V. Bush and the role of science in making new technologies

Vannevar Bush has rightly been credited as having marshaled American resources in science and technology to help create weapons (such as radar and the atomic bomb) that proved vital in World War II.  He translated those insights into his book, Science: The Endless Frontier, and fostered thinking in the policy realm that was simple and direct.  It was also wrong.

His book argues that the government should continue funding research efforts in science since new knowledge of natural phenomena will naturally lead to the development of new technologies.  He created an assembly line model of technological innovation: science comes in one door of the factory and it leaves as a spanking new technology through another.  The whole idea just made so much sense that it had to be true.

Several studies after World War II, some done by the National Science Foundation (which Bush helped create), have shown that science is but one input into the creation of new technology.  And in many cases, it isn’t even the most important one.

The development of the steam engine perhaps serves as the best counter-example of his model.  In 1712, Thomas Newcomen created the first commercially successful steam engine, and James Watt improved upon his design in 1769.  Obviously, these guys must have known a lot about thermodynamics, the science of heat and energy, just like they teach us in elementary physics textbooks today.  (I paid my way through grad school as a physics teaching assistant, so I’ve read my share of these textbooks.)   But wait a second; the development of  “modern” theories of heat and energy only came in the work of Sadi Carnot in 1824, more than a century after Newcomen had started selling his machines.  Moreover, Carnot wrote that he was motivated in this work because those crafty Brits had developed such a competitive advantage over the French in engine development.  He wanted to find a way to catch up to the British engine designers using some theory, which he started establishing.  In other words, the existence of a technology spurred the development of a field of science–not the other way around.

To be sure, some people have been motivated by science.  Rudolf Diesel actually sought to make a super-efficient internal combustion engine using the principles that Carnot devised.  But he quickly failed in this effort, though he ended up creating the machine that bears his name and which proved a huge commercial success nevertheless.

And from which scientific principle did the microwave oven come?  Which scientist developed it from scratch using sound scientific logic?  No one!  A self-educated engineer, Percy Spencer, apparently was working with a radar unit in 1945 and noticed that a candy bar in his pocket melted.  He ultimately traced the cause of the heating to the microwave beam in the radar equipment.  Eureka!  The microwave oven was born (even though the first ones were huge.)

In other words,  one can point to elements such as economics, markets, and plain luck as important inputs into modern technologies.  If you think of medicine as a form of technology, just consider how many new drugs have been created because someone accidentally noticed a connection between the ingestion of some natural substance and a positive medical outcome.  (For example, some tree bark relieves pain and headaches.  Other bark-derived substances cure cancers.)  Drug companies today systematically test the pharmacological effect of random substances to discover marketable substances since the scientific basis for many biological pathways simply doesn’t exist.

I’m not trying to detract from Bush’s ability to think creatively about how scientists could remake the modern world after having won World War II (or almost had when his article,  “As We May Think,” was published in July 1945).  He had great foresight and thought imaginatively about  new things people could one day do with hardware that enabled people to store information and enable rapid retrieval of it.  But he often gave too much credit to the scientists–those logical thinkers who knew how to go from point A to point B.  New technologies may sometimes benefit from such thinking, but often good luck and nonscientists’ perceptive behavior work just as well in spurring new technologies.

 

One thought on “V. Bush and the role of science in making new technologies”

  1. Point well-taken, especially from someone who teaches the history of technology! Many of us found Bush’s “left brain” approach remarkable, and we also talked about how non-scientists, including Otlet (lawyer) and Borges (author) envisioned a networked age before the more famous scientist.

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