The hosepipe and other revolutionary icons

January 12, 2007

Crucial but humble advances are ignored by academic research in histories of innovation, says David Edgerton

Scientific futurism has developed a taste for retro. Stephen Hawking epitomised that surprising fashion when he talked about the need to set up space colonies to escape future ecological disasters. Looking back to a decades-old space age and to ideas found in the works of H. G. Wells is, in fact, an innovation in thinking about science and technology. Generally, a relentlessly futuristic futurism still rules.

When we consider science and technology we reach for the cliches. We even think about them in such terms. Perhaps the most important cliché is that science and technology are about the future: they are identified with invention, innovation, creativity and with "tomorrow's world".

A subsidiary cliche is that the scientific and technological future is shaped by just a few major techno-sciences. Today, we all know about information technology, biotechnology and nanotechnology. A few decades ago it was rocket science, nuclear science and computer science. In the interwar years, aeroplanes, radio and motor cars were prominent. If these lists sound familiar it is because they have been central to standard accounts of the key innovations of the 20th century.

We have come to believe these techno-sciences encapsulate the history of 20th-century science and technology. If one was to leave computers out of an account of even the 1950s, people would start to worry. Yet if one ignored, say, chemistry most analysts wouldn't even notice. But seek a more considered answer to the question of what the significant technologies of a particular time were and a very different picture begins to emerge.

One could usefully start by asking lay people for their opinion. They might, in a spirit of contrariness, answer, as Radio 4 listeners did last year, that the bicycle has been the most important technology of the past 150 years. Once prompted, we soon find ourselves creating a collection of stories that are very different from the standard ones. It becomes obvious that these are usually focused only on big technologies with high public visibility at a time near their innovation.

But there is a whole other technological world that needs taking account of, from corrugated iron to asbestos cement, from horses to hosepipes, from chemicals to charge-couple devices. We quickly conclude that technologies came in a much greater variety than the usual accounts allow, that their impact came much later than assumed and was often quite different from what had been generally accepted as the case. For example, Nazi military power owed more to the horse than the V-2 rocket. Indeed, the Wehrmacht was more horse-intensive than Napoleon's armies.

The problem is not just that the standard histories are obsessed with invention and innovation. Indeed, the very history of invention and innovation itself needs changing. For example, neither the individual inventor nor the mechanical invention has been as thoroughly displaced by high technology as we are told.

New things of many kinds come from many sources. One would hardly deduce from the standard commentary that in recent years the greatest spenders on corporate research and development were not biotechnology or information technology firms, not even the giant pharmaceutical companies, but the car manufacturers Ford and General Motors. Furthermore, for all the hype about "Mode I..." and entrepreneurial institutions, the role of universities in invention was and remains marginal.

The small minority of US universities that make significant income from intellectual property derive it from federally funded health research, which provides them with far more income than they get from patented innovations.

The significance of academic research has been exaggerated in our historical accounts of invention. That is testimony to the influence that academics have at the level of ideas. And it is no accident that those technologies in which academic invention has played a role are the ones around which the standard stories have been built. In other words, the standard linear model of innovation, which is defined by experts as the belief that pure research leads to innovation and to economic growth, is embedded in our histories. Yet the paradox is that no academic would be seen dead advocating anything as vulgar as the "linear model of innovation". Indeed, most scholars set themselves in opposition to it. So we end up thinking in clichés and arguing against clichés, too.

We students of science and technology need to get out more. Out there we will find grown-up versions of thinking about both. It is not rocket science (itself a wonderfully retro coining) to suggest we should resist the politics of the gimmick and fake novelty. But is it about as hard to do as rocket science reputedly is.

David Edgerton holds the Hans Rausing chair at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine at Imperial College London. His book, The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900 , is published by Profile Books, £18.99.

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