The Competitiveness of Nations in a Global Knowledge-Based Economy

Edwin T. Layton, Jr.

Technology as Knowledge

Technology & Culture, 15 (1)

January 1974, 31-41

In their monumental History of Technology Charles Singer, E. J. Holmyard, and A. R. Hall define technology as “how things are commonly done or made” and “what things are done or made.” [1]  That is, they treat technology as technique and the technologist as a technician.  In this usage the traditional definition of technology as “systematic knowledge of the industrial arts” becomes quite meaningless.  The editors are, of course, well aware of this.  They characterize the usual definition, in their phrasing, “systematic discourse about the (useful) arts,” as a modern, “artificial” formation, since, as they explain, it was not until the 19th century that technology acquired a “scientific content and came ultimately to be regarded as almost synonymous with ‘applied science.’” [2]

The denial of a thought component to technology is thus the consequence of adopting a theory of the relationships of science and technology.  This theory holds that scientists generate new knowledge which technologists then apply.  Two assumptions are critical here.  The first is that technological knowledge is essentially identical with natural philosophy.  The second is that this knowledge has been produced by scientists since 1800.  Logical deduction from these premises leads to an absurdity: that prior to 1800 technology involved no knowledge at all.

The French counterpart of A History of Technology, the Histoire général des techniques, edited by Maurice Daumas, arrives at similar historiographic results by a different route. [3]  Here too the history of technology is reduced to the history of techniques and the things produced by techniques.  But in this case, as Lynn White has pointed out, the emphasis is on economic determinants of social change rather

DR. LAYTON, associate professor of the history of science and technology at Case Western Reserve University, is the author of The Revolt of the Engineers. Social Responsibility and the American Engineering Profession.  He was awarded the Dexter Prize of the Society for the History of Technology for that book in 1971.

1. Charles Singer, E. J. Holmyard, and A. R. Hall, A History of Technology, 5 vols. (London, 1954-58), 1:vii.

2. Ibid

3. Maurice Daumas, Histoire général des techniques, 3 vols. (Paris, 1962-68); English translation of first two volumes by Eileen B. Hennessy, A History of Technology and Invention (New York, 1969).


than scientific leadership in intellectual development. [4]  But in either case, the net result is the same.  In the name of a theory, technology is made subordinate to other types of social and intellectual activity and virtually denied an independent role of its own.  In particular, both theories of history deny technology a significant component of thought.

Historians of technology in the United States have taken a different point of view.  Melvin Kranzberg and Carroll Pursell in their Technology in Western Civilization use work as an organizing principle. [5]  This does at least three things: it broadens the scope of the history of technology, it makes technology an independent historical force, and it includes thought as a part of technology, at least by implication.  Indeed, the emphasis on thought is characteristic of many American writers on the history of technology.  Lynn White, Carl Condit, and Ladislao Reti (a mixture of both European and American traditions), among others, have written on the role of ideas in technology. [6]  Eugene Ferguson, Derek Price, and A. Hunter Dupree have discussed the flow of knowledge or information within technological social systems. [7]  Many other examples could be cited, too many to list here.  However diverse the individual approaches, these works represent an important development whose historiographic implications deserve study.

Despite significant countervailing tendencies, the emphasis on technique has had a distorting effect on the writing of the history of technology in America, as elsewhere.  It has produced a certain defensiveness and confusion.  As Robert Multhauf has pointed out, we have no word for the “improver of technology” comparable to the “scientist,” the man who advances science. [8]  This theory has the

4. Lynn White, “Pumps and Pendula: Galileo and Technology,” in Galileo Reappraised, ed. Carlo L. Golino (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1966), pp. 99-100.

5. Melvin Kranzberg and Carroll W. Pursell, Jr., Technology in Western Civilization, 2 vols. (New York, 1967), 1:6.

6. For example, see Lynn White, jr., Machina ex Deo: Essays in the Dynamism of Western Culture (Cambridge, Mass., 1969); Carl Condit, “Sullivan’s Skyscrapers as Expressions of Nineteenth Century Technology,” Technology and Culture 1 (Winter 1959): 78-93; and Ladislao Reti, “Leonardo da Vinci the Technologist: The Problem of Prime Movers,” in Ladislao Reti and Bern Dibner, Leonardo da Vinci, Technologist (Norwalk, Conn., 1969), pp. 63-96.

