Category Archives: engineering

161: John Jordan’s Machine-Age Ideology

In Machine-Age Ideology: Social Engineering and American Liberalism, 1911-1939, John Jordan argues that early 20th century “rational reform” was the product of the top-down, antidemocratic, technocratic politics of the machine age, and thus American liberal reformers in this era became less interested in helping the poor gain their voices as citizens than in engineering and controlling society.  Jordan’s cultural history, which relies primarily on the papers of reformers, statements and theories of prominent engineers, writers, and academics, and popular lit sources, shows how technological language and notions of Progress, control, and hierarchy filtered into social reform and the institution of liberalism as a whole.

Jordan divides his study into three historical periods, each with its own reform projects.  He locates the origins of rational reform (1880-1910) in Progressive reformers and sociologists like Veblen, who want to make the relationship between reformers and society less political and more like the relationship between engineers and nature.  From 1910 to WWI, publications like Lippman’s The New Republic and foundations like Russel Sage, the Rockefeller Foundation, and Carnegie Corp start arguing that “disinterested specialists” well-versed in social science and technology should lead the masses; Herbert Hoover called on manly men to be “officers in the great industrial army;” and Taylor and other efficiency experts made the efficiency craze visible.


Finally, social engineering hit its stride from 1918-1934, when Herbert Hoover’s “strikingly colorless moral universe,” created through war relief, paved the way for technocrats to further engineer social control.  Social problems like unemployment, education, poverty, and crime began to be seen as inefficiencies in the social system rather than injustice; universities were transformed into institutions of research, and psychologists turned “normality” into results on intelligence tests; the Century of Progress Fair in 1933 meshed science and capitalism into public entertainment, so that not even leisure spaces were not safe.

Of course, not everyone agreed with social control; Jordan also taps many of the era’s outspoken critics, including John Dewey, Lewis Mumford, Walter Lippman, Robert Lynd for cautions against the TOO successful social control of Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini.  They also argued that humanity and democracy were necessarily messy; that competence was no match for the sheer variety of the American consumer, and that no one is disinterested, least of all reformers who trust their own authority and pet project over the needs and opinions of the people they’re supposedly helping.

Rational reform, therefore, became a question of ways of knowing.  Rational technocracy became articulated with liberals, who decided that the best way of knowing was science and that the goal of reform was to create an efficient social machine.  This perspective obviously created horrible problems because it reduced humanity to numbers and thus left out whole huge parts of the human condition that can’t be approximated.  Even scarier, however, is knowing that the drive toward quantitative knowledge lives on today: with more and more data, the cloud comes closer and closer to modelling human life – but even in the aggregate, can we really be replaced by zeros and ones?

160: Reyner Banham’s Well-Tempered Environment

In The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment, Reyner Banham argues that architecture is not just about beautiful building facades – it’s also about the mechanical systems that make those buildings function.  Frustrated by the lack of attention paid to mechanical systems by architectural histories (in the late 1960s, when Banham was writing, there were apparently none), Banham pored through trade catalogues, lectures to professional societies, specialist periodicals, building plans and patent-office records, and other primary sources in pursuit not of firsts, but of mosts – of the point at which most buildings had incorporated a new technology and thus the point at which that technology had begun to shape architectural design.  His descriptions of particular buildings are thus discussions of the “typical” rather than the iconic.  With this approach, he takes architecture out of art and subsumes it into a larger category of “environmental management,” an interdisciplinary, problem-based profession that treats architecture as context-dependent technological systems or “habitable volumes.”

For Banham, architectural systems fall into one of two general categories: the structure & mechanical components that provide “the basic life support that makes a viable or valuable environment,” and those elements concerned with “facilitat[ing] circulation and communication – of persons, information, and products.”  Good architecture designs takes both of these elements for a specific context.  A few examples:

  • drive-in movie theaters: people bring their own “environmental packages” with them in the form of cars, so the need for a permanent enclosing structure disappears; instead, what needs to be designed is a system of landscaping, traffic engineering, optics, and shelter for the projection equipment.
  • Las Vegas and Versailles: these are both symbolic spaces that represent power, so they are designed to make space feel vast, overwhelming.  Versailles does it with soaring ceilings and imposing structures; Las Vegas does it with electric light, so that “the effectiveness with which space is defined is overwhelming, the creation of virtual volumes without apparent structure is endemic, the variety and ingenuity of the lighting techniques is encyclopaedic.”  As an added bonus, Las Vegas was created by people who weren’t architects; it is a vernacular redefinition of architecture.
  • St. George’s School in Wallasley, by Emslie Morgan: completed in the 1960s, the school is designed to conserve energy by deriving heat from the sun, the electric lights, and the bodies of the students.  It has an E/W orientation, with large south-facing windows, and it is SUPER insulated with thick walls and layers of plastic.  It’s not great at providing outside views or light, but it’s incredible at conserving energy.  Banham likes it because it is simple and designed for “performance” rather than looks; architecture can learn a lot from vernacular rules-of-thumb.
Throughout, Banham argues that architects need to be engineers and designers rather than artists, and that they need to know enough about mechanical systems to incorporate them effectively into their designs.  He advocates for a “conscious architecture, [which,] as distinguished from vernacular building, should be able to reason out the unique solutions to specific problems.”  Thinking of architecture as a technology rather than an art can free architects from antiquated formal restrictions and reorient them to the real problem: to turn these “habitable volumes” into “well-tempered environments.”

