Inventing The History Of Invention by Arthur P. Molella

Three Big Thinkers Who Placed Technology at the Heart of History

THE HISTORY OF TECHNOLOGY WAS Officially born in the United States in 1958, when the Society for the History of Technology was established. But long before the subject donned that academic cloak, three lone pioneers virtually invented it, writing histories that took on the human and moral dimensions of technology in the broadest way. The Harvard economic historian Abbott Payson Usher published A History of Mechanical Inventions in 1929. That same year the literary and social critic Lewis Mumford began the first draft of what would eventually become his masterpiece, Technics and Civilization, published in 1934, and simultaneously a Swiss art historian named Sigfried Giedion began a sweeping work that appeared in America in 1948 as Mechanization Takes Command. Together these men opened up a whole new, vital side of history and pursued it with a breadth of purpose that some critics complain isn’t being emulated by anyone today. They were the founding fathers of their field.

Books on the history of invention had appeared as far back as the fifteenth century, but the literature had consisted mainly of narrowly focused, technical chronologies, handbooks, and encyclopedias written for engineers and inventors. Rarely had they raised the larger social issues surrounding the emergence of technology. In contrast, Usher, Mumford, and Giedion set a far-reaching intellectual and moral agenda. Their classic writings, still in print, continue to inspire students of the field, posing questions that properly remain at the center of the discipline. Yet except for Mumford, who is enjoying something of a revival these days, little is commonly known about these men and what led them to the field and how they shaped it.

Although they began their books at the same time and were aware of one another’s writings, Usher, Mumford, and Giedion worked independently. They had very different approaches to the history of technology, reflecting their disparate personal and professional backgrounds. Nonetheless, their books elaborated a number of common themes, most fundamentally a central concern with how man has reconciled the needs of the human spirit with the brute material conditions of existence. They all saw technology as the crux of this reconciliation.

Themes of reconciliation were of the utmost urgency to the generation shaped by World War I. The war had provoked intense questioning about what technology was doing to society and to culture. Traditionally regarded as a force for good, technology had come to be associated with war, the shattering of the past, and a present clouded by automation and the prospect of human enslavement by machines. And there were clearly no simple answers. Those who feared that the automobile, the airplane, the radio, and automated mass production would usher in an era of ugly materialism and submission to technology also saw new technology-bred possibilities for democratic opportunity and national community.

In coming to terms with such issues, Usher, Mumford, and Giedion all remained confident that if properly controlled and directed, technology could support rather than erode human values. The most hopeful sign of all was a general trend they perceived, beginning at the turn of the twentieth century, toward an organic rather than mechanical view of things—in technology and in the sciences and humanities as well. A vision of the world that saw the similarities and interrelatedness between natural organisms, modern man, and machines might hold untold possibilities for laying the foundation for a more humane technological society.

Usher saw technology not as an outside force afflicting man but as a deeply creative human enterprise.

Abbott Payson Usher (1883-1965): Technology as Adaptation

A. P. Usher was the least vivid personality among this trio of historians, but some of his ideas were the most advanced, in ways still not widely appreciated. Born in Lynn, Massachusetts, he was the son of Edward Preston Usher, a prominent New England lawyer, author, and railroad entrepreneur who built one of the earliest interurban electric lines in Massachusetts. Like his father, A. P. Usher was educated at Harvard. Except for a decade “in exile” at Boston University and Cornell, he spent his adult life teaching economics there.

As a young professor at Harvard, Usher imbibed heavy doses of German and French social and economic history. The teaching of these subjects, strongly influenced by Marxist historiography, stressed the role of the physical environment—geography, natural resources, and climate—in the development of society and culture. Usher himself pioneered what became known as the “new economic history,” emphasizing quantitative and scientific measures of economic change, and he stressed the importance of the Industrial Revolution in shaping Western economic development. In 1920 he wrote a textbook on the Industrial Revolution and took the innovative step of putting technology front and center in it, while most economic historians treated the rise of industrial technology as a secondary influence or even caricatured it as the mere product of heroic inventors.

After a decade of study Usher came forth with a book whose focus on technology surprised his colleagues, A History of Mechanical Inventions. A difficult treatise, it traced in exquisite detail the development of inventions including the water wheel, mechanical clocks, spinning and weaving machines, the steam engine, and other prime movers. Usher saw similar stages in the emergence of each of these technologies and viewed them all not as the miraculous achievements of a few inspired individuals but as the accumulated sums of many small improvements by largely anonymous inventors and skilled artisans.

