22: Hugh Aitken’s Syntony and Spark

Syntony and Spark is nominally a history of the development of radio technology to 1914, and Hugh Aitken does a thorough job of tracing this technological trajectory from its origins in a set of mathematical equations (Maxwell’s electromagnetic field) to a burgeoning communications industry at the eve of WWI.  But it is also a case study for a theory about the relationship between science, technology, and the economy.  The development of the radio is interesting, but I think Aitken’s theoretical framework is even more so.

Aitken was writing in the 1970s, when the history of technology was still lost somewhere in the gulf between history and technological development and trying to find its sea-legs.  Scholars knew that they wanted to look carefully and critically at the relationship between technology and culture, but there were few models, and even fewer people had offered good, solid frameworks for studying the connection.  This book, according to John Staudenmaier and Emily Thompson, anyway, was one of the ones that made it.

Aitken’s goal was to figure out a relationship between science, technology, and the economy, and he did so empirically, by tracing the development of spark radiotelegraphy.  His theory has three major components.

First, having traced the technology from its origins in Maxwell’s theorems, to Hertz’s and Lodge’s experimental proof, to Lodge’s and Marconi’s development of viable commercial products and systems, Aitken argues that the process of transmission appears to be linear, from science (Maxwell) to technology (Hertz & Lodge) to business (Lodge and Marconi).

However, science, technology, and the economy are all vastly different spheres with their own norms, processes, methods of inquiry and creative potential.  Science is concerned with slowly and methodically enlarging human knowledge; technology is concerned with designing solutions to real-world problems, and the economy is concerned with generating profit by meeting consumer demand.  Each sphere thus speaks a different language, fosters a different set of skills, considers different things to be important, and considers different kinds of acts to be creative.  Thus, second, science might be generating one kind of knowledge, but it doesn’t exactly have all of human knowledge and creativity in a headlock.  Rather, the three spheres are interdependent loci of creativity.

And third, this interdependence leads to a feedback look between the three spheres.  Science may uncover principles that technology can then build out into something the economy can use, but it goes the other way, too.  The economy can generate demand for certain technologies and fund certain kinds of research over others; and technology can empirically derive things that science finds useful, like Lodge’s measuring instruments or Marconi’s discovery that radio waves bend around the earth.

While Aitken’s method could use more attention to social groups (instead of just “the economy” as a source of demand) and less attention to individual men who seemed to drive the pace of technological and scientific change all by their lonesomes, his theory still seems relevant today, and not just for radios.  The examples that immediately come to mind are iPhones and DNA mapping, both of which seem (to me at least) to be borne of tightly-knit webs of scientific, engineering, and business interests.

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2 thoughts on “22: Hugh Aitken’s Syntony and Spark

  1. Abuelo Mat

    Scientific discoveries still depend on path-breaking thinking of individuals, but more than ever before, it is the team that makes new discoveries — and to an even greater extent, their development and commercialization. That is frequently due to the interdisciplinary nature and the magnitude of investments in facilities required by many scientific endeavors today. Garnering the resources to pull those teams and facilities together frequently requires planning and long-term support by larger organizations. That reality is a key force in the more parallel path of science, technology, and the economy. Your example of DNA mapping is most apt.

    Reply

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