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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 operater. And then he responded to American‘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 study Edison as to try to understand the essence of the American character, at least for me.

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 World War One and World War Two 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 whom we saw the destructive face of technology.

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 possesion 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 heared 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.

Edison's first professional laboratorytat Menlo Park, N.J, reconstructed in Greenfield Village (Henry Ford Museum), Dearborn, Mi.

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 momen: 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. We live in a world structured by the systems as these independent inventors, most of them Americans and most of them men, I can‘t think of a major woman flourishing as an independent inventor in the late 19th century. Well they initiated these systems and then after the systems were established, lets take electrical light and power, large corperations began to manufacture the componants of these systems. Like General Electric Company, Siemens in Germany for example, AEG in Germany. So large companies were now manufacturing the componants of the systems that Edison and other independant 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 Labotary 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 labatories 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 accumulative 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. So the large companies, one of these accumalatively improves, so a new kind of person comes onto the scene and that is the industrial scientist. So the independent inventors are pushed into the background.

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, imaginativ,e 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, the major difference is by 1900 because of the development of technology we were able to remake the world into these circumstances according to the circumstances by which we wish 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, I‘m speaking of the Edisonian type inventors. 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 I don‘t think they realised the responsibility they had for the world they were creating.

Guilelmo Marconi's Wireless Telegraph Station, New Scotland, 1903

What was the role of the military in this context?

TPH: Well, Edison in electric light and power systems, Edison was not dependent on the military for funding. Electric light and power systems were not financed by the military, the wireless the radio was funded mostly by the military. This in the period of 1900 to 1910 when Marconi, Fessenden and De Forest and others were bringing radio into use. Much of the support came from the military, not only in the United States but in England and also in Germany. Why was that? For one thimg the navy was extremely interested, because ships at sea could only communicate over the ether, they called it then. And so the navy was very active in supporting wireless. Some of the navy captains didn‘t like this, the captains of the ship, because formerly when a ship put out to sea the captain was off orders from his higher echelon, from his commanding officers. He was the captain on the ship, out at sea, he was the master of all he surveyed, but once wireless came into being the command centers on shore could communicate with the captain and tell him what to do. So some of the captains were not too happy about the introduction of wireless. But wireless allowed for naval ships to be coordinated and controlled more effectively.

Telefunkenstation auf einem amerikanischen Doppeldecker

So feed back became more important for rulership and command ...

TPH: Absolutely, and also the British Empire invented and developed in order to control and coordinate the far flung colonies that belonged to Britain. So wireless was very important for the tying together of the various colonies that made up the British Empire and also the German colonies and the German Homeland. So wireless was supported by governments and was supported by the military to a greater extent than lets say was electricity, which was a consumer good.

What happened with regards to electricity in the 20s, the post war years?

TPH: After the war the major developments were associated with the electrical grid, that is the creation of electric power systems, that spread across in the United States, across much of the country. And this was true in Germany too.

And so the carrying of the electricity into the countryside was very important in the period between the two world wars because initially electricity as lighting was concentrated in the cities. But then after World War One it began to spread onto the countryside because of the ways, which were found to create large power networks, what we call grids now, that made it possible to reach rural areas. So this, the development of the grid, oh and then in this country between the two world wars the development of the Tennessee Valley Authority. The development of the Tennessee Valley Authority, which was an effort to stimulate the economic development of a poverty stricken area through the use of electrical power and through the making of navigatable rivers and the restoring of the land and the reforesting of the land. The Tennessee Valley Authority was a great project initiated during the depression in The United States to bring prosperity to one of the most poverty stricken areas. And electrical power was a major part of that plan. This was 1933 and into the late 30s. And ironically the great damms, that were built to provide hydro electric power in the Tennessee Valley, these great damms and the hydro electric power supplied much of the energy, that made it possible to develop the uranium that was used in World War Two and used in the atom bombs. So electrical power that was used to bring economic improvement to a valley, ultimately was used for destructive purposes.

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 automobil 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.

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.

But how is this related to electricity?