Most of A History of Mechanical Inventions was highly technical, and the book set a standard for narrowly focused history—precisely the kind for which today’s historians of technology are sometimes criticized. Why, then, does Usher count as a “big thinker”? The answer lies in the book’s opening chapters, in which he placed technological history in perspective. Usher wrote of a dangerous conflict growing between material and spiritual values as the world became more mechanized, but he also evinced a fierce belief in the possibility of a benign outcome, in humanity’s power to improve its situation through the intelligent, responsible application of technology. To him, technology was not at all an external force oppressing society but rather a cultural product of that society, for good or for ill.

Usher agreed with the French and German social historians and geographers who had influenced him that the dynamics of civilization resulted from the inte’rplay between humans and their material environments. But he thought that his forebears, especially the Marxists, went too far when they portrayed mankind as a passive victim of material forces, including the forces of mass production. He emerged from his studies a fervent anti-Marxist.

Usher viewed the study of the history of technology as an antidote to all kinds of determinism. He elaborated this view in a theory of innovation that portrayed technology as a deeply creative human enterprise. Adapting ideas from the newly introduced theory of gestalt psychology, he maintained that invention was not a step-by-step logical process but the complex fruit of the unconscious mind’s ability to perceive and form patterns, or gestalts. Applied to technology, gestalt theory drew attention to the inventor’s aesthetic, emotional, and spiritual sides.

Gestalt psychology was explicitly antimechanistic. It was heavily influenced by developments in theoretical physics, especially by quantum mechanics and relativity theory, which seemed to challenge the Newtonian mechanical view of nature with a more organic and holistic perspective.

Usher was one of the first scholars to apply gestalt principles to a subject other than psychology, and his attempt confused some of his readers. One reviewer of A History of Mechanical Inventions saw “no excuse at all for the psychological involutions of chapters one and two, which are enough to fend off almost any reader from an otherwise fascinating book.” But for Usher, applying psychological theory to technological history reinforced a crucial link between the spiritual and the concrete.

Usher was ultimately working toward not just a history of invention but a comprehensive social theory. He quickly extrapolated, from his gestalt theory of technical innovation, a broader conception of social change, in which societies constantly interact with the physical environment in a complex, essentially biological fashion. Technology had to be seen as a form of organic adaptation. His goal in A History of Mechanical Inventions was to point the way toward a study of social change on an organic model. Paradoxically, although Usher described his method as “empirical” and frankly experimental, his writings revealed a penetrating theoretical mind at work. He never fully made the case for a new theory of social history in A History of Mechanical Inventions, but he mapped out a way that future social historians might follow.

Lewis Mumford (b. 1895): The Stages of History

Whereas Usher addressed his writings on technology and society primarily to scholarly specialists, Lewis Mumford ventured into the subject as a social critic with a broad general audience.

Born in Flushing, New York, Mumford at first aimed for a career in electrical engineering. He attended Stuyvesant High School, in Manhattan, where science, technology, and the industrial arts were emphasized, and there obtained the basic technical background he would need to write his masterpiece, Technics and Civilization. While at school he tinkered with model airplanes and radio sets. He even sent in some ideas for inventions to Hugo Gernsback’s popularscience magazine Modern Electrics. But then he decided to take a broader view and pursue a career as a writer and cultural critic.

Mumford believed that mechanization had reached its brutal peak; in the new era man and machine might be reconciled.

Although his first several books were devoted to literary, art, and architectural history, they were steeped in the issues of the machine age. As a student at the New School for Social Research and an editor of the literary magazine The Dial, he worked closely with Thorstein Veblen, a trenchant critic of industrial capitalism, and acquired a taste for leftist ideology. But his principal intellectual influence was an eccentric Scots biologist, sociologist, and city planner named Patrick Geddes. It was Geddes, Mumford’s “master,” who introduced him to a view embracing science, technics (a now-obsolete word for technology), and society and who convinced Mumford that the human spirit must be constantly reinforced in the face of brutalizing, dulling technology.

Criticisms of technology began creeping into Mumford’s writings in the 1920s, as he bemoaned the spiritual damage being wrought by the regimentation and routinization of mass production. In a similar vein, he criticized modern architecture as a style suitable for robots, not human beings. His famous thesis that the clock and the discipline imposed by precise timekeeping, not the steam engine, were at the root of the Industrial Revolution first appeared in his 1926 book The Golden Day: A Study in American Experiences and Culture.