7. Eugene S. Ferguson, “On the Origin and Development of American Mechanical ‘Know How,’” Midcontinent American Studies Journal 3 (Fall 1962): 3-16; Derek J. de Solla Price, “Is Technology Historically Independent of Science? A Study in Statistical Historiography,” Technology and Culture 6 (Fall 1965): 553-68; A. Hunter Depree, “The Role of Technology in Society and the Need for Historical Perspective,” Technology and Culture 10 (October 1969): 528-34.

8. Robert P. Multhauf, “The Scientist and the ‘Improver’ of Technology,” Technology and Culture 1 (Winter 1959): 38-47.


effect of projecting into history the “pecking order” of science, reducing the history of technology to “baser” questions of things and proesses.  This theory narrows the scope of the history of technology.  It is not only thought that is neglected.  The technologist’s thinking is intimately associated with the needs and values of a community.  By confining the history of technology to technique and things, we also deny to our discipline a rich dimension of social history.  For example, in the article on “The Medieval Artisan,” in A History of Technology, the author, R. H. G. Thomson, in noting that skilled workers were organized into guilds and trained by apprenticeship, comments that “such matters are the business of the historians not of technology but of economics, and therefore cannot be described here.” [9]

Far from constituting a modern, artificial formation, the linking of technology with ‘knowledge is very old.  In his Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle defines “art” as follows: “Now since architecture is an art and is essentially a reasoned state of capacity to make, and there is neither any art that is not such a state nor any such state that is not an art, art is identical with a state of capacity to make, involving the true course of reasoning.” [10]  The reference to architecture makes it clear that our term “technology” is included in Aristotle’s term ‘art.”  Equally clear is Aristotle’s association of “art” with knowledge.  Indeed, Aristotle’s “reasoned state of capacity” is a quality of a human being.  To him it might be manifested in things, but he would not have confused it with the things it produced.

Aristotle was not an isolated exception.  As Guy Beaujouan has pointed out, medieval schoolmen associated technology with knowledge, and they included technology in their classifications of the sciences. [11]  Hugh of Saint Victor, for example, held that “mechanics is a form of knowledge which must embrace the methods of production of all things.” [12]  The linkage of technology with knowledge has a long history in English, as a brief purview of the sections on ‘science” and “art” in the Oxford English Dictionary will testify.  It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the separation of knowledge and technology is both recent and artificial.  It is also self-contradictory.  This is obviously true in an etymological sense.  But it is also true logically.  Technique means detailed procedures and skill and their application.  But complex procedures can only come into being

9. Singer et al., 2:383-84.

10. Richard McKeon, ed., Introduction to Aristotle (New York, 1947), p. 427.

11. Guy Beaujouan, L’interdépendance entre la science scholastique et les techniques utilitaires, Les conferences du Palais de la decouverte, ser. D, no. 46 (Paris, 1957), pp. 6-10.

12. Quoted in Friedrich Klemm, A History of Western Technology, trans. Dorothea W. Singer (Cambridge, Mass., 1964), p. 72.


through knowledge.  Skill is the “ability to use one’s knowledge effectively.”  A common synonym for technology is “know-how.”  But how can there be “know-how” without knowledge?

It might be worth examining the origins of the notion that technology does not include knowledge.  The current model of science-technology relations has its roots in a semiofficial ideology of science.  Nathan Reingold has traced the origins of this ideology in America to the writings of Joseph Henry in the early 19th century. [13]  But it has become widely accepted through the writings of modern spokesmen for science.  In America, Vannevar Bush was an important source.  He held that:

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. [14]

A recent British governmental publication, expressing the same theory, maintains that “the justification for it [basic research] is that this constitutes the fount of all new knowledge, without which the opportunities for further technical progress must eventually become exhausted.” [15]  Clearly, if basic science is the source of all new technical knowledge, then technology itself produces no new knowledge, and the technologist’s role becomes that of applying knowledge generated elsewhere.  And this is precisely the theory we find in Singer, Holmyard, and Hall’s History of Technology.  Indeed, it was through the work of Hall and certain other historians of science that this theory was introduced into the writing of the history of technology.

