The Competitiveness of Nations

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April 2003

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Edwin T. Layton, Jr.

American Ideologies of Science and Engineering

Technology & Culture

Vol. 17, No. 4

October 1976


If we examine the ideologies of science and engineering that developed in the 19th and 20th centuries in America, we find not one but three different views of science and technology and, hence, of their interaction.  The ideologies are associated, respectively, with basic science, engineering science, and design.  Taken together the three ideologies suggest a relationship between science and engineering that has been remarkably like the relationship called “symbiosis” in organic nature. [1]  In symbiosis two different organisms live together in a mutually beneficial relationship.  Science and engineering are different social organisms; each constitutes a distinctive subculture with its own membership and values, its own rituals and beliefs.  But both engineering and science inhabit the world of matter and energy.  Being different organisms, they use this world in different ways.  Less obviously, they also perceive it differently.  Each claims a body of knowledge properly called “science.”  But in this case the same word designates two (or perhaps three) distinct bodies of knowledge.  While distinct, they are not totally different; there are curious symmetries which link the two to a common physical reality and to each other.  Finally, the relationship has been highly beneficial to both parties.  The remarkable dynamism of Western science and technology owes much to the mutual stimulation that each has provided the other.

While each ideology incorporates important truths, if taken separately any of the ideologies will obscure the relationship between science and technology.  The scientific ideology is the most familiar and most influential.  It has been accepted as fact and incorporated into both the conventional wisdom and the scholarship of our age.  Vannevar Bush was the most important spokesman for this view; by his agency it came to constitute the foundation for important public policies dealing with science.  His views were expressed in his

DR. LAYTON, of the University of Minnesota, was awarded the Dexter Prize of the Society for the History of Technology for his book The Revolt of the Engineers.

1. The use of “symbiosis” to explain science-technology relations is also found in M. Gibbons and C. Johnson, “Relationship between Science and Technology,” Nature 227 (July 11, 1970): 125-27.

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influential report as director of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development.  It is worth quoting at some length:

Basic research leads to new knowledge.  It provides scientific capital.  It creates the fund from which the practical applications of knowledge must be drawn.  New products and new processes do not appear full-grown.  They are founded on new principles and new conceptions, which in turn are painstakingly developed by research in the purest realms of science.

Today, it is truer than ever that basic research is the pacemaker of technological progress.  In the nineteenth century, Yankee mechanical ingenuity building largely upon the basic discoveries of European scientists, could greatly advance the technical arts.  Now the situation is different.

A nation which depends upon others for its new basic scientific knowledge will be slow in its industrial progress and weak in its competitive position in world trade, regardless of its mechanical skill.[2]

In short, the scientific ideology interprets a symbiotic relationship as a case of intellectual parasitism.

It is important to realize that the term “science” has at least two distinct meanings, and that scientists and engineers often use it quite differently.  In its older usage in English, “science” often meant anything that had to be learned, such as sewing or horseback riding.  But by the 17th and 18th centuries, it had come to be associated with systematic knowledge, including that associated with a craft.  In other words, “science” included technology.  This broad usage of “science” is continued in German with the term “wissenschaft” which may apply to any systematic knowledge, such as linguistics or history.  In the course of the 19th century, “science” took on its modern, narrow meaning, as the body of knowledge generated by scientists.  The last term, “scientist,” was coined by Whewell when the older term “natural philosopher” became obsolete in an age of increasing professionalization.  Now engineers often use the term “science” in its older meaning as including technology, whereas scientists tend to use it in its more restricted, modern sense.

Purely semantic differences are real, and they have often led to confusion.  But ideological forces are at work also. [3]  The scientific ideology expressed by Bush may be traced back at least as far as

2. Vannevar Bush, Science, The Endless Frontier: A Report to the President (Washington, D.C., 1945), pp. 13-14.

3. For a discussion of the nature of professional ideologies, see Howard S. Becker and James W. Carper, “The Development of Identification with an Occupation,” American Journal of Sociology 61 (January 1956): 289-98.


