Society for the History of Technology. Below is a reflection on his life and contributions by his MIT colleague Rosalind Williams, the Bern Dibner Professor of the History of Science and Technology. 

MIT is justifiably proud of its “lifers”: individuals who enter MIT as freshmen, continue here for graduate school, join the faculty, and live out their entire professional lives under the Great Dome. In some cases — Paul Gray and Sheila Widnall come to mind — the character of the individual becomes so intertwined with the character of the Institute that it becomes hard to know where one stops and the other begins.

Thomas Parke Hughes (1923-2014) was a non-lifer. He came to MIT in the 1960s for a short stint as an assistant professor. He soon moved on to other institutions, where over time he developed into the nation’s pre-eminent historian of technology. When he returned to MIT as a Distinguished Visiting Professor in the 1990s and early 2000s, he brought with him a deep understanding of how the history of technology transforms our understanding of general history, as well as of the role and responsibilities of engineering. 

Would he have developed such perspectives if he had spent his whole career at MIT? This is an unanswerable question, but without question Tom Hughes reminds us of the invigorating role of non-lifers in our community.

The nation’s pre-eminent historian of technology 

Born and raised in Richmond, Va., Thomas Parke Hughes served in the U.S. Navy during World War II before earning his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Virginia. He stayed there to get his doctorate in modern European history in 1953. Tom came to MIT in the mid-1960s, when the relatively new School of Humanities and Social Science was trying to figure out how to stock a faculty for an amorphous Course XXI. He was part of a cohort of 13 junior faculty; only one of them (Bruce Mazlish, in history) was ultimately tenured. Along with the rest, Tom departed MIT, first for a temporary appointment at Johns Hopkins University and then for a professorship at Southern Methodist University.

At SMU, Tom published a biography of Elmer Sperry (1971), still valuable reading for anyone interested in engineering control systems and their role in 20th-century history. Primarily on the strength of this acclaimed study, he was invited to become a professor in the Department of the History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania. He was 50 years old when he accepted the appointment, which elevated both him and the department to academic fame and glory. Graduate students applied to Penn to work with Tom, and the Philadelphia area became a magnet for historians of technology.

Conceptualizing technological systems, defining structures of modern life 

Tom sealed his pre-eminence in the field with the 1983 publication of “Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930.” This was more than a comparative history of electrification in the United States, Britain, and Germany: It was also a manifesto declaring the concept of technological systems, which reoriented the history of technology from a focus on the invention of devices to a focus on the construction of large complex systems. Because such systems are defining structures of modern life, this reorientation confirmed the history of technology as an element of general history.

Tom began to write for broader audiences, most notably in “American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm, 1870-1970″ (1989), which was a finalist for the 1990 Pulitzer Prize in history. Also in 1990, Tom returned to MIT as a visiting professor. He taught here for a semester and returned for shorter visits to help supervise graduate students and to run workshops on technological systems. The latter involved faculty from across the Institute, especially from the Program in Science, Technology, and Society and from the School of Engineering. 

An enduring affinity for MIT

After retiring from Penn in 1994, Tom was elevated to Distinguished Visiting Professor at MIT, and spent even more time here. In 1998, he was on campus for two months giving a series of lectures on “open technological systems,” which he defined as ones exhibiting “a complex mix of technical, economic, political, social, and environmental factors.” His favorite example was the Central Artery and Tunnel (CAT, better known as Boston’s “Big Dig”), with Fred Salvucci playing the role as chief system-builder. The CAT, along with the SAGE computer-based defense system and ARPANET, were featured in Tom’s book “Rescuing Prometheus” (1998), an influential cluster of case studies of open technological systems.

In a 2002 email to Philip Khoury (then dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences) requesting a renewal of his visiting appointment, Tom wrote: “I am so pleased to have the MIT appointment. For years, even decades, I have felt close to MIT, sharing its notable achievements and sensing its problems and opportunities.”

He went on to explain why he felt this closeness: “Over the years, I have tried to understand the character of the engineering profession and, in a limited way, broaden its horizons by helping it to see the central role and daunting responsibilities that it has in the modern world. Engineers lament that they are not appreciated. They do not need the appreciation of others so much as they need secure self-esteem. This would come, I believe, if they accepted the messy complexity and moral dimensions of their calling.”

Technology as a part of a broader human history

Tom was already engaged with the problems and opportunities of engineering when I first met him in the mid-1960s, as a Radcliffe College senior serving him as a research assistant. I enjoyed visiting Tom to discuss my assignments, but the questions he asked me to research were sober and difficult. The imprint of World War II was pronounced. He was already studying the Manhattan Project as an engineering project, a topic he later wrote about in “American Genesis.” He was also, with obvious emotional difficulty, trying to understand the mechanisms of slaughter used in the Holocaust. Many years later I heard him discuss in a seminar the concept of “technological sin” as something both historians and engineers need to contemplate, because the historical world is a sinful one. 