TPH: In the case of electricity one of the most stimulating challenges for the control engineer is to control this force that cannot be seen; and this electricity is not only a challenge for those who wish to control technology, to control electricity, but also electricity is one of the most effective ways of controlling machines. Most control devices are electrical. So electricity is a challenge to the person who wishes to control it and electricity is a means for controlling. For example on great battle ships in World War One electricity was used to find out where the enemy was located and then electricity was used to automatically control the great guns that were layed down on position to fire upon the enemy. Electricity was essential to the functioning of large battle ships because of the way it was used to control the great guns and the gun fire. So it‘s a major motive control is electricity, is today. Is today, you look around your house. Many of your control devices are, your thermastats are electrical devices, those things that control your heat are electrical devices. In the automobile, most of the controls in the automobile are electrical.

Can system builders be artists?

TPH: I don‘t have the impression that artists are as determined to have control as are the system builders in the realm of technology. As a matter of fact, after World War Two major artists, such as the abstract expressionist,s made a point of doing art that exhibited no control. For example Pollock‘s drip painting is an example of no control painting. The artists were reacting against the controls of the system builders. The artists were reacting against the military industrial universe complex and the artists, again I‘m thinking primarily of the abstract expressionists, thought control was the essence of negative technology. So art should not exhibit control, it should be anti-control. And John Cage, the highly imaginative American composer, was famous for his compositions that involved no control of the musicians. Music without a score, again to avoid control. And so no I don‘t think of artists as system builders. Now the relation between artists and inventors is much closer but not all inventors are system builders. Some are like Edison, Edison was a system builder, but the other inventors don‘t have a system building chacteristics.

A film strip as c
ontrol device of the first digital computer
In 1943, Konrad Zuse has built the Z3 without military support in his parent's kitchen

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 have to solve problems sets, is everything controlled but not in reality, not in practice. 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.

What do you think was the main outcome from the war for the history of technology focusing on electronics?

TPH: The Germans early in the 19th century had a very concise and effective way of describing electricity. There was "Starkstrom" which was heavy electricity and there was "Schwachstrom" which was light electricity. And strong electricity is electrical power and electrical lighting. That‘s heavy electricity, light electricity is a telegraph and the wireless and radio and the electricity that energizes computers and so forth. Well heavy electricity, Starkstrom, had reached a plateau by WWII. The developments in power and light were not dramatic after about 1925-1930.

Dotation of a semi-conductor
around 1955 ©SiemensForumMunich

And the radical new technology involving electricity was in the field of Schwachstrom, that is again radar is electrical and also communications is electrical and also computers are energized by electricity but that‘s relatively small ammounts of electricity. But so electricity after WWII is becoming a means of control and a means of communication not a source of energy. It still is a source of energy but the radical new developments are in control and communication. And that requires a different kind of engineer than the old engineer. When I went to engineering school we studied electric power and light. Ten years later we‘re studying communications and control in the electrical field. And now electrical engineering departments are responsible for the development in computers. And so it‘s still electricity but it‘s character has changed dramatically in the last 50, 75 years..

Can one say, that the military was responsible for the development of semi-conductor technology?

TPH: Again we‘re focusing on the shift from electric power and light over to electric communications and control. And control in communications brings us into the computer field. In the United States, where the computer was developed most impressively, I know I‘ve used an important word, but in the United States it was used the most impressively because of the large amount of money that was spent on computers. The military funded the development of the first large scale digital computers. The first large scale digital general purposes they described a computer was developed near where I‘m sitting, I‘m sitting in Philadelphia, and the first large scale general purposes digital computer was developed at the university of Pennsylvania and funded by the army. And then after the war the air force, the American Air Force, funded one of the next major computers the computer called the wirlwind computer which was developped at the MIT. It was developped as a control computer. Computers can calculate and do scientific analysis but they can also control. They can control devices. And the wirlwind computer which was developped at MIT was designed to control aircraft that would intercept invading aircraft. Control american aircraft that were reacting to stop invading aircraft. Those days it was thought to be russian aircraft, soviet aircraft. So it was a control, it controlled the airplane. And some of the airplanes designed then were automatic, they had no pilots. And this great computer would calculate the direction that the incoming aircraft were taking and the speed of the incoming aircraft and then it would calculate how these american incoming aircraft would fly in order to stop the incoming aircraft. That‘s a control device, it‘s an electric device.

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..

Is technological progress still related to the military?