It is possible that some historians of science were led to their view of science-technology relations in a reaction against the Marxist attempt to reduce science to the level of a superstructure for materialist forces.  Hall, in particular, appears to have been influenced by the “scholar and craftsman” controversy.  Edgar Zilsel attempted to provide a Marxian interpretation of the scientific revolution.  He held

13. Nathan Reingold, “Theorists and Ingenious Mechanics: Joseph Henry Defines Science” (paper presented at the American Historical Association, December 1971), pp. 12-15 and passim.

14. Vannevar Bush, Endless Horizons (Washington, D.C., 1947), pp. 52-53.

15. Technological Innovation in Britain (London, 1968), quoted in M. Gibbons and C. Johnson, “Relationship between Science and Technology,” Nature, July 11, 1970, p. 125.


that the scientist was a hybrid combining the craftsman’s empiricism and the scholar’s systematic thought.  The scientific revolution took place when “the social barrier between the two components of the scientific method broke down, and the methods of the superior craftsmen were adopted by academically trained scholars: real science was born. [16]  One of the most effective of those who attacked Zilsel’s theory was Hall.  In a series of classic studies, he refuted the notion that the experimental methods of science were “derivable by virtually direct imitation from the trial-and-error, haphazard, and fortuitous progress of the crafts.” [17]  Hall also denied Zilsel’s contention that scientific laws were simply a projection and enlargement of the rules used by craftsmen.

But Hall’s work was not simply negative.  He constructed a sophisticated model of science-technology relationships.  In essence, it is the standard one now in use.  Technology influenced science through instrumentation and by presenting problems; in less developed sciences, like chemistry, facts and experimental procedures were borrowed also.  Science influenced technology by its theory.  But his research convinced Hall that scientific theory was of slight use to technology prior to the 19th century. [18]  Thus, Hall suggested that engineering could not advance in the 17th century because of the limits of existing materials.  “This limitation has been overcome subsequently, Hall maintained, “chiefly through the use of concrete and metals, that is, by chemical knowledge.” [19]  But the advance of engineering was delayed until the middle of the 19th century, since until then “there was no useful body of chemical theory from which useful consequences could be drawn to benefit metallurgy.” [20]

It is important to note that, while Hall and several other spokesmen for the current model of science-technology relations are followers of Alexandre Koyré.  Koyré had a very different view of science-technology relations.  Koyré did not reduce technology to techniques; on the contrary, he insisted that technology is a system of thought, an independent system different from science.  He considered it a system of thinking based on common sense.  He held that “the technical thought of common sense does not depend on scientific thought

16. Edgar Zilsel, “The Sociological Roots of Science,” American Journal of Sociology 47 (January 1942): 554-55.

17. A. R. Hall, “The Scholar and the Craftsman in the Scientific Revolution,” in Critical Problems in the History of Science, ed. Marshall Clagett (Madison, Wisc., 1959), p. 17.

18. lbid., pp. 17-22.

19. A. R. Hall, “Engineering and the Scientific Revolution,” Technology and Culture 2 (Fall 1961): 335.

20. Ibid.


of which it can nevertheless absorb the elements, incorporating them into common sense.” [21]  Indeed, Koyré went further; to him the history of technology is inseparably linked to intellectual history. [22]