Like William Barton Rogers himself, Tom Hughes came to MIT from Virginia with a vision of what technology and engineering mean in the broad context of human experience. Providing scholarly grounding for that vision was a difficult problem — but Tom would quote Sperry to the effect that he chose the most difficult problems because doing this was a way to avoid vulgar competition.

It took Tom many years in the academic wilderness to redefine technological systems and engineering practice as part of larger history. These views do not come naturally to MIT. We have too much invested in defining engineering as a specialized or semispecialized activity that brings order and moral clarity to the world. But engineering cannot assume “the central role and daunting responsibilities that it has in the modern world” unless we confront its messy complexities and moral ambiguities. They inevitably arise because engineering is inseparable from political, economic, social, and legal structures and activities. By reminding us of this broad historical perspective, Tom Hughes, MIT non-lifer, made an immeasurable contribution to the life of the Institute.

_________________________________________________________________________________

Prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Communication and Design Director: Emily Hiestand
Associate News Manager: Kathryn O’Neill
Communications Assistant: Kierstin Wesolowski 

By School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

Seven MIT faculty members are among 204 leaders from academia, business, public affairs, the humanities and the arts elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the academy announced today.

One of the nation’s most prestigious honorary societies, the academy is also a leading center for independent policy research. Members contribute to academy publications, as well as studies of science and technology policy, energy and global security, social policy and American institutions, the humanities and culture, and education.

Those elected from MIT this year are:

  • Elazer Reuven Edelman, the Thomas D. and Virginia W. Cabot Professor of Health Sciences and Technology
  • Michael Greenstone, the 3M Professor of Environmental Economics
  • Keith Adam Nelson, a professor of chemistry
  • Paul A. Seidel, a professor of mathematics
  • Gigliola Staffilani, the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of Mathematics
  • Sherry Roxanne Turkle, the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology
  • Robert Dirk van der Hilst, the Schlumberger Professor of Earth Sciences and head of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences

“It is a privilege to honor these men and women for their extraordinary individual accomplishments,” Don Randel, chair of the academy’s Board of Directors, said in a statement. “The knowledge and expertise of our members give the Academy a unique capacity — and responsibility — to provide practical policy solutions to the pressing challenges of the day. We look forward to engaging our new members in this work.”

The new class will be inducted at a ceremony held on Oct. 11 at the academy’s headquarters in Cambridge.

Since its founding in 1780, the academy has elected leading “thinkers and doers” from each generation, including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin in the 18th century, Daniel Webster and Ralph Waldo Emerson in the 19th century, and Albert Einstein and Winston Churchill in the 20th century. The current membership includes more than 250 Nobel laureates and more than 60 Pulitzer Prize winners.

By News Office

Seven MIT faculty members are among 204 leaders from academia, business, public affairs, the humanities and the arts elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the academy announced today.

One of the nation’s most prestigious honorary societies, the academy is also a leading center for independent policy research. Members contribute to academy publications, as well as studies of science and technology policy, energy and global security, social policy and American institutions, the humanities and culture, and education.

Those elected from MIT this year are:

  • Elazer Reuven Edelman, the Thomas D. and Virginia W. Cabot Professor of Health Sciences and Technology
  • Michael Greenstone, the 3M Professor of Environmental Economics
  • Keith Adam Nelson, a professor of chemistry
  • Paul A. Seidel, a professor of mathematics
  • Gigliola Staffilani, the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of Mathematics
  • Sherry Roxanne Turkle, the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology
  • Robert Dirk van der Hilst, the Schlumberger Professor of Earth Sciences and head of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences

“It is a privilege to honor these men and women for their extraordinary individual accomplishments,” Don Randel, chair of the academy’s Board of Directors, said in a statement. “The knowledge and expertise of our members give the Academy a unique capacity — and responsibility — to provide practical policy solutions to the pressing challenges of the day. We look forward to engaging our new members in this work.”

The new class will be inducted at a ceremony held on Oct. 11 at the academy’s headquarters in Cambridge.

Since its founding in 1780, the academy has elected leading “thinkers and doers” from each generation, including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin in the 18th century, Daniel Webster and Ralph Waldo Emerson in the 19th century, and Albert Einstein and Winston Churchill in the 20th century. The current membership includes more than 250 Nobel laureates and more than 60 Pulitzer Prize winners.

By News Office

MIT Professor Emeritus Leo Marx wrote “The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America” in 1964, before cell phones, the Internet, and computers became omnipresent in American life. Yet today this work — centered on the tensions 19th-century authors saw as shaping American life — remains as relevant as ever.