Joseph Henry, one of the “founding fathers” of science as a profession in America. [4]  Henry’s arguments read superficially like the statements of modern ideologists such as Vannevar Bush.  Henry insisted that “every mechanic art is based upon some principle of one general law of nature.” [5]  Like Bush, Henry wished to establish the legitimacy and importance of basic science.  And there can be no doubt that Henry wanted to show that technological progress is derived from and totally dependent on science.  But Henry’s position differed in subtle ways from the modern one.  His basic distinction was between “art” and “science.”  His term “science” should be understood in its older, broader meaning.  In particular, his usage makes it clear that he included in that term the theoretical or rational parts of technology and engineering. [6]

But Henry’s paper was also ideological.  This is particularly true of Henry’s insistence that all progress in art (or practice) depends on prior advances in theory.  It is, perhaps, needless today to point out that this notion will not stand historical scrutiny.  Henry lived and worked in an age when technological progress was highly regarded, but pure science was not.  The young professor at Albany Academy struggled to find time, support, and social approval for natural philosophy.  It is not surprising, therefore, to find Henry defending the legitimacy and importance of basic science.  Henry’s magnification of the importance of pure science is precisely the sort of thing that we find in all professional ideologies.  Indeed, the stress on basic science continues to this day to be the central theme of scientific ideology.  It is clearly the source of our current theory of the relations of science and technology.

What is surprising, however, is to find American engineers endorsing what appears to be the scientific ideology.  Thus, Thomas C. Clarke in his presidential address before the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1896 presented a version of science-technology relations that Vannevar Bush might have endorsed.  Clarke held that “science is the discovery and classification of the laws of nature.  Engineering… is the practical application of such discovered laws.” [7]  Rather confus

4. Henry’s most definitive statement was the one included in his collected papers, entitled “The Improvement of the Mechanical Arts” (see Joseph Henry, Scientific Writings of Joseph Henry, 2 vols. [Washington, D.C., 1886], 1: 306-24).  Nathan Reingold has recently shown that this represents one of a series of statements by Henry (see Nathan Reingold et al. eds., The Papers of Joseph Henry, December 1797-October 1832, The Albany Years [Washington, D.C., 1972], 1:163-79, 380-97).

5. Reingold et al., p. 383.

6. Ibid., pp. 384-85; Henry, 1:315.

7. Thomas C. Clarke, “Science and Engineering,” Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers 35 (July 1896): 508.

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ingly, Clarke also claimed that “engineering is the great creative science.” [8]  Clarke’s address is not untypical. American engineers of the latter 19th and 20th centuries often portrayed their role as that of applied scientists, though sometimes with some seemingly contradictory qualifications.  This is not what one might expect of a professional ideology for engineers.  One would expect engineers to magnify the importance of their profession at the expense of related disciplines.

The statements of engineers which seem to endorse the scientists’ view of science-technology relationships make more sense when it is realized that engineers often given the term “science” a different meaning than do scientists.  This is also true of terms like “theory” and “laws of nature.”  Nor do engineers accept the priority of theory over practice that such statements would seem to imply.

American engineers in the 19th century developed their own theory of the relations between science and technology.  Among the most important were Benjamin F. Isherwood and Robert Thurston. [9]  Both were pioneers in the development of a distinctive science for engineering.  Both found it necessary to reject the idea that engineering science could be reduced to the application of the laws of basic science to engineering.  But they did not reject science.  They saw themselves, quite properly, as scientists, and they were aware of the many benefits which technology might derive from a close association with science.  Their procedure, therefore, was to redefine “science” in a way that brought it into closer correspondence with engineering science.

Benjamin F. Isherwood, chief engineer of the U.S. Navy during the Civil War, was led to examine the relations of science and technology by the cutoff controversy.  Would-be inventors made extravagant claims for devices incorporating an early cutoff in the expansive use of steam.  These claims rested on deductive arguments based upon the law of Mariotte and Boyle, and for this reason the dispute led to the philosophical issues of the nature of science and its relationship to engineering.

