Future historians will likely commemorate the current era as The Technological Revolution. The 20th century gave birth to electronics, computers, telecommunications, space exploration, medical technology, and materials engineering. The 21st century appears destined to extend the benefits of technology to almost all of the world’s people.
Sadly, not many people are interested in the history of technology. That's not surprising considering the Education Establishment's attitude towards history in general. History has been depicted by many educators, since the 1960s, as an irrelevant collection of names and dates (requiring only "rote memory"). This is what leads some people to assert that the Constitution of the United States (developed through intensive study of all known forms of government) is a "living, breathing" document. Well, I say history is about as relevant as anything could be—it is after all the human race's life story—and there are only two reasons to avoid it: intellectual laziness and the desire to prop up failed ideologies.
The history of technology teaches us how creative people acquire knowledge about the world and apply it to serve human needs. As technology advances, the easiest way for newcomers to learn about a technology will be to trace its historical development. The history of technology also tells us much about the workings of the natural world—often bringing new mysteries to our attention.
It’s crucial that we record the history of technology while the events are fresh, many of the leading actors are living, and fact can still be separated from myth.
Most children are taught in school that there is a single scientific method. It goes something like this: form a hypothesis, design an experiment to test the hypothesis, perform the experiment, and record and analyze the data. This is great if the only goal is to churn out laboratory technicians, but history shows that science owes much of its success to inspiration, theory, and serendipity.
Many people believe that we must either enforce “the scientific method” or return to the Dark Ages. This narrow view of science can only impede discovery and innovation. Charles Townes developed the laser in theory first. By the time he finally constructed a laser he wasn’t performing an experiment—he was already quite certain it would work. The laboratory bench may produce incremental advances, but technological breakthroughs come from the imagination.
History provides ample evidence that you do not need to be thoroughly scientific to be a great technologist. Raymond Damadian, inventor of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), is a young earth creationist. Damadian's unscientific views (re: creation) didn’t stop him from developing the first whole body MRI machine, but many believe those views kept him from winning a Nobel Prize.
Can history help people understand advanced technologies? Imagine that you know little or nothing about electronics but want to learn how mobile phones operate. An engineer can describe the essential components that comprise a mobile phone system and explain how each component does its job. Unfortunately, you will soon find yourself swimming in a sea of acronyms and jargon.
Alternatively, you can trace the mobile phone’s historical development. This approach starts with basic principles (e.g., the discovery of electromagnetic waves), shows how those principles were first put into practice, and continues to describe each incremental advance. The student’s understanding of advanced technology is slowly built layer upon layer, with everything presented in its natural context.
The history of technology, when properly told, includes essential elements that are often otherwise missing. Advanced technology is as much the result of business and market development as scientific progress. The typical mobile phone is what it is today not merely because it was possible, but because it was desirable. Douglas Ring invented cellular radio because the rapid growth of landline telephones suggested—at least to him and some of his colleagues at Bell Labs—a large future market for mobile telephones.
The history of technology also reminds us of the limits of our knowledge. There are advances we expected that haven’t come about such as videophones, household robots, and artificial intelligence. Videophones are technically and economically feasible; people simply aren’t ready for them. Robots are easy to build in theory, but not so easy to design and maintain in practice. Artificial intelligence has not advanced as rapidly as computing overall because AI proponents grossly underestimated what it would take to emulate human intelligence.
Technology is often defined as the application of knowledge. If that’s so, then the history of technology is not just a timeline of key events, but a window into human progress.
'Prisoner' actor Patrick McGoohan dies in LA
By ANDREW DALTON – 16 minutes ago
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Patrick McGoohan, an Emmy-winning actor who created and starred in the cult classic television show "The Prisoner," has died. He was 80.
McGoohan died Tuesday in Los Angeles after a short illness, his son-in-law, film producer Cleve Landsberg, said Wednesday.
McGoohan won two Emmys for his work on the Peter Falk detective drama "Columbo," and more recently appeared as King Edward Longshanks in the 1995 Mel Gibson film "Braveheart."
But he was best known as the title character Number Six in "The Prisoner," a surreal 1960s British series in which a former spy is held captive in a small village and constantly tries to escape.
Patrick McGoohan was not a scientist, but the two TV series he starred in (Secret Agent and The Prisoner) said quite a bit about the role of technology in modern society. More important, McGoohan's work celebrated individual freedom--an idea crucial to scientific and technological progress.
Upstream Theater in St. Louis recently presented Starry Messenger, a play about Galileo’s achievements, failures, and conflict with the Church.
Galileo’s life is an obvious choice for dramatization--perhaps too obvious. The clash between science and religion is a popular theme, but most treatments are simplistic and predictable. I’ll come back to this in a moment.
Starry Messenger does an admirable job describing Galileo’s philosophy and science. The two-person dramatization not only explains Galileo’s greatest discoveries, it provides insights concerning his temperament and creative spirit. The setting—Galileo is reunited with his daughter in our own time—provides the opportunity for both Galileo and the audience to assess the impact of his life and work.
The play manages to get across key concepts, such as the laws of the pendulum and phases of the moon, using just a few simple props. It also does justice to the Church, acknowledging that it allowed natural philosophers to discuss the heliocentric theory as long as they did not profess belief in it. Galileo could not stop himself from crossing that line.
There was an intellectual tension within the church that is missing from most accounts of Galileo’s (17th century) life. Judaism and Christianity were slowly evolving. Maimonides (12th century) proposed that religion must not contradict truths discovered through human inquiry. Aquinas (13th century) applied Maimonides’ thinking, analyzing arguments for and against each and every belief. But it was one thing to give reasons for accepted beliefs—and quite another to reject those beliefs based on facts and reason.
We should fight religious dogma that stands in the way of scientific progress. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that religion is the only source of mind-numbing dogma. Government, the Education Establishment, and even the Science Establishment also have their myths and dogmas.
An examination of the lives of other great scientists and inventors will make that abundantly clear. Creative and innovative individuals always meet resistance. Stories about how they overcame the obstacles make great drama.
But there is more to the story. Scientific discoveries are almost always accompanied by new puzzles. Yes. it would be nice to see a series of plays about great scientists and inventors. Not just about how they proved their opponents were wrong—but how they prompted nature to reveal her secrets, and how in the end we were confronted with even greater mysteries.