Power, Speed, and Form: Engineers and the Making of the
Twentieth Century. David P. Billington and David P.
Billington, Jr. xxvi + 270 pp. Princeton University Press, 2006. $29.95.
David P. Billington and David P. Billington, Jr., hope that their
new book will increase technological literacy among college
students. But this well-written and nicely illustrated volume may
also reach a broader audience. Together father and son have crafted
a narrative about the engineering achievements of the late 19th and
early 20th centuries, ranging from the famous (Thomas Edison's
electric-light system, Alexander Graham Bell's telephone, Orville
and Wilbur Wright's airplane, Henry Ford's Model T) to the
not-so-famous (William Burton and Eugene Houdry's oil-refining
processes, Guglielmo Marconi and Edwin Armstrong's contributions to
radio, Othmar Ammann's George Washington Bridge, the
reinforced-concrete structures of John Eastwood and Anton Tedesko,
the streamlining done by Walter Chrysler and Donald Douglas).
The authors call these men "engineers" in the book's
subtitle, but several of them are better known as inventors.
Understanding why the Billingtons insist on labeling their subjects
engineers has a lot to do with an enormously successful and popular
course that the elder Billington teaches at Princeton University,
titled "Engineering in the Modern World." The course,
which provided the basis for Power, Speed, and Form, allows
undergraduates to meet a laboratory requirement in science or engineering.
The Billingtons' book differs from many other histories of American
technology in that the authors stress that the language of
engineering is mathematical. They employ that language in their
sketches of engineers and inventors, but they do not mention whether
their subjects were themselves mathematically adept—perhaps
because several inventors, including Edison, are known to have
depended upon the abilities of their assistants when it came to
Scattered throughout the book are more than 40 sidebars that
describe the numerical thinking that the inventors and engineers are
presumed to have used in their work. Two such sidebars show the
reasoning of Edison and his assistant Francis Upton as they used
Ohm's and Joule's laws in designing the components of their
electric-light system. A sidebar about Burton, who found a way to
increase the yield of gasoline from oil, shows how two molecules of
tetradecane could be cracked into one of octane (gasoline) and one
of eicosane. Undergraduates from the liberal arts may find this
material hard going. The math described in the section on the Wright
brothers' wind-tunnel tests, however, uses terms that are more familiar.
C. P. Snow wanted humanists and scientists to engage with each other
and bridge the gap between their fields. Following Snow's advice,
the Billingtons write in their preface that "Our book is part
of an effort to connect the two cultures." In that vein, they
attempt to explore the character as well as the science and
engineering of the people they write about. But in my view they do
not examine adequately the humanistic side of their subjects.
The Billingtons say, for example, that Henry Ford's autocratic
tendency grew stronger in his later years, but they fail to discuss
his difficult relationship with his son Edsel. They briefly note
Edwin Armstrong's suicide, but they do not describe how his refusal
to heed his wife's advice to withdraw from exhausting legal battles
over patent rights strained his marriage. Similarly, the reader is
given an engaging account of Edison inventing his electric-light
system by successfully thinking like an electrical engineer, not
"an applied scientist." But we are offered little to help
us grasp Edison's humanity. The Billingtons might have told about
his aspiration later in life to be an innovating industrialist or
about his reactions when his efforts to develop a process for the
large-scale separation of iron from its ore, an economical storage
battery and new sources for rubber all failed.
Power, Speed, and Form thus offers little to satisfy Snow's
directive. It is even light on its coverage of the frustrating
realities of engineering innovation. The Billingtons allude tothe
experiences of Eugene Houdry, but they are not explored in any
depth. He and his associates found a catalytic agent that would
increase the output of high-quality gasoline, but when Houdry
approached the giant Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, its
engineers rejected the process because they found it technically
primitive. Houdry, however, persisted and obtained support from Sun
Oil, a relatively small but innovative firm.
The Billingtons provide a sidebar on Lee de Forest's triode, a
three-element vacuum tube, but they do not tell us that he failed to
comprehend the way it functioned. Later, AT&T physicists
correctly analyzed its behavior and improved on its performance.
Power, Speed, and Form
will introduce engineering students to eminent predecessors from whom
there is still much to learn, especially about the use of numerical
language. This book will also help students in other disciplines
appreciate engineering approaches to problem solving. Yet there is a
danger that the book will leave many students believing that there is a
method that always leads to success. They may not appreciate what great
roles personality, luck and contingency play in human affairs, including
engineering and inventing.