Koyré believed that science did influence technology.  But the “elements” absorbed were not necessarily the results of science - its laws and findings.  Rather, Koyré emphasized a rather subtle, indirect influence.  In a specific case, the idea of a world governed by precise mathematical laws was transmitted to technology through Galileo’s and Huygen’s conversion of the mechanical clock into an instrument of precision.  The idea that the universe is governed by precise mathematical laws, it should be noted, was not a scientific result, but one of its presuppositions.  Further, Koyré assumed that the influence was indirect, involving something like a translation of the idea from one medium to another.  To Koyré, the result was not simply the grafting of a scientific result onto technology but, rather, a transformation of the very structure of technology’s own system of thought. [23]

Koyré’s theory of the interaction of science and technology is subtle and powerful.  I think it is essentially correct insofar as it treats science and technology as having separate bodies of thought which differ from one another in significant ways.  It is easy to sympathize with Koyré’s characterization of technological thought as “common sense.”  The writings of technologists can sometimes appear to be nothing more than common sense, especially if they are read through spectacles provided by philosophy or science.  Is it possible that one of the difficulties is that technological thought differs from that of philosophy, including natural philosophy, in an even more radical way than Koyré imagined?  Artists, for example, think quite differently from philosophers.  In specific cases it can be shown that technologists display a plastic, geometrical, and to some extent non-verbal mode of thought that has more in common with that of artists than that of philosophers.  Aristotle, for one, supposed that there was an essential unity in the work of artists and technologists and that both were sharply distinguished from science.  He maintained that “all art is concerned with coming into being, i.e., with contriving and considering how something may come into being which is capable of either being or not being, and whose origin is in the maker and not in the thing made.” [24]  This was in contrast to science, which in

21. Alexandre Koyré, “Du monde de l’à peu près a l’univers de la precision,” Critique 4, no. 28 (1948): 809.

22. Ibid.

23. Ibid., pp. 822-23; see also pp. 816, 819.

24. McKeon, pp. 427-28.


Aristotle’s terms dealt with things that existed of necessity and by nature.

We need not assume that technological thought is a single monolithic whole or that it can be uniquely characterized in any single formula.  Yet it does have characteristics which differentiate it from science.  In this regard, it is interesting to note that American engineers in the last century have assumed that there was a “common denominator” to technology.  And they have identified this as “design,” or, to be more precise, as “the ability to design.”  There are several points about this characterization that deserve emphasis.  First, the engineers who used this also assumed that engineering comprised all technology.  Second, this idea is used not only in after-dinner speeches, which are not necessarily to be taken seriously, but also in framing membership criteria for the professional grades of engineering societies, a matter which engineers take with deadly seriousness.  The professional engineer is usually considered the creative practitioner, the “real” engineer.  In the definition of such a person, the “ability to design” has been almost universally acknowledged as the crucial test, though in practice only the most professionally oriented societies have actually adopted it. [25]  It is interesting to note that “ability to design” and “reasoned state of capacity to make” are very similar, both in form and in substance.

Design is clearly distinct from philosophy, including natural philosophy.  It is, as both Aristotle and modern engineers have held, an attribute of a human being which may be expressed in an object but which is not identical with the object itself.  At the outset, design is an adaptation of means to some preconceived end.  This I take to be the central purpose of technology.  The first stages of design involve a conception in a person’s mind which, by degrees, is translated into a detailed plan or design.  But it is only in the last stages, in drafting the blueprints, that design can be reduced to technique.  And it is still later that design is manifested in tools and things made.  Design involves a structure or pattern, a particular combination of details or component parts, and it is precisely the gestalt or pattern that is of the essence for the designer.

We may view technology as a spectrum, with ideas at one end and

25. Membership requirements and “ability to design” are discussed in Edwin Layton, The Revolt of the Engineers: Social Responsibility and the American Engineering Profession (Cleveland, 1971), pp. 26-27, 30, 39, 49, 51, 80, 88-89.  For an example of a discussion of the engineer as a designer, see William McClellan, “A Suggestion for the Engineering Profession,” Transactions of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers 32, pt. 2 (May-December 1913): 1272.


techniques and things at the other, with design as a middle term.  Technological ideas must be translated into designs.  These in turn must be implemented by techniques and tools to produce things.  The current model of science-technology relations looks at only one end of the spectrum.  It would be an equal distortion to see technology solely as thought.  Both aspects are needed for a balanced view.

