When the Past Is Not a Preview

Engineering historians teach the past to help make a better future


What is the history of engineering about?

  1. The “eureka” moments of unusual men and women
  2. Groups, tribes, and gangs of creative geeks
  3. Robust, durable, and adaptive institutions
  4. All of the above

Much time is spent on debating how best to approach the history of engineers and engineering. The stakes are high: Those who define the story of the past inevitably influence the present and the future. Yet telling the story of bygone engineers is difficult because the answer to the above question often says more about who gives the quiz than who takes it.

My choice of D, or all of the above, affirms the complexity of engineering as an activity and a historical force. Edison, Tesla, Turing, and Jobs understandably dominate chronicles of engineering movements, but seminal figures thrive as part of technical networks or teams. These teams, in turn, depend on government, universities, corporations, financiers—organizations and institutions embedded in particular societies at specific times. By following these various threads, the fuller tapestry (D) emerges.

Or nearly so. Engineering has also incubated new social history, arising from how people adopt, shape, and hack the stuff made by engineers. Histories as varied as those about the telephone and the pencil, the automobile and the computer, electricity and fertilizer, also reveal much about how and why we use the fruits of an engineer’s toil.

The emphasis on process over person helps explain why today’s engineering heroes, like those profiled in this issue, tend to go unsung. Deciding whom to elevate among the many socially committed engineers is trickier than identifying the historical significance of, say, the “open source” or “miniaturization” movement in engineering. Without question, Manuela Veloso’s robots and Eben Upton’s $35 Raspberry Pi computers have transformed their respective fields. Are they making history? It’s too soon to say.

New engineering histories such as Andrew Russell’s Open Standards in the Digital Age illustrate how collective battles over standards can trump individual achievements. Says Russell, a professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken, N.J., “The kinds of stories we tell about standards matter more,” because standards set the rules of the game for individual engineers and provide valuable context for both engineers and consumers.

The prosaic quality of standards wars creates another challenge for historians. To engineers and their financial backers, the most important battles are over the future, not the past. Reputations and fortunes largely rise and fall based on who defines future artifacts and standards. The engineer as “tomorrow maker” remains the ultimate metric of achievement. Historical amnesia would hardly seem to imperil an engineer’s career.

Yet the siren song of the future need not blind engineers to lessons of history that are vital to making sound decisions today. Patent disputes often turn on historical readings. Studies of past mistakes such as the space shuttle Challenger explosion, for instance, teach us much about how to prevent inevitable human errors from causing catastrophes.

Accounts of movements can also capture the imagination. In Henry Petroski’s magisterial account of the design of pencils, the names of individuals can be forgotten, but the “world pencil war” of the 1890s, ignited by German dominance and American fears of dependence on foreign pencils, cannot be.

Studying the past in order to improve the future is reasonable. But to do so risks reducing the past to mere rehearsal. It is not. Historians revel in understanding the past for its own sake. Engineers need not apologize for doing the same.

About the Author

G. Pascal Zachary is the author of Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century (MIT Press, 1999).