Isherwood’s objection to the application of scientific laws to engineering was that they represented an abstraction and idealization

8. Ibid., p. 518.

9. Their role has been recently studied by David F. Channell, a graduate student in the program in the History of Science and Technology at Case Western Reserve University; see David F. Channell, “The Cut-Off Controversy” (unpublished seminar paper, December 12, 1971), and “Engineering Science and the Interaction of Science and Technology” (unpublished seminar paper, December 15, 1972).

10. Channell “Cut-Off Controversy,” pp. 3-4; see also Edward William Sloan III, Benjamin Franklin Isherwood, Naval Engineer (Annapolis, Md., 1965), pp. 82-90.


which could not possibly describe the actual world of steam engines.  “The whole theory,” he maintained, “is based upon a pure and simple abstraction, that of the idea of perfect elasticity in gases and vapors unaffected by any of the conditions of matter or of the steam engine.” [11]  He insisted on “the fallacy and fault of ignoring the physical conditions of a practical problem.” [12]  He denounced the use of “imaginary assumptions that can only end in a vain parade of misdirected skills.” [13]

Drawing upon Scottish commonsense philosophy and Baconian empiricism, Isherwood proceeded to develop his own idea of the nature of science.  He held that there were two ways to construct a theory, through either deduction or induction.  The theory of expansion based upon Mariotte’s law failed, he thought, because it employed the wrong approach to science: it was deductive, and started with an a priori idealization and abstraction of the idea of perfect elasticity.  To Isherwood, “the true method of constructing a sound theory on any subject in physical science, is to commence by ascertaining the value of every quantity by direct measurement.” [14]  He insisted that “we must not seek for physical truths in metaphysical abstractions, but in the connection subsisting among natural phenomena.” [15]

Isherwood proceeded to a positivistic critique of the nature of natural laws.  Following Hume, Isherwood held that while the language of causation was sometimes convenient, in fact “an inquiry into causes is altogether vain and futile.”  He concluded that “science has no concern but with the discovery of laws,” and these laws were “merely generalized facts.”  Laws were to be discovered by inductive measurement, the reduction of data to tables, and “from these tables we can form general laws by gradually rising from particulars to generals.” [16]

Isherwood’s philosophy had the effect of making science correspond more closely to engineering science.  He acknowledged that his own work was simply “a collection of original engineering statistics with the general laws deduced from them.”  But he insisted that “science is nothing but a similar collection of statistics.” [17]  Isherwood similarly imputed to science a strongly utilitarian cast.  To him sound

11. Benjamin F. Isherwood, Experimental Researches in Steam Engineering, 2 vols. (Philadelphia, 1863), 1:140.

12. Ibid., p. xxv.

13. Ibid., p. xiv.

14. lbid., pp. 139-40.

15. Ibid., p. 139.

16. lbid., pp. 139-40.

17. Ibid p. xiv.

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theory consisted of “the whole of the knowledge we possess on any subject, put in such order and form that we can make a reliable practical application of it.” [18]  While Isherwood was proposing to limit drastically the idea of science and general law in one direction, he was expanding it in another.  The general laws which he had deduced from his statistical tables were not statements about nature at all but rather rules for the design of a man-made object.  In short, Isherwood incorporated engineering principles into the laws of science.

While Isherwood thought engineering science was an integral part of science, he thought of it as a distinct and autonomous discipline.  He used a sort of “uncertainty principle” to distinguish between “pure science” and engineering.  In “pure science,” Isherwood noted, a single “positive instance” might suffice.  But engineering deals with complicated situations in which the effects “are the joint production of many natural causes and are influenced by a variety of circumstances,” so that engineers must generalize “not from single facts but from ‘groups of facts.’”  In addition, engineering must be concerned with scale effects and the conditions of practice.  “A fact, to be of practical authority in engineering,” Isherwood held, “must be derived from experiments made on the scale and under the conditions of actual practice.” [19]  Implicit in Isherwood’s arguments was the assumption that engineers dealt with machines, which set bounds on their work.  Their investigations must, of necessity, be less abstract and idealized.  Engineers cannot eliminate the complex interactions of physical factors which take place in machines.  Scale effects and other circumstances cannot be neglected by engineers studying such devices.  Thus, engineering science must differ somewhat from physics.