159: Eugene Ferguson’s Engineering and the Mind’s Eye

In Engineering and the Mind’s Eye, Eugene Ferguson argues that the current (since the 1950s) privileging of math and science over the visual and nonverbal in engineering education is both a historical aberration and a dangerous practice.  Using a well-illustrated history of engineering design, Ferguson argues that not all engineering problems can be solved by mathematical analysis; without the ability to visualize machines, structures, and the environment, engineers often make poor judgement calls that lead to disastrous failures in bridges, nuclear power plants, refrigerators, and other technologies.

Ferguson’s emphasis on the visual is actually linked to a larger concern with engineering’s loss of that holistic, experiential real-world experience on which the field was initially based – its retreat into scientific analysis.  Thus, his history of engineering emphasizes its subjective nature before the scientific turn.  In the Renaissance, engineers used improved drawing techniques to visualize and thus think through Scientific Revolution discoveries like planetary motion and human anatomy, and perspective drawing techniques (devised by Renaissance mathematicians) facilitated design by making representations more realistic.  In the 18th and 19th centuries, formalized drawing techniques (especially orthogonal drawing), the use of models, and the development of visual systems for engineering calculation – slide rules, indicator diagrams, nomography, and graphic statistics – kept visual thinking at the forefront of engineering design and practice.  After WWII, engineering education shifted away from an open-ended art and toward deductive, exact science: shop courses were replaced with theories of thermodynamics, mechanics, heat transfer; students have little interaction with the real world; graduating engineers have a hard time designing solutions for real-world problems.

Throughout, Ferguson’s underlying argument is that the subjective, connected to real-world problems through visual thinking and representation, is incredibly important to engineers’ ability to design effective solutions, and that engineering’s scientific turn to abstract objectivity has had disastrous effects on the safety and utility of engineering projects.  While his emphasis on the visual leads Ferguson to neglect larger systems of power in some of his examples (the Challenger failure), and I suspect that what he’s actually getting at is fostering creativity rather than the visual per se, his argument for subjectivity and creative, real-world thinking in engineering certainly makes sense to me.

156: Gail Cooper’s Air-Conditioning America

In Air-Conditioning America: Engineers and the Controlled Environment, 1900-1960, Gail Cooper examines the development of air-conditioning technology and the tensions between engineering philosophy and consumer preference that shaped its design.  Working from a variety of sources, including trade literature, popular magazines, newspapers, and corporate records, Cooper argues that air-conditioning developed via a process of contestation, and that the three systems that resulted – custom-built systems, centralized air, and window units – are each an imperfect mix of the interests of engineers, corporations, and various consumer groups, legacies of the times when each group was more dominant than the other two.

Per Cooper, air conditioning development went through three major phases.  From 1900 to WWI, engineers Alfred Wolff, Stuart Cramer and Willis Carrier adapted industrial heating, ventilation, and freezing systems to offices and factories.  Their custom designs attempted to control both heat and humidity, though they focused mainly on humidity until the 1930s.  The first custom systems were installed in stock exchanges, banks, and Southern textile mills.  Because Progressive reformers were obsessive about healthy ventilation for schoolchildren, schools also became testing grounds for the new technology.

In the interwar years, alternative cooling technologies challenge the engineers and their custom-built systems.  In the 1920s, movie theatres installed mechanical cooling and introduced the public to a/c; attempts to introduce window units in the 1930s failed, but more because of high costs during the Depression than because of a lack of consumer demand.

From WWII to 1960, air-conditioning companies exploit the consumer demand opened up by movie theaters and window units and introduce standardized or central air.  New central systems reshape buildings – just think of the sealed picture windows in suburban tract housing.  By the 1960s, cooled air had become a necessity rather than a luxury, and residents of older buildings began buying up window units – which, while inefficient, live on because they are affordable and portable.

Throughout her narrative, Cooper is attentive to the interests of various groups affected by air-conditioning: engineers who want to create a wholly artificial indoor climate; managers who want to reduce seasonal fluctuations and be able to locate buildings without regard to geography; workers (and consumers) who want comfort and health and don’t like centralized systems they can’t control; movie theaters who use a/c as marketing; public schools who treat children as test subjects; poor people who just want to be cool at any cost.  She also discusses the detrimental environmental impact of controlled indoor environment – one more reminder of what happens when you let turn of the century engineers run the show.