Mumford focused specifically on technology for the first time in a brief article entitled “The Drama of the Machines,” in Scribner’s magazine in 1930. The article helped win him the opportunity in 1931 to deliver an extension course on the machine age in America, at Columbia University. According to Mumford, it was the first such course given in America. At the same time, he threw himself into the research for and writing of Technics and Civilization, a work that set the pattern for the remainder of his literary career.

To prepare to write Technics and Civilization, he set out in 1932 for Europe and toured the national technical museums in Paris, Vienna, London, and Munich, where he could see the major artifacts of the Industrial Revolution. He was most impressed by the lively exhibits at the Deutsches Museum, in Munich, whose library introduced him to the extensive German literature on the history of invention.

Technics and Civilization appeared two years later. It presented a grand historical progression of three successive technological phases, and in so doing effectively moved the birth date of the Industrial Revolution from the eighteenth century back to the Middle Ages: “For the last thousand years there has been a constant technological progress. This has had three phases, and more roughly three time periods: the eotechnic (wind and water and wood complex) from 1000 to 1750; the paleotechnic (coal and iron and steam) from 1700 to 1900; the neotechnic (electricity and the hard alloys and the lighter metals) 1820-?”

For Mumford, “progress” was a problematic concept. He acknowledged that technology itself progressed, but he worried about what that progress meant for social and spiritual progress. For him, technology was both cultural cause and cultural effect, with technology and culture reinforcing each other. At the root of society’s mechanization lay Western capitalism, with its demand for regimentation and objectivity. Technics had responded to capitalism with the invention of the mechanical clock, which, in turn, had reinforced social mechanization, and so on. The mechanization of technics and the concomitant mechanization of humanity had reached their brutal peak in the paleotechnic era, which Mumford identified roughly with the Industrial Revolution. The attempts to reduce human beings to machines to serve the needs of mills and factories had alienated mankind from nature and ultimately from its own humanity.

While Mumford understood the destructive effects of mechanization, he also, unlike some of his despairing contemporaries, saw hope. He found inspiration in the history and philosophy of science, which he read avidly, and especially in the writings of the British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, author of the influential Science and the Modern World. According to Whitehead, the revolutions of relativity and quantum mechanics had spelled the demise of the old mechanical world view, replacing it with an organic concept of nature. This revision of the underpinnings of both physics and biology put human beings back into nature and pointed toward more humane science and technology.

As Mumford saw it, the pendulum had made a full swing: “Up to the neotechnic period technological progress consisted in renouncing the organic and substituting the mechanical. This reached its height around 1870. Since then the new trend, visible in technics as well as in philosophy as in social life, is the return to the organic by means of the mechanical: a return with a difference, namely with the whole body of machines and analytical knowledge we have acquired along the way.” In “organic mechanism”—a melding of mechanistic and organic conceptions—lay the hope for an ultimate reconciliation of the machine and the human spirit.

For Giedion, such diverse achievements as relativity, cubism, and skyscrapers embodied common basic truths about the culture.

Sigfried Giedion (1888-1968): Machines and the Spirit of the Age

A sense of cultural crisis and hope also informed the writings of the Swiss art historian Sigfried Giedion, whose temperament combined Mumford’s reformist zeal with Usher’s sense of scholarly purpose.

Born in Prague to Swiss-Jewish parents, Giedion earned an engineering diploma from the University of Vienna at the behest of his father, who wanted him to take over the family textile business. Spurred on by more artistic desires, he then went to Munich and pursued a doctorate in art and architectural history with the renowned Swiss scholar Heinrich WÖlfflin. All his subsequent writings revealed a determination to find an outlook that fused the artistic with the technological.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Giedion undertook a massive project to write a historical treatise titled The Origins of Modern Man. The ideological basis for this work was the modernism embodied in the teachings of the Bauhaus. Founded in Weimar, Germany, in 1919, the Bauhaus school of design promoted a gathering and unifying of art, craftsmanship, and engineering design into a new functional architecture. Giedion, a close friend of the architect and Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, became a leading propagandist for the movement. He befriended artists such as Paul Klee, whose avant-garde paintings strongly influenced Giedion’s ideas about technology and culture.

As the first part of his ambitious work, Giedion began in the 1930s a manuscript titled Konstruktion und Chaos, a later version of which became Mechanization Takes Command. Although the latter was not published until 1948, Giedion was already deeply involved with questions of mechanization and society when Usher and Mumford were formulating their views. The Nazi takeover in Germany interrupted his work and cost him his European audience: many of his close friends and colleagues, including Gropius, fled to America.