Isherwood was a pioneer in developing the scientific approach to engineering.  But in the following generation it became more widespread.  Perhaps no one person better personified this change than Robert Thurston.  Among his most lasting achievements was the creation of scientific institutions for technology analogous to those of science.  He was a pioneer advocate of the establishment of engineering-research laboratories in connection with schools of engineering.  He made important contributions to one of the emerging engineering sciences, the strength of materials.  He was very active in the early development of both the American Institute of Civil Engineers, and he was one of the four founders of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 1880.  Thurston did not despise theoretical studies; he translated Carnot’s classic treatise in thermodynamics

18. Ibid., p. 139.

19. Ibid. p. xiv.


into English. [20]  But he remained skeptical concerning the application of theory to practice.  His own A Manual of the Steam Engine, published in 1891, was notably more practical and less theoretical than W. J. M. Rankine’s earlier A Manual of the Steam Engine and Other Prime Movers.  In his introduction, Thurston commented: “The treatise of Professor Rankine, now ranked among the noblest of the engineer’s classics, was published in 1859.  The author [Thurston] then just out of college… probably like many other young engineers, read the work with avidity, anticipating that it might give him an applied theory of the heat engines, and guide in their design and proportioning.  But the results of thermodynamic computation were in such evident disaccord with the practice of the time that he threw it aside as disappointing and misleading.” [21]  Thurston’s objection was to excessive abstraction; Rankine had studied the ideal engine, but he was concerned with the theory of the “real engine.” [22]

Thurston’s ideas were influential, not merely because of his many technical treatises, but also because he was a pioneer in developing a distinct ideology for American engineers in the 1880s.  He bears much responsibility for the fact that American engineers adopted a self-image as applied scientists.  Thurston was aware of Isherwood’s work, but the precise degree of influence is difficult to determine.  But Thurston and Isherwood agreed in certain fundamentals.  Both saw technology as an integral but distinct part of science.  Both thought of science in Baconian terms as empirical and utilitarian. [23]

Rather positivistic, Baconian definitions of both “science” and “theory” continued to be frequent in discussions by American engineers well into the 20th century.  Frederick W. Taylor, the founder of scientific management, privately endorsed a sweeping denunciation by one of his followers, Scudder Klyce, of all theoretical physics from Newton to thermodynamics. [24]  Clearly, mathematical theory was not at the core of what he considered science.  He was honestly puzzled when some critics questioned the scientific nature of his system of management.  His work was highly empirical and involved arbitrary assumptions - for example, the time needed for “necessary rest.”  But he asserted that this was also true for “all other sciences.” [25]

20. William F. Durand, Robert Henry Thurston (New York, 1929).

21. Robert H. Thurston, A Manual of the Steam Engine (New York, 1891), pp. vii-viii (cited in Channel!, “Engineering Science,” pp. 2 1-22.

22. Thurston, p. 281.

23. On Thurston’s role in the development of an ideology for engineers, see Edwin T. Layton, Jr., The Revolt of the Engineers (Cleveland, 1971), p. 55; on his view of science, see Robert H. Thurston, “The Mission of Science,” Proceedings A.A.A.S. 33 (1884): 23 1-32.

24. Layton, pp. 142-43.

25. Ibid., p. 141.

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Isherwood, Thurston, and Taylor were all pioneers of what might be called “engineering science.”  They were part of a broad movement, particularly noteworthy in the 19th century, to recast engineering knowledge into a form analogous to science.  Among the results o this tendency were the formation of professional societies similar to those of science, the foundation of research journals, the creation of research laboratories, and the adaptation of both the mathematical theory and the experimental methods of science to the needs of engineering.