150: David Nye’s American Technological Sublime

In American Technological Sublime, David Nye investigates the history of the social construction of the sublime in America from about 1820 to the early 1990s.  Nye’s American sublime is somewhat like 18th century European concepts of the sublime, which involve human apprehension of something so big, beautiful, and incomprehensible that the mind is seized with terror, awe, and pleasure all at once; these extremes dominate the human mind, so that the person transcends the material world and comes into contact with the divine.  However, while the European sublime was a category of experience accessible only to educated individuals in contact with nature or sacred architecture, the American sublime has distinctly populist, nationalist, and capitalist overtones.  As early as the 1830s, American travellers in the West were reporting on the sublimity of the natural landscape, while people in the presence of massive new technologies were experiencing a transcendence usually reserved for nature or high art, and revivalists were recommending sublime tourist sites like Niagara as places to get in touch with the divine.  The American sublime was thus a popular, communal experience rather than an elite individual one; it was associated with emotions of awe, pleasure and terror rather than worldly transcendence; it could involve feats of engineering as well as high art and natural beauty; and its ties to American technological transformations of the landscape meant that the experience could be incorporated into nationalist narratives (love of country) and commodified into landscapes of fantasy and pleasure (Disneyland).  As Nye argues, the American sublime is key to American cultural identity.

Although the chapters are roughly chronological, Nye is more interested in talking about sublimeS rather than THE sublime, so that differences of time, place, and personal experience only add to his discussion.  Technological sublimes include the railroad as a “dynamic sublime” that awed in its ability to unite, expand, and enrich the nation; bridges and skyscrapers as a “geometric sublime” that “appeared to dominate nature through elegant design and sheer bulk…. the triumph of reason in concrete form;” factories, electric power plants, and other manufactories as a new “mechanical sublime, which regulates the mind and technologically supersedes nature;” the electrified urban landscape as an accidental “electrical sublime” that dominated night, embodied the values of capitalism and “transformed the appearance of the world;” the atomic bomb as a new, more terrifying form of the dynamic sublime, and Vegas and Disneyland (with nods to Niagara and the Grand Canyon) as the “consumer sublime,” commodified pleasure landscapes that provide the rush associated with dislocation from the world of work in simulation of the sublime.

Throughout, Nye traces the ways in which increased articulations between the sublime and mass American culture have led to a watering down of what was once a transcendent, otherworldly dislocation from reality, even as they make that experience accessible to more people.  While he argues that the sublime is at once an individual and collective experience, he also shows how top-down and structurally conditioned that experience has been.

23: Edwin Layton’s Revolt of the Engineers

Revolt of the Engineers lives in the depths of library storage, which is unfortunate because it’s a rather interesting study of a failed social movement among early 20th-century engineers.  Also, it was written in 1971, and the political and ideological struggles of that era seem clearly to have influenced Layton’s thinking.  And maybe it’s just me, but I find reading about a social movement from one era through the eyes of another to be rather illuminating.

Layton argues that professionalization and progressive organizing efforts among engineers in the early 20th century may not have led to large, lasting social change either within the profession or in American society, but the engineers’ efforts were still an important cross-pollination between technology and culture.

To support this claim, Layton traces a chronological history of the rise and fall of different professional engineering organizations and their relationship to the broader social reform movement in turn-of-the-century America.  One of his more entertaining examples is the career of Henry Gantt, whose appropriately-named Gantt charts are still in use today, at least among my undergrad Civil Engineering students.

Henry Gantt was a talented follower of Frederick Taylor, the guy who devised all those time and motion studies to make Ford’s assembly lines faster and more efficient.  (Harry Bravermann and Tim Cresswell both do cool – and very different – treatments of Taylor and his impact.)  Like Taylor, Gantt thought scientific management was the best thing ever, and he developed his Gantt chart as a visual project management tool to help users maintain top-down scientific control over an entire process.  Also like Taylor, Gantt thought that scientific management principles could and should be applied in areas beyond the confines of business, especially government and education.  But Gantt, who liked to carefully chart out arms production and ship production processes in his office during WWI, went a step further.  With the right visualization tools (heh) and a firm commitment to scientific management principles, Gantt thought that engineers could potentially plan not just individual industries but the whole economy, from defense production, education, and government to automobile manufacturing, city development, and social services.  And because scientific management efficiently allocated resources and talent, letting the engineers run society would be perfectly efficiently and perfectly just.  Democracy and scientific management would finally become synonymous!

Now, the problem with this scheme, as Layton points out, is that it’s not a democracy but a technocracy, where the engineers in their central planning offices get to design sociotechnical systems, but all citizens can do is conform to them.  Incidentally, this kind of thinking also plagued engineering’s professional societies, where infighting over power and prestige kept engineers from making any serious progress toward social goals.  Layton concludes here, with the decline of a movement that could have had a huge impact on society, particularly during the Great Depression. 

Yet I think that if self-serving politics hindered engineers from effecting large-scale social reform or a mass seizure of political power, they helped them spread scientific management ideas in more conservative arenas like business, and manufacturing in particular.  Here, stripped of its revolutionary potential, scientific management could be used to further exploit the labor of assembly-line and sweatshop workers by speeding the pace of production and thus lowering per-unit labor costs.  Layton doesn’t dwell on this particular legacy, but his frustration with his subjects’ deflation of their movement is clear.  The implications for the time in which he was writing seem pretty clear, too.