Soon after Gropius arrived in this country, he invited Giedion to deliver a series of lectures at Harvard, which were eventually published as the influential and popular modernist manifesto Space, Time and Architecture. Staying on in the United States, Giedion became fascinated by American industry, especially by its extraordinarily rapid mechanization in the nineteenth century. Although he had difficulty finding an American teaching post, he resolved to write in English for American audiences. And he focused his writings on the American scene.

Mechanization Takes Command, intended to complement Space, Time and Architecture, concentrated on the problems arising from the cultural assimilation of machines. Giedion believed that modern mechanization had engendered a broad split between “thought” and “feeling,” which implied similar dichotomies between science and art, reason and emotion, and form and function. Finding ways to heal these cultural wounds became the primary goal of Mechanization Takes Command.

The book is built around a series of moralistic, meticulously researched case studies, including a now-famous account of the development of massproduction techniques in Cincinnati slaughterhouses. The “disassembly line,” as graphically depicted in Mechanization Takes Command, subjected organic matter—pigs, sheep, and chickens—to unyielding inorganic forces, automated machines that butchered the spirit as well as the body.

The excesses of mechanization, Giedion argued, created a cultural imbalance epitomized by the cruelty of the automated abattoir; a healthy culture would depend on an equilibrium among cultural components, artistic and spiritual as well as scientific and technological. Like Mumford, Giedion looked to new scientific developments for solutions, and he detected possibilities for cultural healing in modern physical and biological theories. In such theories, he wrote, “we find a departure from the investigation of an isolated process, from purely mechanistic conception of the world.” In unpublished writings, Giedion ruminated on the philosophical implications of relativity and quantum mechanics, according to which the “cosmos is beginning to resemble more and more one great thought.” He detected a reversal of the trend toward viewing organic phenomena in mechanical terms and the beginnings of a movement toward organic unification, ultimately a convergence of art, technology, and life. “The central feature or character of the cosmic movement,” he speculated, “is therefore toward wholeness.”

Despite such mystical-sounding speculation, Mechanization Takes Command deals primarily with humble things. Pursuing what he termed “anonymous history,” Giedion focused on the work of unknown innovators and everyday objects, especially the odds and ends of mass production: the Yale lock, the vacuum cleaner, bathroom fixtures, the bread we eat. In addition to visiting museums and manufacturing sites, he mined company records, patent files, and patent-model collections. Like Mumford and Usher, Giedion was a self-proclaimed “empiricist,” who believed in going out into the world and seeing it for himself. The rewards for massive personal research should be substantial, he felt, for commonplace artifacts have a cumulative cultural effect. They stamp an age and a culture more indelibly than the occasional discoveries of a few celebrated inventors.

Without an understanding of its broad purpose, Mechanization Takes Command can seem an eccentric volume indeed, almost amorphous in its diverse array of subjects. Giedion’s aim was not to trace an evolutionary succession of technological devices but to induce from a myriad of objects what was “essential” and what was “transient” to an age. The essential would reflect a central unified conception, embracing the truths of science, technology, philosophy, and the arts. Even such diverse achievements as the theory of relativity, cubist art, and the skyscraper embodied interrelated truths. Every object manifested a central conception or idea—the spirit of the age. According to Giedion, “the sun is mirrored even in a coffee spoon.”

Western thought had reduced organisms to mechanisms; these three men wanted to work in the opposite direction.

Mechanization Takes Command bore a close kinship to Giedion’s writings in the history of art and architecture, which in turn reflected his debt to his teacher Heinrich WÖlfflin, heir to the thought of G. W. F. Hegel, Germany’s great idealist philosopher. There is indeed a distant but direct relationship between Giedion’s spirit of the age and Hegel’s world spirit. But the beauty of Mechanization Takes Command is its determination to see the universal in the particular, resulting in a unique approach to the history of technology that dealt not with such spectacular artifacts as locomotives or steam engines but with coffee spoons, cups, chairs, and bathtubs—important in their own right as physical manifestations of the human spirit.

A History of Mechanical Inventions, Technics and Civilization, and Mechanization Takes Command are works of impressive scholarship and originality, and they opened up new historic vistas when they were written. Their unique power derives from the fact that their authors were grand thinkers in pursuit of sweeping moral and cultural truths. The appearance of these classic histories was itself a historical phenomenon, a response to the concerns and anxieties of the perilous time between world wars. Usher saw technology not as an antihuman force but as a means of liberation; Mumford portrayed humanity at the mercy of machines but saw hope in a new neotechnic age; Giedion, at once threatened and captivated by mechanization, urged a reassertion of human feeling and values.

