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Men, Machines, and Modern Times

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An engaging look at how we have learned to live with innovation and new technologies through history.

People have had trouble adapting to new technology ever since (perhaps) the inventor of the wheel had to explain that a wheelbarrow could carry more than a person. This little book by a celebrated MIT professor—the fiftieth anniversary edition of a classic—describes how we learn to live and work with innovation. Elting Morison considers, among other things, the three stages of users' resistance to change: ignoring it; rational rebuttal; and name-calling. He recounts the illustrative anecdote of the World War II artillerymen who stood still to hold the horses despite the fact that the guns were now hitched to trucks—reassuring those of us who have trouble with a new interface or a software upgrade that we are not the first to encounter such problems.

Morison offers an entertaining series of historical accounts to highlight his major theme: the nature of technological change and society's reaction to that change. He begins with resistance to innovation in the U.S. Navy following an officer's discovery of a more accurate way to fire a gun at sea; continues with thoughts about bureaucracy, paperwork, and card files; touches on rumble seats, the ghost in Hamlet, and computers; tells the strange history of a new model steamship in the 1860s; and describes the development of the Bessemer steel process. Each instance teaches a lesson about the more profound and current problem of how to organize and manage systems of ideas, energies, and machinery so that it will conform to the human dimension.

260 pages, Kindle Edition

First published December 1, 1966

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About the author

Elting E. Morison

11 books3 followers
Elting Elmore Morison was an author of non-fiction books, an essayist, a United States historian of technology, a military biographer, an MIT professor emeritus, the conceiver and founder of MIT's program in Science, Technology and Society (STS).

Morison earned his BA (1932) and MA (1937) at Harvard University, where he served for two years as assistant dean. In 1946 he took a position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as an assistant professor of humanities in the Sloan School of Industrial Management. Apart from a six-year stint at Yale University as master of Timothy Dwight College, Morison taught at MIT until his retirement as the Killian Chair of the Humanities.

He was the grand-nephew of George Shattuck Morison.

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Displaying 1 - 12 of 12 reviews
428 reviews25 followers
November 17, 2017
What a wonderful book! It is easy to see why it played such a central role in Brandy Schillace's "Clockwork Futures," an examination of the science behind steampunk. Author Morison was a historian at MIT where he followed issues relating to technology and society. This book was first published in 1966, followed by a 50th anniversary edition paperback from MIT in 2016. The latter does have a foreword and some introductory remarks that are informative, but the small format of the book is too cramped for the large subject matter.

Morison is a story teller hiding behind an essay writer. He is informative, entertaining, and a master exemplar of the writing craft. His areas of interest included the military, and two of the essays here are based on 19th Century naval technology examples of how change is often viewed as a threat to the societies where that change is introduced. The first essay, Gunfire at Sea, tells of Navy Lieutenant William S. Sims and his learning from a British officer a technique for improved
aiming of ships' guns. He adapted this technique to his own ship and greatly increased the accuracy during target practice. He brought this to the attention of his superiors in Washington, DC. He was ignored. He responded in more forceful language and shared his information with fellow fleet officers. Washington finally responded saying US equipment was a good as Britain's, and tests (conducted on dry land, not at sea) proved that what Sims was claiming was impossible.
Sims, a zealot when aroused, jumped the chain of command and took his case to President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt brought Sims back to Washington and installed him as Inspector of
Target Practice. From this position over the next 6 years he implemented his proposed changes and became known in the Navy as, "The man who taught us how to shoot."

The other naval example concerns the steam powered Navy ship Wampanoag and her creator, engineer Benjamin Franklin Isherwood. He was granted a Navy commission in 1844 then went to sea on the several steam ships in the US fleet for several years. These ships had masts and sails, with the steam engines providing auxiliary power. By working with these engines he gained practical knowledge and ventured into some of the theory battles of the day. Appointed Engineer in Chief of the Navy he was responsible for the "design and construction of the power plants for the six hundred steamers added to the fleet" during the Civil War. In 1863 the Navy moved to build four high speed (15 knot) ships that could be used to destroy enemy commerce. Two of the vessels were to be built in Navy yards and the other two by private contractors. They were completed in 1867 and 1868. One of the contractor ships proved worthless while the other did not reach the expected speed. Isherwood's Wampanoag exceeded the desired speed by three knots, handled well at sea, and was much admired by many observers.

