Americans are enthusiasts for technology; this era saw a slew of system builders who aspire to order and control all aspects of a technology. The book surveys invention, spread, institutionalization and countercultural protest. To alien eyes, American translated simply to Fordism and Taylorism. All aspect of international culture have been influence by America.
1870-1970 compares favorably to other great eras of creativity in human history. It is the age of Edison, the Wrights, Bell, Marconi, Sperry, Maxim, Armstrong, and Tesla. There were independents, who were professionals and non-professionals, and machinists and model builders who played a very important part in the process. College trained science and chemistry grads served as assistants and collaborators.
The choice of problems suggests the character of the innovator: radical (entirely unsolved) problems led to system-originating inventions; by contrast, conservative choices led to system-improving inventions. Independents chose problems freely (Bell, the Wrights, DeForest, Fessenden, Tesla). Professional inventors within companies chose problems that maximized company investments in systems or areas. Hughes gives the metaphor of the salient/reverse salient - the uneven development of a field and the critical issues which yield big results. Most inventors found eureka moments and used metaphorical thinking to solve problems. Funding was then, as now, a problem which also required creativity and sociability and publicity.
In 1880 the British Admiralty began sending specifications to inventors and companies, starting the modern military-industrial complex. Examples include the steam turbine which transformed the steam ship engine room, the Wright brother's plane, the Maxim gun (which practically had to be forced on the American military). Sperry's gyros were widely adopted by the navy. Not all had success, but also adopted were the wireless. When WWI came along, Americans were involved in invention for the war effort. Illustrative are the kinds of tensions in the Naval Consulting Board, e.g. that Edison wanted large manufacturing-testing facilities while others (from AT&T) wanted only a space to do math and analysis. Of interest is the fact that the Sperrys tested a gyro aerial torpedo bomb in 1916, 2 decades before the German V-1. The Sperrys developed gunfire control mechanisms and had a long and fruitful relationship with the Navy.
Independent inventors were bought out by corporations who also invested in patents and R&D. An inventor-entrepreneur generalist was replaced by a team of specialists. Craft was replaced by theory. Illustrations of this point include Armstrong's feedback circuit for radio transmission. AT&T Labs fiercely defended its patents and insisted on patent-oriented inventions stemming from basic research. Other illustrations include GE labs which were influenced by German dye company models. They recruited professors and graduates. The Whitney bio tells of the pressures to produce. Dupont had to buy its inventions, despite having a lab, when it entered the dyestuffs field. Later came nylon. System building came from independents because problem choice was unconstrained, but system changes needed industrial-sized investments.
Mass consumption, free enterprise and capitalism were fertile grounds for system builders. These system builders were as important as inventors and scientists. Key figures are Frederick Taylor, Henry Ford and Samuel Insull Taylor designed human-efficiency work patterns. His most important book is the 1911 Principles of Scientific Managment and his key method was a combination of task-planning and motion studies. He rationalized all parts of the in-factory system (and idealized the employer employee relationship). Ford's system was characterized, too, by flow innovations and higher pay; he himself experienced a decline (in power and popularity) as a manager. Auto building and petrol refining spread out and became a system. Thermal cracking in 1909-13 and fluidized catalytic cracking in 1941 were important steps in the process.
Comparable to gas is the electric light system pioneered by Insull. Insull is, Hughs thinks, wrongly painted as a villain. He founded Chicago Edison and became the world's leading utility in 1910. He worked with suppliers, other companies and regulators to build up a system. He had in mind large quantities at low cost for the public, and to do so smooth flow and load management were crucial. A note is the Thorsten Veblem Soviets of Engineers.
Ford and Taylor had a curious history of adoption and impact. Both the Nazis and the Soviets felt they had found a valuable theory. They saw Ford and Taylor's ideas as a way to modernize and standardize in broad strokes, while at the same time promising better conditions for the worker. It was the romance of the system, an infomercial writ large, a scientific secret with incredible results (!) Soviet electrification systems and Soviet factories were built at some significant human cost as the workers and users were certainly without the educational background necessary to interact with the new technologies easily and safely. Ford's anti-Semitism lent itself to German polemics, and more so, the technological sublime appealed to German sentiment: but not to all Germans, some of whom rejected American materialism.
Cultural responses were immediate and sharp. The second discovery of America came as the second industrial revolution brought mass production, giant industrial corporations, the industrial city and educated experts from universities. Social change, it was thought, should be planned by a technological elite. Hughes mentions here the neotechnic of Lewis Mumford and his vision of a future of pastoral decentralized production embedded in a power grid. His later works, it may be noted, are less optimistic. Artists from Germany and France reacted to the new machine aesthetic in architecture, painting and industrial design. Submission, awe, wonder, horror, rejection -- as above, the technological sublime.
Hughes offers the story of the TVA and the Manhattan Project in detail. They demonstrate the growth of the military-industrial complex and the difficulties of knowing what human consequence will come of a truly inspiringly big project. Hughes says that the Manhattan Project compares, in complexity and effort, to the pyramids, the cathedrals, palaces, canals, railroads, and any power-system anywhere.
After WWII and the dropping of the atom bomb, technology reached the apogee and lost its sublime. It was fearful, dark, demonic. The public eagerly read scientists and writers who warned against technology. Carson's Silent Spring or Elull's The Technological Society featured in public discourse. Mumford's later less optimistic works include the Pentagon of Power. Galileo is transformed from a hero to a villain, a man who transformed rich complexity into a wasteland of sterility. Hughes glosses 3-Mile Island and the Challenger disaster. Technology in America could take many future shapes, and he suggests that decentralization may occur in the States, while existing momentum ensures that the next big technological change may occur elsewhere. A court-side seat in the international arena makes for an interesting view.