For all three, ultimate salvation appeared to lie in a new approach to a fundamental split that had arisen in Western thought. Since the seventeenth century the trend in biology had been to reduce living organisms to mechanisms; Usher, Mumford, and Giedion all wanted to work in the opposite direction and raise our conception of mechanisms as organisms or as parts of a larger organism. Perhaps the “true” relationship of mechanism and organism can never be finally plumbed. Nevertheless, the approach suggested by Usher, Mumford, and Giedion encouraged a new way of thinking about technology, as an essentially human phenomenon rather than as an independent process divorced from human vitality and concerns. And it opened up a new way of thinking about history itself—with technology at the heart of the mystery.


The process of innovation has frequently been held to be an unusual and mysterious phenomenon of our mental life. It has been long regarded as the result of special processes of inspiration that are experienced only by persons of the special grade called men of genius. This mystical account of these phenomena is, however, gradually yielding ground before the growing body of psychological analysis.…

Our mental processes fall into two types; the synthetic, constructive, and creative activities concerned with innovation; the analytical, imitative, and conservative activities concerned with the formulation and imposition of tradition. A comprehensive theory of innovation would involve by necessity all the synthetic activities, but it could not be confined to them because the analytical activities are called into play.… It will now be desirable to give more attention to the details of the experiences involved in the process of invention. The experience is closely associated with the disposition of the mind to see things whole. We do not first perceive all the separate elements of an experience, and then subsequently combine them into an organized group. The whole mass of data is experienced as a unit, more or less satisfactory and complete. Such is the view of an important school of psychologists.… It is a great misfortune that there is no wholly adequate term to apply to this notion. In German the word gestalt is used; in English, configuration: but neither of these terms is sufficiently vivid or certain in its connotation.

—A History of Mechanical Inventions, by Abbott Payson Usher


The machine has swept over our civilization in three successive waves. The first wave, which was set in motion around the tenth century, … was an effort tof achieve order and power by purely external means, and its success was partly due to the fact that it evaded many of the real issues of life and turned away from the momentous moral and social difficulties that it had neither confronted nor solved. The second wave heaved upward in the eighteenth century after a long steady roll through the Middle Ages. … In the course of this effort, various moral and social problems which had been set to one side by the exclusive development of the machine, now returned with doubled urgency: the very efficiency of the machine was drastically curtailed by the failure to achieve in society a set of harmonious and integrated purposes. External regimentation and internal resistance and disintegration went hand in hand: those fortunate members of society who were in complete harmony with the machine achieved that state only by closing up various important avenues of life. Finally, we begin in our own day to observe the swelling energies of a third wave: behind this wave, both in technics and in civilization, are forces which were suppressed or perverted by the earlier development of the machine. …As the result of this third movement, the machine ceases to be a substitute for God or for an orderly society; and instead of its success being measured by the mechanization of life, its worth becomes more and more measurable in terms of its own approach to the organic and the living.

—Technics and Civilization, by Lewis Mumford


History is a magical mirror. Who peers into it sees his own image in the shape of events and developments. It is never stilled. … The meaning of history arises in the uncovering of relationships. … The historian deals with a perishable material, men… . His role is to put in order in its historical setting what we experience piecemeal from day to day, so that in place of sporadic experience, the continuity of events becomes visible. … History, regarded as insight into the moving process of life, draws closer to biological phenomena. We shall speak little, here, of general lines and great events, and then only when necessary to connect occurrences with the bedrock in which they are rooted.

We shall inquire in the first line into the tools that have molded our present-day living. We would know how this mode of life came about, and something of the process of its growth.

We shall deal here with humble things, things not usually granted earnest consideration, or at least not valued for their historical import. But no more in history than in painting is it the impressiveness of the subject that matters. The sun is mirrored even in a coffee spoon.

In their aggregate, the humble objects of which we shall speak have shaken our mode of living to its very roots. Modest things of daily life, they accumulate into force acting upon whoever moves within the orbit of our civilization.

The slow shaping of daily life is of equal importance to the explosions of history; for, in the anonymous life, the particles accumulate into an explosive force.

—Mechanization Takes Command, by Sigfried Giedion - History's Homepage

Spring/Summer 1988    Volume 4, Issue 1

Arthur Molella is chairman of the Department of the History of Science and Technology at the National Museum of American History. He is working on a book about the origins of the history of technology as a field of study in the United States.

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