In 1869 a naval review board examining all the steam vessels in the fleet took strong exception to the U.S.S. Wampanoag. Criticisms included that crews would not become combat ready by "lounging through the watches of a steamer," that the vessel would lack longitudinal rigidity because of her shape, would present too large a target, and several other suppositions concerning her handling abilities. Morison notes that against all of the speculated faults the board raised, "The ship's trials had revealed that the ship handled well in heavy weather, that she turned and maneuvered rapidly, " and observers has found her "remarkable 'steady,' 'efficient,' and 'easy.'

Morison thought that the board of Admirals simply paralleled the attitude of the Admirals who would later ignore Sims. Upon reflection, however, he wondered if the skeptics were not right in their opposition. He notes, "For a good many years after her sea trials. far beyond her life expectancy, no navy did produce a vessel that equaled her in speed, and also, for a good many years there would have been nothing for her to do. The world remained, as the officers predicted it would, at peace."

Morison credits the officers for their societal perception. He writes, "What these officer were saying was that the Wampanoag was a destructive force in their society. Setting the extraordinary force of her engines against the weight of their way of life, they had a sudden insight into the nature of machinery." He states that they saw that any machine "tends to establish its own conditions, to create its own environment and draw men into it." This insight of Morison's is applied not only to his other essays in this book, but to the entire project of later running MIT's
new program on Science, Technology, and Society.

Several of his other essays here relate to computers and their impact on society (comparatively slight, but fraught with potential, good and bad, at the time of their writing in the mid-1960's).

The longest essay is a detailed examination of the development of the steel industry in the mid to late 19th Century. Here he treats with the men involved, their background, character, and relative importance at the different stages of the industry. The transition from iron to steel was not easy,
posing the same uncertainty of change in society that the Admirals faced in their own society.

He concludes with a brief philosophical consideration of looking to the future, from 1966, in Some Proposals.

A well deserved five-star rating to Morison's "Men, Machines, and Modern Times"for subject matter, style, and significance.
Profile Image for Paul.
1,056 reviews20 followers
October 13, 2020
I have learned something. Not how to make steel but how technological innovation happens on a social level.
Profile Image for Alex.
82 reviews2 followers
June 25, 2017
Ngt långrandig men med givande och intressanta infallsvinklar och poänger
Profile Image for Chris Esposo.
671 reviews31 followers
December 12, 2020
In the over half-century since this text was originally published, it has aged very well. Penned by a historian of technology at MIT, who taught mostly in the first few decades of the 20th-century, and whose perspective was profoundly influenced by witnessing the successful completion of the Manhattan Project, when physics knew sin, to paraphrase Oppenheimer, “Man, Machines, and Modern Times” are observations on the mechanics of technological change in fairly good detail. What are the steps by which a scientific principle is applied to engineering, to form a technology? How does a base technology iteratively improve? And most importantly, what is the process by which society retards or accelerates this process, and how does it interact with new technology, does it accept it? Does it reject it? What are the determinants that most impact which outcome society realizes?

The text centers on 3 technological changes: Innovations in naval gunnery, computation, and the Bessemer process which converts pig iron into steel. Truthfully, I found the later subject the least interesting, though for those who would like a decently detailed overview of the dearly steel industry in the US, with the rise of Andrew Carnegie, and how the Bessemer process had several fits-and-starts before Carnegie was able to consolidate both the technical, organizational, and legal junctions into a cohesive and successful enterprise, the last 2 sections (or the last ⅓ of the book) in the book would make a great introduction.

The first ⅔ of the text really does feel like a much more cohesive text, with a common narrative that is steeped in the cybernetic tradition of the 50s and 60s, pioneered by Norbert Wiener. Morrison wants to know how technology comes about, but how it integrates with “us” (humanity) and whether that integration changes humanity at possibly a fundamental level. In modern parlance, Morrison’s text is about the “man in the loop” conundrum of cybernetic design. In the case of automatic gunnery, a problem tackled first by Wiener, the challenge is not only engineering a process that can autocorrect error, but how is it that the man-in-the-loop will interact with the machine's process of autocorrection? Without factoring this key component of the design into your machine, you could fail spectacularly to achieve your goal, and I was very satisfied with Morrison’s description of these processes, both in the example of the naval gun development, but also his description of ‘bureaucracy’, which is discussed as a technology of a sort (a social one as economist may put it).

All is not perfect though, as Morrison’s analysis of bureaucracy is cartoonishly simple, or perhaps it was the case that bureaucracies of the early and mid-20th century were just bad. Although I have reason to doubt this as the governmental organizations of the mid-century seemed to have achieved fairly spectacular things, including both the Manhattan Project, elevating the US military from a third-rate force, with respect to both man and material, to the preeminent force in at least the later, if not both, as well as successfully prosecuting the war across the nation and its allies. Morrison’s critique of the ‘modern’ bureaucracy mostly fall under the class of problems within the ‘principal-agent’ conundrum, and it’s here that he makes his case for how such a technology could retard the implementation of innovations and improvements in engineering technologies purely for non-rational, and myopic reasons idiosyncratic to the interests of the bureaucrats.