On Nov. 8, Marx’s colleagues and former students gathered to celebrate the book’s 50th anniversary in an afternoon symposium at MIT. Speakers recounted the legacy of this seminal work in American studies and of the teacher and scholar who penned it.

Through it all, the guest of honor, Marx himself, now 94, sat quietly in the front row. Afterward, Marx called the event “most unusual and terribly moving.”

Two visions that shaped America

“The book is about cultural ambivalences towards the encroaching of science and technology in everyday life,” said David Kaiser, Germeshausen Professor of the History of Science. “Marx was writing about railroads and telegraphy, and the larger notion is that technology allows great things — it knit the nation together — but it also seemed to tear down what had been safe spaces of the pastoral.”

“The Machine in the Garden” examines the differences between the “pastoral” and “progressive” ideals that characterized early-19th-century American culture and that have evolved into the basis for current environmental debates.

“The power of Marx’s analysis and prose makes it still worth reading today,” added Kaiser, who is also head of MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society (STS), which hosted the symposium jointly with the Marx family and Oxford University Press.

Coinciding with the 25th anniversary of MIT’s PhD program in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society — which was marked on November 9 with a daylong symposium at MIT — the “Machine in the Garden” event drew more than 200 people to Wong Auditorium to reflect on Marx’s influence, both on his field and on the lives of his students and colleagues.

Daring, enduring, persuasive

After an introduction by Kaiser and a few words by Marx’s son Andrew, the event featured reflections by five key associates, beginning with a representative of the book’s publisher, Oxford University Press.

Emphasizing that it is “a remarkable accomplishment” for any book to remain in print continuously for 50 years, Niko Pfund, president and academic publisher of Oxford University Press USA, reminded everyone of what was happening the year “The Machine in the Garden” was first published: Barry Goldwater was running for president, Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life in prison, and Elizabeth Taylor had just married Richard Burton (for the first time).

“Through it all, ‘Machine in the Garden’ has consistently been a book people thought was important to read, one that makes sense of our relationship to history and technology,” Pfund said. “The book has gone through dozens of printings and sold hundreds of thousands of copies — an impressive figure by any measure.”

Alan Trachtenberg, a former graduate student of Marx’s who is now a professor emeritus of English and American studies at Yale University, stressed the book’s antecedents in the Cold War. He said “The Machine in the Garden” reveals rich crosscurrents among literary, economic, and political spheres, reflecting both Marx’s experience as a veteran of World War II and his socialist politics.

“What moved me most of all as an aspiring American studies scholar — and has remained a major bequest of the book — was and still is the book’s daring and movingly persuasive historicism,” Trachtenberg said. “Fifty years later, ‘The Machine in the Garden’ remains a work to live up to.”

A legendary teacher

David Nye, professor of American history at the University of Southern Denmark, emphasized that Marx was not only a great writer but a wonderful teacher. Nye studied with Marx as an undergraduate at Amherst College, where Marx taught before coming to MIT in the 1970s to help launch STS.

“One reason the book was so accessible is that it had been taught before it was written; it had been honed over time,” Nye said. “There’s an unfortunate pressure now to rush things into print. The link between teaching and research was clear here.”

Rebecca Herzig PhD ’98 also lauded Marx’s teaching. A former advisee of Marx’s, Herzig is now a professor of women and gender studies at Bates College. “I am and always will be Leo’s devoted student, striving to be half the teacher and half the mensch he is,” she said.

Rosalind Williams, Bern Dibner Professor of the History of Science and Technology, offered her recollections of teaching classes at MIT with Marx. What impressed her the most, she said, was his relentless dedication to the task. No syllabus was ever complete; Marx was always honing his approach to teaching great literature. And, Williams noted, “He is never teaching his book. He’s teaching the books in his book, classics like ‘Walden’ and ‘Moby Dick.’”

The afternoon’s formal remarks were followed by a lively comments period, which enabled Marx’s many admirers to offer their own recollections of the man and his work.


Story prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial and Design Director: Emily Hiestand
Senior Writer: Kathryn O’Neill
Communications Assistant: Kierstin Wesolowski

By School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

MIT Professor Emeritus Leo Marx wrote “The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America” in 1964, before cell phones, the Internet, and computers became omnipresent in American life. Yet today this work — centered on the tensions 19th-century authors saw as shaping American life — remains as relevant as ever.

On Nov. 8, Marx’s colleagues and former students gathered to celebrate the book’s 50th anniversary in an afternoon symposium at MIT. Speakers recounted the legacy of this seminal work in American studies and of the teacher and scholar who penned it.

Through it all, the guest of honor, Marx himself, now 94, sat quietly in the front row. Afterward, Marx called the event “most unusual and terribly moving.”

Two visions that shaped America

“The book is about cultural ambivalences towards the encroaching of science and technology in everyday life,” said David Kaiser, Germeshausen Professor of the History of Science. “Marx was writing about railroads and telegraphy, and the larger notion is that technology allows great things — it knit the nation together — but it also seemed to tear down what had been safe spaces of the pastoral.”