In anthropological terms, we can say they were involved in a task akin to the diffusion of knowledge from one culture (or subculture) to another.  That is, they transplanted science from its home its philosophy to technology.  But the process resembled what anthropologists call “stimulus diffusion” where instead of a direct imitation, the knowledge that something can be done stimulates people in different culture to do it also, but in their own distinctive way.

Engineering science often differs from basic science in important particulars.  Engineering sciences often drop the fundamental ontology of natural philosophy, though on practical rather than metaphysical grounds.  Thus, in solid mechanics, engineers deal with stresses in continuous media rather than a microcosm of atoms and forces.  Engineering theory and experiment came to differ from those of physic because it was concerned with man-made devices rather than directly with nature.  Thus, engineering theory often deals with idealization of machines, beams, heat engines, or similar devices.  And the result of engineering science are often statements about such devices rather than statements about nature.  The experimental study of engineering involves the use of models, testing machines, towing tanks, wind tunnels, and the like.  But such experimental studies involve scale effects.  From Smeaton onward we find a constant concern with comparing the results gained with models with the performance of full-scale apparatus.  By its very nature, therefore, engineering science is less abstracted and idealized; it is much closer to the “real” world of engineering.  Thus, engineering science often differs from basic science in both style and substance.  Generalizations about “science” based on one will not necessarily apply to the other. [26]

Though most engineers have been willing to accept an identification as applied scientist, there has been at least some dissent.  There is, in fact, a second engineering ideology, which defines the engineer’s role in terms of design, which may or may not be consid-

26. Edwin T. Layton, Jr., “Mirror-Image Twins: The Communities of Science and Technology in 19th-Century America,” Technology and Culture 12 (October 1971) 562-80.


ered a part of “science.”  Indeed, most engineering publications and most engineering practice are probably better understood in terms of design than science.

An example of the ideological use of “design” by engineers is provided by an address by William McClellan to the American Institute of Electrical Engineers in 1913.  McClellan argued that engineering came from the merger of two distinct traditions, the practical or mechanical on the one hand and the theoretical or scientific on the other.  In this typology, then, there were three types of engineers: the applied scientist, the mechanic, and the designer.  McClellan called the last the “real engineer.” [27]  McClellan’s views represent a minority view in engineering which has appeared and reappeared from time to time.  But it rests on solid foundations; the membership standards adopted for professional grades of membership by leading engineering societies are based on the “ability to design.”  “Design” has never displaced “scientist” or “applied scientist” for several reasons.  Obviously, much of the impetus to modern engineering has, indeed, come from science.  There are also ideological reasons for the use of “science” by engineers.  Engineers, at least until very recently, were not concerned with maintaining a sharp distinction between themselves and scientists.  These two groups were scarcely in competition.  The struggles for professional identification and loyalty have centered on drawing a distinction between engineers and technicians or businessmen.  Second, science has traditionally been a high-status occupation, and American engineers have been concerned, almost to the point of obsession, with the low prestige of engineering; an identification as “scientist” was expected to raise status.

But while it might be convenient ideologically for engineers to confuse science and engineering, this can become a source of confusion for scholars attempting to understand science and technology.  And nowhere is this effect more serious than on that part of engineering we have classed as “design.”  From the point of view of modern science, design is nothing, but from the point of view of engineering, design is everything.  It represents the purposive adaption of means to reach a preconceived end, the very essence of engineering.  The scientific parts of engineering are entirely auxiliary, since the end of technology is not knowledge.  Only insofar as science serves design can it be of use to the technologist.  But important changes may take place in design without any increment in what, by the modern definition, we would call science.

27. William McClellan, “A Suggestion for the Engineering Profession,” Transactions of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers 32, pt. 2 (1913): 1271-72.

