Pursell, White Heat

Out of the Loop

Inventors, inventions, and the financial support for tools that led to technological transformations.

" 'Out-of-the-Loop', therefore, was a fact of life and perhaps even an advantage for many inventors,"

Start | First point | Second point | Third point | Summary point | not a sure thing | difficult inventive steps | evidence | the inventive age | conclusion


The role of inventors and their inventions --as problem solving devices-- in technological development of engineering, electricity and convergent tools.

    1. social myths hamper our understanding of technology,
    2. convergence helps explain the dominance of mechanization,
    3. social stigma played a role in developing electricity,
    4. exaptation and serendipity both help us understand automation,
    5. hard work and inspiration by themselves do not account for technical change, let alone technological superiority.
    6. There are at least three ways the restricted and the general ways to explain what technology is and how it enhances human endeavors.

Background | Argument | Evidence | invention | Details | Dates| Data | defining terms | Conclusion | Lessons


1. Common beliefs about inventions distort our views of technology

"new technologies arose from humble workers and artisans, often illiterate and socially anonymous."

p. 41.

2. His evidence that we do not comprehend the material or technical facets of new technologies, let alone historical developments with respect to the social or organizational power of inventions and their cultural importance.

Two competing means of invention are hypothesized to drive innovation.

Patents are necessary but not sufficient for successful innovative atmosphere.

Misinformation is widely accepted about inventions, genius-inventors and benevolent providence.

Progress due to technical changes --in spite of our faith-- is not inevitable .

Convergence of tools reveals that ideas often come before their time. That is they appear before people are ready to utilize them.

Basic versus deeper message of the chapter.

Course Overview


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Background | Argument | Evidence | invention | Details | Dates| Data | defining terms | Conclusion | Lessons


3. All of these mistaken beliefs – celebrity, the myth of the market, and progressive ideology mask the complexity of technology.

Only since the Industrial Revolution do we associate technological invention with individuals who are credited with having "created tools, machines and processes that had not existed before."*

Richard Arkwright, the hairdresser, perfected the water frame device that replaced hand spinning in the 18th century.

* probably due to the influence of the patent system.

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4. Therefore:

Technological change–based on inventions–is a social not just a personal achievement.

But why?

Who? | Knowledge | Social means to overcome specialization | Convergence | delays | Key events

Background | Argument | Evidence | invention | Details | Dates| Data | defining terms | Conclusion | Lessons

Lunar Society of Birmingham England

18th Century

Meeting of "luminaries" and religious dissenters, practical people

"designers of the emerging machine society."

Crafts people who lacked formal education and advanced training.

James Brindley, civil engineer and "navigator" designed and built England's canals which revolutionized transportation. He had no formal training, could not read, write or mix with lettered people.

He possessed "his ability to visualize his technical problems and their solutions..."

He did not resort to models or drawings.

Surveyors instrument, 18th century



Important events


Background | Argument | Evidence | invention | Details | Dates| Data | defining terms | Conclusion | Lessons


19th century

The Age of Invention, a necessary sequence of developmental stages in a newly emerging tool complex or web of technology:


1759-1762, Brindley begins a Manchester to Liverpool canal

1793, Edmund Cartwright used animal labor to run power loom for weaving

1800, Allessandro Volta builds a battery.

1801, Oliver Evans builds and iron foundry for steam engines used in water transportation, Philadelphia.

1804, Richard Trevethik's steam engine demonstrated for use in railways

1821, Michael Faraday's device demonstrates electromagnetic induction

1831, Joseph Henry's electromagnet lifts one ton

1837, Fourneyron perfected a water device called, "a turbine."

1880s, solar hot water heaters available in the US

1900, General Electric first industrial research lab in Schenectady NY

1905 Einstein proposes the photoelectric effect because radiation can generate electricity

1940, Christensen's design for O-ring seals sold to the military (World War Two 1939-1945)

1942, first controlled fission reaction, Chicago

1957, Russian space satellite Sputnik launched

1962, height of Laser research in USA

1973, UPC or Uniform Product Code (Bar Code) adopted

SEE: Pacey, Chapter 10 &

Electricity words.

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Background | Argument | Evidence | invention | Details | More Dates| Data | defining terms | Conclusion | Lessons

There are four stages in the technical process of solving problems by the reassembly of an old tool complex into some inventive procedure that is very different:

Take for example, the art of invention, the history of discovery leads to a startling conclusion:

No way technology is a "sure thing!"

The capacity to visualize "with his minds eye" has been, until now, a cherished trait of engineering education.

Invention is a search for solutions:

  1. Perception of a Problem
  2. Trial and Error as a systematic or intuitive discovery of all relevant data for a solution
  3. Insight wherein the essential aspect of the solution is "found"
  4. Critical Revision where reformulating and reevaluation is brought to bear on steps 1-2-&-3.

Alternative means of explaining the process

A) creation of a mental model: forethought.

B) mechanical representation of the model: prototype.

C) a method of learning through discovery: heuristics.

Key events

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Background | Argument | Evidence | invention | Details | Dates| Data | defining terms | Conclusion | Lessons

Historical examples of how necessity has little to do with invention if you lack mental or tactile proficiency based on extensive practice with conceptual prototypes or material forms that you learn to adapt to variably different or very divergent ends:

Stories of inventors and the Anglo-American divergence from French Patent System

Alexander Graham Bell (mental models) and Henry Ford (mechanical models)

Niels Christianson invented hydraulic brakes and "O-ring" seals (invented in 1899 but they were not commercially viable [because capital investment or dollars ($) to invest, money making] until 1930s.).