“The Machine in the Garden” examines the differences between the “pastoral” and “progressive” ideals that characterized early-19th-century American culture and that have evolved into the basis for current environmental debates.

“The power of Marx’s analysis and prose makes it still worth reading today,” added Kaiser, who is also head of MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society (STS), which hosted the symposium jointly with the Marx family and Oxford University Press.

Coinciding with the 25th anniversary of MIT’s PhD program in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society — which was marked on November 9 with a daylong symposium at MIT — the “Machine in the Garden” event drew more than 200 people to Wong Auditorium to reflect on Marx’s influence, both on his field and on the lives of his students and colleagues.

Daring, enduring, persuasive

After an introduction by Kaiser and a few words by Marx’s son Andrew, the event featured reflections by five key associates, beginning with a representative of the book’s publisher, Oxford University Press.

Emphasizing that it is “a remarkable accomplishment” for any book to remain in print continuously for 50 years, Niko Pfund, president and academic publisher of Oxford University Press USA, reminded everyone of what was happening the year “The Machine in the Garden” was first published: Barry Goldwater was running for president, Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life in prison, and Elizabeth Taylor had just married Richard Burton (for the first time).

“Through it all, ‘Machine in the Garden’ has consistently been a book people thought was important to read, one that makes sense of our relationship to history and technology,” Pfund said. “The book has gone through dozens of printings and sold hundreds of thousands of copies — an impressive figure by any measure.”

Alan Trachtenberg, a former graduate student of Marx’s who is now a professor emeritus of English and American studies at Yale University, stressed the book’s antecedents in the Cold War. He said “The Machine in the Garden” reveals rich crosscurrents among literary, economic, and political spheres, reflecting both Marx’s experience as a veteran of World War II and his socialist politics.

“What moved me most of all as an aspiring American studies scholar — and has remained a major bequest of the book — was and still is the book’s daring and movingly persuasive historicism,” Trachtenberg said. “Fifty years later, ‘The Machine in the Garden’ remains a work to live up to.”

A legendary teacher

David Nye, professor of American history at the University of Southern Denmark, emphasized that Marx was not only a great writer but a wonderful teacher. Nye studied with Marx as an undergraduate at Amherst College, where Marx taught before coming to MIT in the 1970s to help launch STS.

“One reason the book was so accessible is that it had been taught before it was written; it had been honed over time,” Nye said. “There’s an unfortunate pressure now to rush things into print. The link between teaching and research was clear here.”

Rebecca Herzig PhD ’98 also lauded Marx’s teaching. A former advisee of Marx’s, Herzig is now a professor of women and gender studies at Bates College. “I am and always will be Leo’s devoted student, striving to be half the teacher and half the mensch he is,” she said.

Rosalind Williams, Bern Dibner Professor of the History of Science and Technology, offered her recollections of teaching classes at MIT with Marx. What impressed her the most, she said, was his relentless dedication to the task. No syllabus was ever complete; Marx was always honing his approach to teaching great literature. And, Williams noted, “He is never teaching his book. He’s teaching the books in his book, classics like ‘Walden’ and ‘Moby Dick.’”

The afternoon’s formal remarks were followed by a lively comments period, which enabled Marx’s many admirers to offer their own recollections of the man and his work.


Story prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial and Design Director: Emily Hiestand
Senior Writer: Kathryn O’Neill
Communications Assistant: Kierstin Wesolowski

By School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

Adrift in a sea of change

September 30, 2014

In 1890, living in Samoa, Robert Louis Stevenson sent a letter to his fellow writer Henry James, explaining a momentous decision on his part: Disillusioned with a rapidly changing, technologically driven world, Stevenson intended to remain in “exile” on the island, never to return to his native Britain.

“I was never fond of towns, houses, society or (it seems) civilisation,” Stevenson wrote, explaining his choice. Indeed, he died in Samoa four years later.

But how exactly did Stevenson, who grew up in a well-off family of Scottish civil engineers, wind up lamenting technological progress and its social effects from a remote island in the South Pacific? And how should we understand this kind of uneasy response to technological advancement more generally?

Those are among the questions MIT historian Rosalind Williams addresses in her new book, “The Triumph of Human Empire,” just published by the University of Chicago Press. It is a study of three famous authors — Stevenson, Jules Verne, and William Morris — and their complicated responses to technological and social change: embracing some innovations while lamenting that many changes were diminishing our sense of connection with the natural world and the past, and even creating new social inequities.

Much as the current day is awash in technology-based innovation, so too was the Victorian era: As Verne (1828-1905) noted in an 1891 interview, he had lived through the introduction or popularization of trains, trams, the telegraph, telephone, phonograph, steamship, and commercial electricity.