696 Index

In order to illustrate the difficulties of understanding design change, I have selected an example from recent American engineering history, the development of the vertical lift bridge by the engineers J. A. L. Waddell and John Lyle Harrington.  This case is particularly instructive because the basic principles had been long known.  More than a half-century earlier, the ingenious Squire Whipple had built a number of wooden vertical lift bridges over the Erie Canal.  They incorporated the fundamental elements of Waddell’s and Harrington’s designs: a center span which could be raised and lowered vertically by means of counterweighted cables running over sheaves in towers at both ends.  Waddell adapted this old idea to meet a newer need: for relatively inexpensive low-level railroad bridges across navigable waterways.  His pioneering bridge, the South Halsted Street bridge in Chicago, was built in 1893.  It involved at least several changes: it was much larger, much stronger, made of a new material (steel), and it had to be operated by a steam engine.  One could (and should) credit Waddell with the insight to see this design as the solution to a new problem; similarly, the more massive steel structure posed problems in solid mechanics that Whipple had not faced.  From the modern, scientific viewpoint one might credit Waddell with an ingenious application of existing knowledge. [28]

This scientific perspective would underestimate Waddell’s achievement, but it would miss Harrington’s altogether.  Harrington made no fundamental changes at all, save perhaps the substitution of electricity for steam as a prime mover, scarcely an addition to scientific knowledge.  What he did was to redesign virtually every component in Waddell’s bridge, drawing upon his mechanical engineering background (Waddell was solely a civil engineer).  Harrington made many changes, mostly refinements, and none involving any significant new inputs of basic science.  Yet, the difference was quite striking: Harrington transformed Waddell’s clumsy design into a well-integrated, rational design that beautifully balanced and adapted available means to the needs of this type of bridge.  Waddell’s bridge was not a success, and no bridges of similar type were undertaken in America for fourteen years, until after Harrington became Waddell’s partner.  Not only were Harrington’s bridges successful, but following his work, almost any competent bridge engineer could design a vertical lift bridge.  In short, virtually all the science must be credited to Waddell, but Harrington’s design contributions made the difference between success and failure. [29]

28. J. A. L. Waddell, “Vertical Lift Bridges,” in J. A. L. Waddell, Memoirs and Addresses of Two Decades (Easton, Penn., 1928), pp. 695-729, 731-44.

29. Ernest E. Howard, “Vertical Lift Bridges,” Transactions of the American Society of Civil [Engineers 95 (1921): 580-626, and “Discussion on Vertical Lilt Bridges,” ibid., p 627-95.  For an insight into Harrington’s style of design, see Horatio P. Van Cleve, “Mechanical Features of the Vertical Lift Bridge,” Transactions of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers 40(1918): 1017-35, and “Discussion,” ibid., pp. 1035-42.  Waddell never was willing to give Harrington credit for a major improvement, and his claims (in the discussion above) helped sharpen the issue.]

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It is instructive and amusing to see Harrington, the designer, questioning the abstractions of engineering science.  Harrington’s design for the Twelfth Street Viaduct in Kansas City was criticized by one L.J. Mensch for its failure to exploit fully the engineering theory available.  In his reply, Harrington used many of the same arguments used by engineering scientists to attack basic science.  Harrington criticized “the extremist who bases his plans on the expectations of perfect materials and workmanship, and allows nothing for imperfections of both.”  He further pointed out that purely theoretical calculations were often wasted since “considerations of convenience and of uniformity of design do not permit of sectioning exactly in accord with the calculated stresses.”  He concluded that “mathematical analysis must be supported by sound judgment.” [30]

Of course, design might well be considered a science, and engineers sometimes so treat it, but it is also clearly a matter of art as well.  Indeed, it is the oldest part of engineering knowledge to be recorded; the early engineering and machine books are in the nature of portfolios of design, and there is a deep kinship between engineering design and art, running back to the artist-engineers of the Renaissance and earlier.  The natural units of study of engineering design resemble the iconographic themes of the art historian.  It is no accident that some of the best work on the history of engineering designs has been done by historians of art, architecture, and building.  Carl Condit’s works provide outstanding examples.