TPH: Now the computer industry is not funded by the military. Not. In the United States the largest investments in research and development lay in medical research. Now it‘s government funded, the medical research, from the national institute of health. But it‘s not military. No the military now is not playing now in 2001 is not playing a major role in research and development of technology. For the 30 years after the war from 1945 to 1975 it was the military was a major source of computer development, of aviation development, of control devices. It‘s a long list that the military funded. Could it have been done without the military? We‘ll never know. .

How can we find a positive and more civil attitude in technology?

TPH: Well, in the United States as I said for the last 30 years the military has not played the major funding role it played in the first 30 years after WWII. So the military is not the major player it once was in research and development. Now, this point that Parrow makes, Charles Perrow, about systems failing. He, Parrow is primarily concerned about systems that are hierarchical.Systems that are shaped like a pyramid where there‘s one controlling group or in some cases perhaps an individual controlling at the top of the pyramid .So if something happens to this peak, the system collapses. So there is a great danger in a system that was hierarchically controlled. An electric power system, a telephone system, a weapons system. There was a great danger in these hierarchical systems but the internet is not an hierarchical system. The internet is a distributed system. The control of the internet is spread over many many many nodes as they‘re called. There‘s no central point in the internet where contol is located. There‘s no central point at which the internet is controlled and this is distributed control. And there‘s much less danger that a control that‘s distributed will collapse as Charles Parrow the sociologist feared that a hierarchical system would collapse when it‘s peak, say: gave way.
Well the Air Force funded the initial phase of the internet and the Air Force wanted a distributed not hierarchical centrailzed internet so if The United States should be attacked by soviet aircraft one bomb or several bombs couldn‘t destroy the system. Because the system was distributed. You knock out this point and there was a way of going around this point. You knock out this node and you find a way of going around this node. So the internet was designed to be distributed for military purpose,s but now persons who are very interested in having democratic control of systems are very happy that it is designed in that way. It is distributed. There‘s no central management of the internet anywhere. No one knows who is managing the internet in the total controlling sense. So maybe we should have more distributed networks.

The nuclear power station Three Mile Island, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

But remember: there are other dangers like f.e. aging, sloppery, corrosion ...

TPH: Yes we‘ve had some great failures. The atomic failure in Russia being probably the most dramatic. Then there were the black outs in New York when New York City lost electrical power. And then there was the terrible failure of The Challenger system, the NASA system where the people on board the space craft died. So there has been failures. Well Harrisburg is so near here and I live in Pensylvania it‘s hard to forget that. Yes there have been system failures. As you say systems get old and there are various weak points in the system.

Do you see a way out of this dangerous path,f.e. by recurring to Lewis Mumfords motto Small is beautiful?

TPH: There has long been a debate between those who say" small is beautiful" in technology and those who want to centralize technology. It‘s a very complex issue where there are no easy answers. I used to think that the way to go was small generating plants in the field of electricity for example. But certain economies of scale come with the creation of large systems. In theory at least and probably in practice. Electricity can be generated less expensively if the system is a large one. There are some complicated reasons for this, the load factor for example can be raised if you have a very large system. You raise the load factor, you lower the cost of electricity. So the economic reasons for the large scale system and also the problem of scale and expertise. If you have a number of small systems you have to have expertise and skill spread over a large area among many people. There‘s also the problem of expertise in skill and if you have many small plants one has to have skill operaters and expert operaters for many many small plants. You may not have that many experts and skilled people. So in the past by concentrating electrical light and power you could have a few experts and skilled people presiding over a very large system from a central point. And it‘s been found that if you have a number of small generating plants connected onto a large system, in other words: a distributed system, that often those plants are not well run. And if a small plant fails it can upset the whole system. And so engineers are very reluctant to have control of the system distributed over a large area, electrical engineers, they‘d rather have it concentrated where the experts and specialists are. So I think if we really wanted to go in the direction of small generating plants spread over an extensive area instead of a concentrated power system there‘d have to be a lot of new technology that would have to be developed in order to control that new form of electrical generation. So it wouldn‘t be simple, it wouldn‘t be easy to do it. If we invested a great deal of money into it, we might be able to distribute the electrical light and power sysem into smaller units. Yes it‘s possible. I think it would be very expensive and take a lot of time, but maybe we should do it.

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 what we call 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 you can‘t change it over night. But it will change if the pressures that are brought to bear are great enough.

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 desk top and the lap top 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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