- Looking Into the Mirror of Time:Reflections on the Life and Work of Edwin T. Layton Jr., 1928-2009
Looking into the mirror of time, back to the fall of 1975, the first reflection I see in my mind's eye is the image of Ed Layton's guardian angel—Albrecht Dürer's Melencolia—looking down from his office wall at the University of Minnesota. That autumn he was a newly appointed professor at the university, and I was a new Ph.D. student intent on studying the history of technology. It seems long ago, and it seems like yesterday. Ed explained to me that the angel depicted the essence of the historian's life: the quest for knowledge combined with the inevitable loneliness of scholarly work. Looking back from thirty-five years, I see that Dürer's print also captures some of the deepest characteristics of Ed Layton as a scholar. On one level, this Northern Renaissance masterpiece expresses the great humanistic spirit that pervaded his life and teaching. On another level, the angel's paraphernalia—from mathematical shapes to measuring instruments and [End Page 543] workmen's tools—convey his love of technology, science, and mathematics, which directed the corpus of his scholarly work. And on still another level, the image's Neoplatonic, allegorical character reflects Ed's philosophical side, his unrelenting desire to discover the deeper, simpler truths and structures beneath the complex surface of historical events. Ed was as much philosopher as historian, which partly explains the enduring impact of his contributions to the history of technology.
Ed Layton was not only a great humanist and brilliant scholar and teacher; he was also a leader of the Society for the History of Technology's institutional and intellectual development, serving on all the major prize committees, on the executive council, and finally as vice president and president between 1983 and 1986. For more than two decades he was an advisory editor for Technology and Culture or a key member of the SHOT editorial committee. In 1971 he received the society's Dexter Prize for The Revolt of the Engineers: Social Responsibility and the American Engineering Profession, cited as "a model of research and synthesis in the social history of technology," and nineteen years later he was awarded the Leonardo da Vinci Medal. Through his intellectual contributions, Ed influenced our understanding of technological knowledge, the interaction of science and technology, issues related to engineering design, ethics, and ideology, and the nature and history of engineering professionalization. Yet the scope of his interests ranged much further. Indeed, few have matched the depth and breadth of his knowledge of human culture and society from ancient times to the present. In his last year of life, despite declining health, he was still reading voraciously in subjects as diverse as ancient and medieval music, cosmic physics, poetry, film, astronomy, and naval history.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Edwin Thomas Layton Jr. rose above a childhood that left him with a sense of abandonment. His father and namesake was an Annapolis-trained naval officer who became the head of intelligence for the U.S. Pacific Fleet, reaching the rank of rear admiral, and who gained fame posthumously from his book And I Was There (1985), which recounted events leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Ed had only limited personal interaction with his father, however. Layton senior was sent overseas when his son was less than one year old, and his parents soon divorced, both of them eventually remarrying and founding new families. At the age of seven, when his mother remarried, Ed was left without explanation to be raised by his grandmother. His mother remained emotionally aloof, and, though he tried several times throughout his life to establish a personal relationship with his father, he was rebuffed. Still, Ed always took a keen interest in naval affairs. He joined the U.S. Navy Reserve while still a teenager, leaving only when he got his first full-time teaching position, and later presented talks on naval intelligence relating to his father's career.
Ed's psyche also bore the imprint of growing up during the Great...