But despite this kinship with art, engineering design clearly displays many of the characteristics of science.  It is truly cumulative in the sense that routine practitioners can do things that could not be done by men of genius living in earlier centuries.  It can be reduced to systematic, written, and graphic form and taught at school.  Stimulated by systems analysis, there has been a rather vigorous attempt to reduce design to a mathematical science.  This has been accompanied by attempts to reestablish design as the central theme of engineering, an effort not without ideological overtones. [31]

30. Discussion: Traffic Viaduct, Kansas City, Mo.,” Transactions of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers 80 (1916): 567-68.

31. The recent engineering interest in design is manifested in the following: John R. M. Alger and Carl V. Hays, Creative Synthesis in Design (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1964); Morris Asimow, Introduction to Design (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1962); William Gosling, [The Design of Engineering Systems (New York, 1962); Arthur D. Hall, A Methodology for Systems Engineering (Princeton, N.J., 1962); and Thomas T. Woodson, Introduction to Engineering Design (New York, 1966).]

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But if design is to be considered as another technological science, it clearly differs from both basic science and engineering sciences.  At least in the more traditional textbooks, engineering design relies heavily on graphical modes of communication.  The information is often rather detailed and shows some formal similarity to such subjects as taxonomic botany.  In short, engineering design is concerned with real working systems, the complex individual entities that are the end product of engineering activity.  Engineering sciences, like solid mechanics or kinematics, deal with idealized versions of these man-made devices.  Similarly, physics represents a much greater degree of abstraction.

Design, engineering science, and basic science represent a hierarchy of progressive abstraction.  They constitute a spectrum which connects the world of engineering artifacts to the ideal world of theoretical physics.  From this point of view, the issues involved in the theories of science-technology relationships can be restated.  The ideology expounded by scientists from Joseph Henry to Vannevar Bush involves that old familiar philosophical idea, reductionism.  The scientific theory of technology is simply one part of that program, beloved of particle physicists, to reduce all the sciences to laws of the science allegedly most fundamental.  In an age that believed in determinism, this program made sense.  Indeed, it inspired much useful work, not merely in bringing advanced physics to engineering but in the parallel attempts to reduce biology to chemistry and physics.  But since Heisenberg’s discovery of the uncertainty principle, the reductionist program has been discredited.  In his Physics and Philosophy, Heisenberg argued that the separate sciences are not reducible to each other, but that they are linked by a sort of symmetric overlapping at the boundaries between one science and another., [32]  Using

32. Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science (New York, 1958), pp. 93-109.  Heisenberg is not considering the relations of basic science and engineering, but rather the relations among the basic sciences.  But much of his argument will apply to the former problem, e.g., “The applications of the concepts of classical physics, e.g., in chemistry, had been a mistake.  Therefore, one will nowadays be less inclined to assume that the concepts of physics, even those of quantum theory, can certainly be applied everywhere in biology or other sciences.  We will, on the contrary, try to keep the doors open for the entrance of new concepts even in those parts of science where the older concepts have been very useful for the understanding of the phenomena” (p. 199).  One might also note his statement that “the scientific concepts are idealizations... But through this process of idealization and precise definition the immediate connection with reality is lost.  The concepts still correspond very closely to [reality in that part of nature which had been the object of the research.  But the correspondence may be lost in other parts containing other groups of phenomena.” (p. 200)]

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analogous arguments one might conclude that engineering sciences are autonomous, however closely linked to basic science.

The ideologies of science and technology thus provide three quite different views of their interaction.  Each has its own built-in limitations, but each refers to important social and intellectual realities.  For a complete picture, the insights of all three will have to be incorporated in our historiography.  As a first step we might broaden our conception of “science” in order to include technological realities which the conventional theory does not take into account.



The Competitiveness of Nations

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