Examining technology from the point of view of design is hardly novel; it has already proven useful to historians of art, architecture, and building.  Carl Condit’s works are a case in point.  It is possible that historians of technology may find still wider uses for this concept.  Design may be of assistance in understanding the nature of invention, for designs differ with respect to novelty.  If neither the design nor the separate parts are new, we have ordinary engineering.  The designer simply adapts known means to a given end; he may build a truss bridge of familiar design and materials, the sole novelty being in adapting these to the particular case.  But even here quite a bit of original thinking may be required, as, for example, in the case of a truss bridge of unusual size or exceptional conditions of loading.  One or more of the components may be new.  This could involve anything from minor design improvements to the translation of an established design into a new medium, as in adapting the wooden truss bridge to iron construction, a major innovation.  Or we might have a new design with familiar components.  In this case we speak of an invention; the invention of the truss as a bridge form might be an example.  There are also new types of designs using new components.  This, too, would be called an invention (or perhaps innovation), though it can represent a higher order of novelty, as, for example, in the case of Edison’s incandescent lighting system.

The designs for the final products of technology do not exist in isolation.  They are intimately associated with production and management, which, as Frederick W. Taylor insisted, also require design.  The innovations of Eli Whitney and Henry Ford were less in the final products, whether muskets or automobiles, than in the design of systems of production and tooling.  Conversely, Leonardo’s notebooks appear to contain designs which the technology of his age could not produce.

But perhaps a more fundamental way of looking at designs would be in terms of the types of system to which they refer.  As Project Hindsight (a Department of Defense study of the roles of scientific research and technological research in effecting new weapons systems) and a number of other recent studies have emphasized, innovations involve dovetailing a number of separate discoveries or insights into a complex whole capable of functioning as a working system


of some sort.  Such systems are not confined to a particular medium nor are they mechanically similar.  Whatever the type of design, the use by engineers of “ability to design” as a test of technological ability or creativity succeeds because so much technological work requires combining elements into a working whole in order to reach some preconceived end.

American engineers, it should be noted, do not define technology solely in terms of design.  They put great emphasis on the engineer as some kind of practical scientist.  If I read them correctly, however, these descriptions are not thought to be mutually exclusive; they conceive of the engineer as a practical scientist who is able to design.  Certainly, technology has relied on rational principles and theoretical constructs since at least classical antiquity. [26]  In more recent times, these rational elements have been transformed into systematic bodies of thought, that is, they have become sciences in some sense.  And it is these theoretical parts of technology that present the biggest problem for models of the interaction of science and technology.  Zilsel thought technological rules were embryonic laws of nature.  Hall denied this and asserted that early technological rules “were governed by rule-of-thumb (or rules of three), or by aesthetic canons... They had no analytic justification.” [27]  And to Hall, of course, modern rules were simply applied science.

Hall’s theory of science-technology relations has received much attention in recent years.  The idea that science generates the knowledge employed by technologists has not proven sufficient.  Science may indeed influence technology in this way. [28]  But this does not provide an adequate explanation of most technological change. [29]  In

26. As, for example, in the design of catapults (see Barton C. Hacker, “Greek Catapults and Catapult Technology: Science, Technology, and War in the Ancient World,” Technology and Culture 9 [January 1968 1: 34-50).

27. Hall, “Engineering and the Scientific Revolution,” pp. 333-34.

28. Robert E. Schofield, for example, has demonstrated that the ontological concerns of scientists had significant technological consequences for a group of 18th-century British scientists and technologists (see Robert E. Schofield, The Lunar Society of Birmingham: A Social History of Provincial Science and Industry in Eighteenth-Century England [Oxford, 19631).

