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Historic Innovations

Thomas Hughes

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).

Some of the most important engineering developments...Click to Enlarge Image

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 difficult calculations.

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.

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