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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Two Interesting Articles on the History of Technology

Just yesterday, I commented on how news stories on science seem to eclipse news stories on technology - at least technology outside of Silicon Valley Tech.  So much to my surprise, as I was reading the New York Times today, I find two articles directly focused on the history of technology.

The first actually was the lead in the Science Times section of the paper.  But despite the name of the section, the article by William J. Broad, entitled "Taking Lessons from What Went Wrong", is a great example of the kind of story I like to see.  The gist of the article is that at least one outcome of the Deepwater Horizon disaster will be failure analyses that will make future drilling much safer.  Broad looks at a number of events beyond the current Gulf oil spill to illustrate his point.  His examples include the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Suspension Bridge in 1940, airplane crashes, the explosion of the Hindenburg, and even the sinking of the Titanic.

Broad quotes the well-known author and Duke University engineering professor, Henry Petroski as writing in his book, Success Through Failure,

Failures...always teach us more than than our successes about the design of things. And thus the failures often lead to redesigns - to new, improved things.

The second article was in a more unlikely part of the paper, The Arts section.  In an exhibition review by Edward Rothstein, entitled "The Anatomy of a City Traffic Jam", I learned the Museum of the City of New York currently has an exhibit on the role of the automobile in the life of 20th Century New York City.  Not surprisingly, that relationship has had both its good and bad elements over the years.  I learned quite a bit from Rothstein's review.  For instance, in 1900 there were only 8,000 autombiles in the United States but 2,500 of these were owned by people who lived in New York City (only the wealthy could afford them).  The nation's first course in automobile design was taught in New York City in the 1890s.  Many of the early safety signals, including the stop sign, were first used in New York City.

I particularly liked this quote from the article:

[I]t is impossible to separate the development of modern New York from the automobile's evolution. The city and the car were both expressions of the technological hopes of early modernism. They reflected a wide-ranging sense of possibility, in which speed, ease and power would seemingly become available to all.

Some great stuff here.  I would recommend both articles to your reading.

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