Sunday, May 15, 2011

A Mechanical Engineer Reviews, "A History of Mechanical Inventions"

Usher, A. P. (1988). A history of mechanical inventions (Rev. ed.). New York: Dover Publications. (Original work published 1954)

I thought it would be fun to read this book because I like mechanical stuff. I did my undergraduate work in mechanical engineering, but I was never was required to read anything about the history of mechanical invention, and as a result it was wonderful to finally learn about their development as they relate to economic history. This knowledge helps to illuminate for me the context of current innovation and its origins. With innovation a perennially favorite topic for business literature, a bigger perspective provided by this classic book was refreshing. Some may criticize this book for being dated; however it provides the basis by which we look at the history of mechanical inventions. In fact, since 1961, The Society of the History of Technology has annually awarded the Abbott Payson Usher Prize, named in the author’s honor.

This is a history of mechanical inventions. Abbott Payson Usher was professor of economic history at Harvard and passed away in 1965 at the age of 82. He felt that, “Economic history is concerned with the description and the analysis of the mutual transformations taking glace between human societies and their environment” (p.1). From this point of view, he writes a compelling book, emphasizing social change as a cumulative process. “The development of human societies requires no less careful study of ecology than is necessary for the understanding of the growth of population of the various plants and animals” (p. 18). I very much enjoyed Prof. Usher’s opinion that the problems faced by the historian are not any different than those face by the scientist.

The main point of this classic is to talk about the importance of technological innovation in the cultural and economic history of the West. “Economic history is concerned with the description and the analysis of the mutual transformations taking glace between human societies and their environment” (p.1). Prof. Usher emphasizes the role of economic forces in developing technology to meet demand. For example from 1500—1730 there was no significant invention in the field f of spinning. I find that 230 years is an amazingly long time to go without invention in a fairly practical area. Apparently, there was no pressure upon the spinners which only happened when the flying shuttle was invented.

I also enjoyed his discussion of Leonardo da Vinci. Prof. Usher makes and excellent point that Leonardo lived in two worlds woven by many interests and the loss of either world would have been a calamity to him and an impairment of achievement in the remaining field. I love this thought because sometimes I feel diluted by my many interests and sometimes think that I need to “specialize”.

The definition of technology that Usher uses defines the entire book: the techniques by which resources are utilized at any given moment. Usher feels that the economic historian must pay particular attention to the relation between the geographic environment and the technology that makes the environment useful.

This book is almost sixty years old, but is written with a good understating of engineering. As a result it has aged well because the history to which it speaks it does so in precise terminology that is still important today. There can be little doubt of the importance of technological innovation in the economic history of the West and Prof. Usher demonstrates this admirably with a chapter entitled, “The Emergence of Novelty in Thought and Action”. “Invention in the field of mechanics is, in fact, broadly representative of every feature of the general process of invention” (p. 56). I like this because it turns out that mechanics is not a narrow field as one might guess.

Through a lifetime pursuit of extensive, documented research, Prof. Usher feels that it is important for the historian to limit his efforts to the task of developing operational procedures without attempting philosophical analysis of the underlying postulates. I think Prof. Usher’s underlying assumption in this book is that the limitations of resources are relative to the position of our knowledge and of our technique (p. 9). But technological innovation is subject to the law of diminishing returns (Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies, p. 124). For a society to expand it needs high structural diversity and highly developed organization to maintain its complexity.

Prof. Usher’s real thesis in this book appears to be how man makes himself. That is, the quality and importance of great achievements are due to the cumulative syntheses of a very large number of small achievements (p.83). His real argument is that through infinite substitutability man can continue to expand socially and politically. He has faith that as resources become scarce and rise in price, that there will be rewards for innovation. The good professor seems to think that, in this optimistic view, new resources and technologies will emerge.

I believe the real argument of this book is that a dependence on fossil fuels has allowed man a respite from declining marginal productivity of future expansion. If we were to show innovation of technology over the last millennium, we might see that man’s ability to make himself is a result of his ability to maintain a highly differentiated and organized society based on his dependence on fossil fuels, and not of his ability to innovate. As the declining margin of research and development becomes more difficult, innovation becomes more complex and costly.


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