This academic year marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Society for the History of Technology, an event in which ASEE played a significant role.
In the early 20th century, the relevance of history to engineering was a hotly debated topic, just as it is today. There were those practitioners, like the prominent bridge engineer J. A. L. Waddell, who believed that professional engineers should be fully apprised of the history of their field. And there were those academics who thought that history and other humanities and social science courses took up instructional time better spent on technical matters.
Waddell called upon the Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education—as ASEE was then known—to support the writing of a history of engineering suitable for use in engineering schools. But sufficient funds could not be found, and the idea languished.
Around mid-century, funding did become available to establish a general education program for engineers at Case Institute of Technology. Among the new faculty hired was Melvin Kranzberg, a European historian who was expected to teach a course and write a text on Western civilization.
Kranzberg had been active in an ASEE study of the non-technical aspects of engineering education, and in 1956 he became chair of a committee charged with exploring ways in which the society could cooperate with the History of Science Society (HSS) in developing mutually beneficial programs.
It made sense to Kranzberg and a small band of historians who taught engineers that they concentrate on technology, rather than science, in their courses. Unfortunately, there were few professional outlets for their scholarship, since HSS gave little time at its meetings or space in its journal, Isis, to technology.
Increasingly, it became evident to these historians of technology that a new society with a new journal was called for. In 1957, their intentions were made explicit to representatives of HSS, and in 1958 the Society for the History of Technology was incorporated. The sociologist William F. Ogburn became SHOT’s first president and Kranzberg the first editor of the society’s journal.
The sensitivity of the young organization to its engineering constituency was evident when it came time to name the journal. There were those who feared that Technology and Culture might put off some engineers, but in the end that title prevailed over possibilities like Vulcan, Technics, and the pedestrian Journal of the History of Technology.
In SHOT’s early years, engineers and engineers-turned-historians played active roles in its operation, and the bridge engineer David Steinman was set to become the society’s second president. Unfortunately, he died before he could take office.
Over time, SHOT has increasingly become a society of and for historians. Articles in Technology and Culture tend to deal with questions of interest to historians more than with questions of interest to engineers, and the society’s membership, leadership and scholarship now have a distinctly non-engineering bent.
Nevertheless, there is a segment of SHOT’s membership that would like to reestablish closer working relationships with engineers and closer ties with ASEE. At the 2007 SHOT annual meeting, there were several sessions directed specifically to the historian-engineer partnership.
One panel, consisting of engineers discussing the role of the history of technology in engineering, drew a large and enthusiastic audience. Much of the discussion suggested that the situation today is not unlike what it was almost a century earlier, when engineering educators were debating whether history had any place in a technical curriculum.
The historians and engineers in attendance at SHOT’s 50th anniversary meeting had little doubt that they belonged together, but many feared that history was repeating itself.
Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. He was the featured speaker at a public program marking the beginning of a year of celebration of SHOT’s 50th anniversary and sat on the panel that discussed the relevance of history to engineering.