In the book, Williams analyzes how the works of Verne, Morris (1834-1896), and Stevenson (1850-1894) — while often remembered for their flights of enjoyable fantasy — are actually deeply grounded in this “decisive turning point in the human story,” as she writes, when they could see that “human needs, desires, works and actions would more and more dominate the planet” in the future. That also speaks to our world, she believes, as we are confronted with resource scarcity, climate change, dangerous military conflicts, and changes in behavior oriented around technology.

“There is a deep belief in progress of science and technologies that you can see in the 19th century, and is extremely powerful today, but there is also the anxiety that comes from that belief,” says Williams, the Bern Dibner Professor of the History of Science and Technology in MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society (STS). “This book is intended to explore that paradox.”

‘They could see over the horizon’

Significantly, none of these writers had a lifelong, reactionary distaste for technology. Stevenson took pride in his family’s engineering feats, for instance, while Verne gained renown for his stories about futuristic submarines, moon landings, and even penned a (posthumously discovered) novel about life in Europe under a radically changed climate. They all shared, Williams asserts, a geographic link around the North Sea that made them especially interested in human exploration through water, but they thought about the impact of many technologies.

“What they’re writing about science and technology is astoundingly prescient and true,” Williams says. “They could see over the horizon.” Taking an approach Williams has used throughout her career, “The Triumph of Human Empire” employs fictional works as a window into the human response to rapid social transformation.

“Science and technologies have [created] astonishing accomplishments, and real material changes,” Williams says, “but I’m most interested in how they have an effect on people’s lived experiences.”

Those rapid changes form a recurring tension in Verne’s works, in which technology enables previously unimaginable journeys and feats of exploration, yet traps people in its grip. After all, Pierre Arronax, the scientist narrator of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” (1870), is imprisoned by Captain Nemo aboard the Nautilus — privy to remarkable views of life undersea, but unable to escape.

Morris’ response to technology was more explicitly political: Famous for his poetry, in the 1880s he threw himself into left-wing politics, and founded a noted decorative arts company. As a writer, he suddenly started translating Icelandic sagas — as a way, Williams thinks, of aligning himself with a more pristine society than heavily technologized Britain.

“Our civilisation is passing like a blight, daily growing heavier and more poisonous, over the whole face of the country,” Morris wrote.

Stevenson’s grasp of the global effects of technological change seems to have emerged as he journeyed first to America by steamship and then across the United States by train, in pursuit of his future wife, Fanny, who was then living in California. The trip appears to have been an epiphany for Stevenson, as he realized how many of the world’s travelers were not journeying by choice, but as migrants displaced by a rapidly globalizing economy. After a few years in California, he set forth on a sailboat cruise of the South Pacific in search of a healthier climate, new adventures, and new income based on travel writing.

“All of them had to do some sort of pivot,” Williams says. “They grew up in one world and had to realize they were living in another one.”

“The Triumph of Human Empire” has been praised by colleagues; John Tresch, a historian of science at the University of Pennsylvania, has called the book “engaging, highly informative, and entertaining.”

The ‘rolling apocalypse’

Williams concludes “The Triumph of Human Empire” by observing that Verne, Morris, and Stevenson all seemed to experience technological change not as a clean break from the past, but as a long-term “rolling apocalypse” in which their cherished worlds were erased over time. 

“I think this shows two coexisting visions of history,” Williams says. “One is history as progress, but there is also this other vision of history as rolling apocalypse. A lot of us are living with that ambiguity today, which is a very ambivalent moment in history. You can’t just say [changes] are good or bad — but we need to understand their complexity.”

This means, Williams says, that we should not regard the tales of Verne, Morris, and Stevenson as sheer escapism; that escapism is telling us something about their times.

“In each of their cases, their personal reinventions were as writers, too,” Williams observes. “It just shows how important writing is. Part of the subtext of the book is to take art seriously. That’s the first place to go to figure out what’s going on in the world.”
By Peter Dizikes, MIT News Office

Adrift in a sea of change

September 30, 2014

In 1890, living in Samoa, Robert Louis Stevenson sent a letter to his fellow writer Henry James, explaining a momentous decision on his part: Disillusioned with a rapidly changing, technologically driven world, Stevenson intended to remain in “exile” on the island, never to return to his native Britain.

“I was never fond of towns, houses, society or (it seems) civilisation,” Stevenson wrote, explaining his choice. Indeed, he died in Samoa four years later.

But how exactly did Stevenson, who grew up in a well-off family of Scottish civil engineers, wind up lamenting technological progress and its social effects from a remote island in the South Pacific? And how should we understand this kind of uneasy response to technological advancement more generally?