OruktoramphibolisSteamboat and Oliver Evans - the American "genius" who died in poverty. His steam carriage and dredge (-- pictured here on the left) in the 1790s was way ahead of its time, in that finance was diverted to canals and an inadequate means for transporting material by steam over land did not exist. Roads and railways --as the pieces of that larger technological system-- did not exist, and when these parts were invented, they are an example of convergence among necessary components or integral-inventions that was only very slowly coming together.

This delay of technical inventions was due in part to the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars from 1793-1814, and the need for more iron, but the counter-productive use of the iron for armaments which diverted the raw materials.

When railways did arrive their were other technical and organizational constraints hampering the employment of the steam driven carriage or "engine."


Key events


Background | Argument | Evidence | invention | Details | Dates| Data | defining terms | Conclusion | Lessons



Role of patents in frustrating and enabling inventions

1623 - first British patent law signed by James I

1790 - American law copied Britain, Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State, oversaw cabinet committee

1836 - first modern patent law with court like power for the Patent Office

1852 - reform of British Patent System

Role of inventors, consultants and corporations in research and development

Lasers - Light amplification by stimulated (and synchronized) emission of radiation -- uniformity of atomic frequency. A product of Einstein's Quantum mechanics and relativity theory.

UPC - uniformity and information -- Universal Product Code, 1974-1992.

Key events

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Background | Argument | Evidence | invention | Details | Dates| Data | defining terms | Conclusion | Lessons



1. Institutions

Edison and Edison General Electric, the Corporation that devoured its founder

ARPA - Advanced Research Projects Agency of DOD

Academic - Corporate - Military complex now dominates technological development

2. Divergent inventions (products of specialization) brought together

Laser reader (1960s), computer (1970s) and Bar Code (1949) brought a revolution to grocery inventory systems.

Bar Code concept is 1949 from the ticker tape for stock trading reports.

Laser reader was perfected from photonic research in the 1950s and 1960s.

Mini computer was developed from the older 1940s main-frames in 1970s.

What was lacking was uniformity, despite successful specialization.

Silver, Woodland, and Collins in addition to RCA and IBM and associated grocers were all integral to Universal Product Code's development and diffusion as an example of uniformity.

Web of tools that drive technical innovation requires, specialization, convergence, uniformity, hard work and even huge mistakes, before capital is successfully committed to an "inventive" concept.

Key events

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Background | Argument | Evidence | invention | Details | Dates| Data | defining terms | Conclusion | Lessons


Professor"the little guys with lots of vision"

"Successful invention has been shown to be a rich but unstable mixture of genius and expertise, luck and planning, independence and compulsion."

p. 63.

"the genius-inventor had been largely displaced by the well-trained expert. Information was valued over insight and the rational over the intuitive. The social goals of rationalization and efficiency changed the way in which natural resources were exploited (conservation) , labour was marshaled (scientific management) and even the way in which technological change was accomplished."

p. 50.

Key events

The Lesson

Illusions about how technological change is formulated, funded, dispersed and adopted are rampant and interfere with a correct–yet complex–view of technical discoveries and institutional behavior and their widespread acceptance may readily thwart the creation of a "people–centered" approach to redesigning existing technical systems and correcting automated tools where they are no longer serving proper social ends.

Exaptation, Convergence and Serendipity [accidental opportunity] all account for how, when and where, if not precisely why, technical changes occur.

This acceleration from types of tools, the sorts of fuels used to propel tools, and the movement from one level of tool complex to another, we perceive as progress.

• water and wind to charcoal and coal driven (fueled) tool complexes

• from hand-craft to mass production of manufactured goods

• from hand and animal to mechanized agriculture

• from steam to electrical powered machinery

The bar code reader is an exception that reveals these myths (1948-61).

But Pursell convincingly argues–based in part on history and in part on Kranzberg's observations–that such alleged progress is not inevitable.

" 'Out-of-the-Loop', therefore, was a fact of life and perhaps even an advantage for many inventors, but it was clearly possible to get too far outside the sustaining orbit of power.

There was an inventor with a vision that no one would share, or a scheme in which only she or he had faith. An eighteenth-century American steamboat inventor did well to call his last, unfinished vessel Perseverance. It was a virtue necessary but not sufficient for success."

"Successful invention has been shown to be a rich but unstable moisture of genius and expertise (James Watt), luck and planning (Eli Whitney ), independence and compulsion (Richard Arkwright)."

page 63.

Key events

Background | Argument | Evidence | invention | Details | Dates| Data | defining terms | Conclusion | Lessons

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Next chapter in Pursell: "Step Right Up."

The Order of Things | Pacey | Pursell | Time Lords

Where are we going? Technology in History part 5.

Tulips as tools?
Tools of Toil: what to read.
Tools are historical building blocks of technology.
Technology can be understood if tools have three facets.
Tools used in both Music and Architecture led to mechanization and automation.
Tools and the study of technology require us to reflect on the power of instruments,

Postman–Tech | Postman–Television | Pursell | Pacey–Meaning | Pacey | Tenner |Eberhart | Snow | Kaku

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