29. The insufficiency of the established model of science-technology relations has been shown by a large number of studies, too many to cite here.  Some of the ones that have influenced me are Robert P. Multhauf, “Sal Ammoniac: A Case History in Industrialization,” Technology and Culture 6 (Fall 1965): 579-81; Charles C. Gillispie, “The Natural History of Industry,” Isis 48 (December 1957): 398-99; Thomas S. Kuhn, “The Relations between History and History of Science,” Daedalus 100 (Spring 1971): 27 1-304; Derek J. de Solla Price, “Is Technology Historically Independent of Science? A Study in Statistical Historiography,” Technology and Culture 6 (Fall 1965): 553-68; and M. Gibbons and C. Johnson, “Relationship between Science and Technology,” Nature, July 11, 1970, pp. 125-27.


the specific case of metallurgy, for example, Cyril Stanley Smith and Theodore Wertime have shown that knowledge was generated by technologists, with only slight indebtedness to natural philosophy, until very recently. [30]

Here, too, Koyré’s position is subtler than that of his followers, and it may provide a useful point of departure for understanding the rational elements of technology.  He held that technology constituted a system of thought essentially different from that of science.  Technology generated its own independent rules which came ultimately to constitute a body of technological theory.  This body of knowledge was then transformed in a fundamental way under the influence of science.  But the result was not simply science applied to technology but something different, which Koyré called “technologie.” [31]  Unfortunately, the term “technology” has lost its original meaning in English and we must use circumlocutions like “technological science” or “engineering science.”  But whatever the terms, the implication is that the earlier craft rules and modern engineering science, however different, form a continuum.

We might restate the matter by noting that the laws of science refer to nature and the rules of technology refer to human artifice.  The function of technological rules is to provide a rational basis for design, not to enable man to understand the universe.  The difference is not just one of ideas but of values; “knowing” and “doing” reflect the fundamentally different goals of the communities of science and technology.  The thought that embodies the values of technology will relate to active and purposive adaptation of means to some human end, that is, it will relate to design.

Though Koyré’s theory is superior to the usual model of science-technology relations, both suffer from some of the same defects.  Both are asymmetric.  Koyré saw the difference between science and technology in Platonic terms as the distinction between two Greek philosophical ideas, epistemë (knowledge) and techne (art).  From this point of view it would be absurd to think of knowledge flowing from technology to science.  But if one sees the difference in social terms, as values held by different communities, the result is a symmetric model of science-technology interaction.  There is no contradiction involved in assuming that knowledge might flow from a community

30. Cyril S. Smith, “The Interaction of Science and Practice in the History of Metallurgy,” Technology and Culture 2 (Fall 1961): 357-67, and A History of Metallography (Chicago, 1960), p. xx; Theodore Wertime, The Coming of the Age of Steel (Chicago, 1962).

31. Alexandre Koyré, “Les philosophes et la machine. II. Les origines du machinisme,” Critique 4 (July 1948): 628.


that values doing to one that values knowing.  In this view, technology and science might influence each other on all levels.  Similarly, Koyré’s approach leads to a static model: the Platonic ideas of “knowledge” and “art” do not change over time.  But the values held by a community do evolve in time.  Even if scientists and technologists continue to value “knowing” and “doing,” the precise significance of these values will change because of the changing context provided by other values and ideas.  Such changes are interesting and important subjects of historical inquiry, but they have been scarcely touched by historians of technology.

If the treatment of technology as thought is an important tendency in contemporary historiography, then where is it leading?  An emphasis on knowledge puts the stress on ideas of men.  This is essentially the historiographic approach of R. J. Collingwood and also of Koyré.  It should, therefore, have the effect of integrating the history of technology more closely to other branches of intellectual and social history.  The emphasis on knowledge further serves to direct attention to innovators in technology, as against technicians.  This has two sorts of implications.  It leads, on the one hand, toward an intellectual history of technology.  On the other hand, innovation suggests consideration of the role of technology in social change.  In either case, the ideas of technologists cannot be understood in isolation; they must be seen in the context of a community of technologists and of the relations of this community to other social agencies.  Paradoxically, a concern for knowledge serves to emphasize the importance of social history for the history of technology.


The Competitiveness of Nations in a Global Knowledge-Based Economy