Those are among the questions MIT historian Rosalind Williams addresses in her new book, “The Triumph of Human Empire,” just published by the University of Chicago Press. It is a study of three famous authors — Stevenson, Jules Verne, and William Morris — and their complicated responses to technological and social change: embracing some innovations while lamenting that many changes were diminishing our sense of connection with the natural world and the past, and even creating new social inequities.

Much as the current day is awash in technology-based innovation, so too was the Victorian era: As Verne (1828-1905) noted in an 1891 interview, he had lived through the introduction or popularization of trains, trams, the telegraph, telephone, phonograph, steamship, and commercial electricity.

In the book, Williams analyzes how the works of Verne, Morris (1834-1896), and Stevenson (1850-1894) — while often remembered for their flights of enjoyable fantasy — are actually deeply grounded in this “decisive turning point in the human story,” as she writes, when they could see that “human needs, desires, works and actions would more and more dominate the planet” in the future. That also speaks to our world, she believes, as we are confronted with resource scarcity, climate change, dangerous military conflicts, and changes in behavior oriented around technology.

“There is a deep belief in progress of science and technologies that you can see in the 19th century, and is extremely powerful today, but there is also the anxiety that comes from that belief,” says Williams, the Bern Dibner Professor of the History of Science and Technology in MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society (STS). “This book is intended to explore that paradox.”

‘They could see over the horizon’

Significantly, none of these writers had a lifelong, reactionary distaste for technology. Stevenson took pride in his family’s engineering feats, for instance, while Verne gained renown for his stories about futuristic submarines, moon landings, and even penned a (posthumously discovered) novel about life in Europe under a radically changed climate. They all shared, Williams asserts, a geographic link around the North Sea that made them especially interested in human exploration through water, but they thought about the impact of many technologies.

“What they’re writing about science and technology is astoundingly prescient and true,” Williams says. “They could see over the horizon.” Taking an approach Williams has used throughout her career, “The Triumph of Human Empire” employs fictional works as a window into the human response to rapid social transformation.

“Science and technologies have [created] astonishing accomplishments, and real material changes,” Williams says, “but I’m most interested in how they have an effect on people’s lived experiences.”

Those rapid changes form a recurring tension in Verne’s works, in which technology enables previously unimaginable journeys and feats of exploration, yet traps people in its grip. After all, Pierre Arronax, the scientist narrator of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” (1870), is imprisoned by Captain Nemo aboard the Nautilus — privy to remarkable views of life undersea, but unable to escape.

Morris’ response to technology was more explicitly political: Famous for his poetry, in the 1880s he threw himself into left-wing politics, and founded a noted decorative arts company. As a writer, he suddenly started translating Icelandic sagas — as a way, Williams thinks, of aligning himself with a more pristine society than heavily technologized Britain.

“Our civilisation is passing like a blight, daily growing heavier and more poisonous, over the whole face of the country,” Morris wrote.

Stevenson’s grasp of the global effects of technological change seems to have emerged as he journeyed first to America by steamship and then across the United States by train, in pursuit of his future wife, Fanny, who was then living in California. The trip appears to have been an epiphany for Stevenson, as he realized how many of the world’s travelers were not journeying by choice, but as migrants displaced by a rapidly globalizing economy. After a few years in California, he set forth on a sailboat cruise of the South Pacific in search of a healthier climate, new adventures, and new income based on travel writing.

“All of them had to do some sort of pivot,” Williams says. “They grew up in one world and had to realize they were living in another one.”

“The Triumph of Human Empire” has been praised by colleagues; John Tresch, a historian of science at the University of Pennsylvania, has called the book “engaging, highly informative, and entertaining.”

The ‘rolling apocalypse’

Williams concludes “The Triumph of Human Empire” by observing that Verne, Morris, and Stevenson all seemed to experience technological change not as a clean break from the past, but as a long-term “rolling apocalypse” in which their cherished worlds were erased over time. 

“I think this shows two coexisting visions of history,” Williams says. “One is history as progress, but there is also this other vision of history as rolling apocalypse. A lot of us are living with that ambiguity today, which is a very ambivalent moment in history. You can’t just say [changes] are good or bad — but we need to understand their complexity.”

This means, Williams says, that we should not regard the tales of Verne, Morris, and Stevenson as sheer escapism; that escapism is telling us something about their times.

“In each of their cases, their personal reinventions were as writers, too,” Williams observes. “It just shows how important writing is. Part of the subtext of the book is to take art seriously. That’s the first place to go to figure out what’s going on in the world.”
By Peter Dizikes, MIT News Office

Thomas Hughes, a Distinguished Visiting Professor at MIT and Mellon Professor Emeritus of the History of Science at the University of Pennsylvania, passed away Feb. 3, 2014 at age 89. Hughes, who pioneered the field of the history of technology, was also a founder of the Society for the History of Technology. Below is a reflection on his life and contributions by his MIT colleague Rosalind Williams, the Bern Dibner Professor of the History of Science and Technology. 