I don’t discount all of these critiques, only that they are in cases, verging on straw-man level of characterizations, and some of these observations on the sociology of these organizations were the same sort of things that Feynman identified 30 years later within his report on the Challenger disaster, which very much was a “systems analysis” overview of NASA.

Morrison’s observations on computers however, is where he shines the most, being at MIT in the 50s and 60s, I’m certain he was heavily influenced by their AI-Lab at Tech Square, and as such, he seems to have a sound grounding on the nature of AI and it’s future (which is consistent with the reality we are realizing right now).

Overall, this is a unique book, It’s worth a read for those interested in the history of technology. It’s not expansive or exhaustive, these chapters are really vignettes, and I think they best are read within the context of cybernetics, and perhaps an individual who was skeptical on the ultimate potency of cybernetics. Recommended.
Profile Image for Oliver Bateman.
1,131 reviews59 followers
October 30, 2021
Morison, an MIT prof and ancestor of this legendary engineer and misanthrope (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_...), cobbled together an interesting little book out of a series of lectures + one long unfinished book chapter on the production of Bessemer process steel. The examples are quite interesting - mixed reactions to improvements in naval gunnery, steam engines in ships, pasteurization, etc. - but they're tucked amid a lot of mid-century throat clearing ("if I may," "if you'll permit me," "now, if you'll allow me to go down this primrose path," &c.). Morison concludes with a chapter offering some proposals for using ongoing, managed experimentation to ensure that innovation isn't met with culture shock...not quite faith in "progress" in the grand 19th century style, something more akin to Robert McNamara's belief in the power of applied data though leavened with a historian's sense of the miseries and dislocations that occurred with each unsteady step forward (the weird backhanded compliment he pays Marx for his role as the first person to seriously address "man, machine, and culture" is a real Cold War chef's kiss). A good book, but so padded that its 226 pages read like 450 and could surely be condensed to 100 or so.
Profile Image for Willis Whitlock.
2 reviews2 followers
May 26, 2012
The author uses examples from the 1800s to examine our reaction to technology. Published in 1968 but the principles used apply to current technology.

Reading this book changed the way I look at the world, especially technology.
Profile Image for Joe.
28 reviews35 followers
April 26, 2013
Great book! I loved all the essays except "Almost the Greatest Invention". Morison does an excellent job capturing man's resistance to change, as well as the disruption caused by new technologies.
Profile Image for Thomas.
195 reviews5 followers
October 14, 2021
For future reference:
- Naval aiming process improvement (10/10)
- Ship design and production and the opposition to new things - resulting in the fastest ship ever produced being scrapped by the U.S. Navy
- Cannon fire rates and holding the horses
- Bessemer steel production: 3 necessary patents held by competitors - only resolved with capital.

"The executive knows, if she is wise, that she exists to make sensible exceptions to general rules. The bureau knows it exists to make rules."

"[in the 1920s] those naval officers who persisted in defending the battleship against the apparently superior claims of the carrier did so because the battleship was a more comfortable home."

Innovation causes disorder. "For example, sails were continued on our first-line ships long after they ceased to serve a useful purpose mechanically, but...they assisted officers over the imposing hurdles of change."

"The smaller the understanding of the situation, the more pretentious, often, the form of expression" (re: advances in steam engineering despite opposition)

80 reviews
August 21, 2022
Written in 1966, celebrated (and reissued) in 2016 and read by yours truly in 2022, this little book packs a powerful punch of relevance in the 21st century. Every person should have to read this book before graduating high School or college. The foresight the author seems to have about the increasing rate of change in technology and how this may not be a good thing in and of itself. I wish we could bring Mr Morison into 2022 and get his take on what our society is dealing with technology so pervasively intertwined with society and our economics. Maybe he could gaze into his crystal ball and write a volume two to the masterpiece. Current MIT professors are you up for the challenge ?
Profile Image for Scott.
6 reviews
February 4, 2023
Superb prose and an instructive sensitivity to our place in a technological age.
Profile Image for Andrew Breza.
338 reviews20 followers
May 1, 2021
A hit or miss collection of ruminations on the nature of mankind and technology. About half the book is pretty blah but the other half is mind blowing and ahead of its time.
Displaying 1 - 12 of 12 reviews

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