MIT is justifiably proud of its “lifers”: individuals who enter MIT as freshmen, continue here for graduate school, join the faculty, and live out their entire professional lives under the Great Dome. In some cases — Paul Gray and Sheila Widnall come to mind — the character of the individual becomes so intertwined with the character of the Institute that it becomes hard to know where one stops and the other begins.

Thomas Parke Hughes (1923-2014) was a non-lifer. He came to MIT in the 1960s for a short stint as an assistant professor. He soon moved on to other institutions, where over time he developed into the nation’s pre-eminent historian of technology. When he returned to MIT as a Distinguished Visiting Professor in the 1990s and early 2000s, he brought with him a deep understanding of how the history of technology transforms our understanding of general history, as well as of the role and responsibilities of engineering. 

Would he have developed such perspectives if he had spent his whole career at MIT? This is an unanswerable question, but without question Tom Hughes reminds us of the invigorating role of non-lifers in our community.

The nation’s pre-eminent historian of technology 

Born and raised in Richmond, Va., Thomas Parke Hughes served in the U.S. Navy during World War II before earning his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Virginia. He stayed there to get his doctorate in modern European history in 1953. Tom came to MIT in the mid-1960s, when the relatively new School of Humanities and Social Science was trying to figure out how to stock a faculty for an amorphous Course XXI. He was part of a cohort of 13 junior faculty; only one of them (Bruce Mazlish, in history) was ultimately tenured. Along with the rest, Tom departed MIT, first for a temporary appointment at Johns Hopkins University and then for a professorship at Southern Methodist University.

At SMU, Tom published a biography of Elmer Sperry (1971), still valuable reading for anyone interested in engineering control systems and their role in 20th-century history. Primarily on the strength of this acclaimed study, he was invited to become a professor in the Department of the History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania. He was 50 years old when he accepted the appointment, which elevated both him and the department to academic fame and glory. Graduate students applied to Penn to work with Tom, and the Philadelphia area became a magnet for historians of technology.

Conceptualizing technological systems, defining structures of modern life 

Tom sealed his pre-eminence in the field with the 1983 publication of “Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930.” This was more than a comparative history of electrification in the United States, Britain, and Germany: It was also a manifesto declaring the concept of technological systems, which reoriented the history of technology from a focus on the invention of devices to a focus on the construction of large complex systems. Because such systems are defining structures of modern life, this reorientation confirmed the history of technology as an element of general history.

Tom began to write for broader audiences, most notably in “American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm, 1870-1970″ (1989), which was a finalist for the 1990 Pulitzer Prize in history. Also in 1990, Tom returned to MIT as a visiting professor. He taught here for a semester and returned for shorter visits to help supervise graduate students and to run workshops on technological systems. The latter involved faculty from across the Institute, especially from the Program in Science, Technology, and Society and from the School of Engineering. 

An enduring affinity for MIT

After retiring from Penn in 1994, Tom was elevated to Distinguished Visiting Professor at MIT, and spent even more time here. In 1998, he was on campus for two months giving a series of lectures on “open technological systems,” which he defined as ones exhibiting “a complex mix of technical, economic, political, social, and environmental factors.” His favorite example was the Central Artery and Tunnel (CAT, better known as Boston’s “Big Dig”), with Fred Salvucci playing the role as chief system-builder. The CAT, along with the SAGE computer-based defense system and ARPANET, were featured in Tom’s book “Rescuing Prometheus” (1998), an influential cluster of case studies of open technological systems.

In a 2002 email to Philip Khoury (then dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences) requesting a renewal of his visiting appointment, Tom wrote: “I am so pleased to have the MIT appointment. For years, even decades, I have felt close to MIT, sharing its notable achievements and sensing its problems and opportunities.”

He went on to explain why he felt this closeness: “Over the years, I have tried to understand the character of the engineering profession and, in a limited way, broaden its horizons by helping it to see the central role and daunting responsibilities that it has in the modern world. Engineers lament that they are not appreciated. They do not need the appreciation of others so much as they need secure self-esteem. This would come, I believe, if they accepted the messy complexity and moral dimensions of their calling.”

Technology as a part of a broader human history

Tom was already engaged with the problems and opportunities of engineering when I first met him in the mid-1960s, as a Radcliffe College senior serving him as a research assistant. I enjoyed visiting Tom to discuss my assignments, but the questions he asked me to research were sober and difficult. The imprint of World War II was pronounced. He was already studying the Manhattan Project as an engineering project, a topic he later wrote about in “American Genesis.” He was also, with obvious emotional difficulty, trying to understand the mechanisms of slaughter used in the Holocaust. Many years later I heard him discuss in a seminar the concept of “technological sin” as something both historians and engineers need to contemplate, because the historical world is a sinful one. 

Like William Barton Rogers himself, Tom Hughes came to MIT from Virginia with a vision of what technology and engineering mean in the broad context of human experience. Providing scholarly grounding for that vision was a difficult problem — but Tom would quote Sperry to the effect that he chose the most difficult problems because doing this was a way to avoid vulgar competition.

It took Tom many years in the academic wilderness to redefine technological systems and engineering practice as part of larger history. These views do not come naturally to MIT. We have too much invested in defining engineering as a specialized or semispecialized activity that brings order and moral clarity to the world. But engineering cannot assume “the central role and daunting responsibilities that it has in the modern world” unless we confront its messy complexities and moral ambiguities. They inevitably arise because engineering is inseparable from political, economic, social, and legal structures and activities. By reminding us of this broad historical perspective, Tom Hughes, MIT non-lifer, made an immeasurable contribution to the life of the Institute.

_________________________________________________________________________________

Prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Communication and Design Director: Emily Hiestand
Associate News Manager: Kathryn O’Neill
Communications Assistant: Kierstin Wesolowski 

By School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

In search of transparency

September 30, 2014

Scientists and government officials have a pressing responsibility to create transparent public debates about our use of technology, the noted former military analyst and whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg said in a public lecture at MIT on Monday afternoon.

Citing Francis Bacon’s dictum that “science should exclusively benefit humanity,” Ellsberg noted that the presence of nuclear weapons and the ongoing threat posed by climate change now mean that we must also confront the potentially harmful consequences of progress. And yet, he asserted, a culture of secrecy prevents a fully informed public from weighing in on vital matters such as nuclear proliferation.

“This secrecy threatens our extinction, or, I would say, near-extinction,” Ellsberg declared.

Ellsberg’s talk, on “The Future of Secrecy, Democracy, and Humanity,” was the annual Morison Prize Lecture sponsored by MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society (STS). He gave his remarks before a crowd of about 200 people in Wong Auditorium.

Speaking at great length about nuclear arms, Ellsberg sharply criticized war planning that involves exchanges of hundreds of missiles — which, he said, often assumes hundreds of millions of civilian deaths, at a minimum. Ellsberg said that scientists who understand the planet-altering effects of such scenarios should continue to voice their concerns about the issue, and expressed disappointment that no government officials with access to such military plans had brought the scenarios directly into the public eye.

“Let’s see the actual plans and see what the [public] impact would be,” Ellsberg said.

Public disapproval of such scenarios, Ellsberg added, could help reduce arms stockpiles and make all nuclear scenarios, including responses to false alarms, less likely.

“If democracy doesn’t have a future, then humanity doesn’t have a future,” Ellsberg said.

Ellsberg was a visiting research fellow at MIT’s Center for International Studies when, in 1971, he leaked to The New York Times classified material about the Vietnam War now known as the “Pentagon Papers.” The documents helped reveal the government’s own understanding of the difficulties inherent in winning the war. Ellsberg was arrested for leaking the information, but the case against him was dismissed in 1973.

However, Ellsberg included himself as one of those who has not pushed hard enough for transparency in civic life. He told the audience that his greatest regret in life was not making public, during the 1964 presidential campaign, information about President Lyndon Johnson’s aims in Vietnam. Ellsberg was then an analyst in the Department of Defense.

“I knew the president was planning a wider war,” Ellsberg claimed on Monday. Had he released those documents, he said, “ I do not believe there would have been a Vietnam War.”

What a difference 40 years makes

Ellsberg’s public profile has risen recently in connection with highly publicized incidents involving former Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, who released a trove of documents on the Iraq War, and former government contractor Edward Snowden, who released documents about the National Security Agency’s ability to monitor electronic communications.

When he leaked the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg said, “I expected to go to prison for the rest of my life.” In Manning and Snowden, Ellsberg added, he recognized the same kind of expectation. However, Ellsberg added, he had advantages that today’s informants lack, including a greater federal tolerance for informants — Ellsberg was released from prison while awaiting trial — and less governmental capacity to monitor communications.

He sounded a wary note about the latter issue. While “we don’t live in a police state,” Ellsberg said, people should be concerned about living in a society in which all the communications of citizens, including lawmakers, can potentially be reconstructed.

“Can there be independent branches [of government] when one branch knows every detail of everybody … in the other branches?” Ellsberg asked. Abstract though such concerns might sound, he added, the public should be invested in preserving its liberties to the fullest extent possible.

“If there is a chance of changing this situation, it can be done by pressure from the public on Congress,” he added.

The annual lecture is named after Elting Morison, an MIT faculty member for 35 years and a founder of the STS program, who wrote extensively about technology and military history. It is funded by a gift from Morison’s family along with the Hitchiner Manufacturing Company.
By Peter Dizikes, MIT News Office