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From Order to Messy Complexity: Thoughts on the Intellectual Journey of Thomas Parke Hughes

From: Technology and Culture
Volume 55, Number 4, October 2014
pp. 945-952 | 10.1353/tech.2014.0108

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From Order to Messy Complexity
Thoughts on the Intellectual Journey of Thomas Parke Hughes

No field of scholarship is the product of a single individual, but it can be argued that much of the form and substance of the history of technology was shaped by Thomas Parke Hughes (fig. 1). Involved with the creation of the Society for the History of Technology in the late 1950s, an active scholar who published twelve books in the field (including two winners of the Dexter [now Edelstein] Prize), and the mentor of two dozen Ph.D. students, Tom shaped—and reshaped—the field for forty years. Trained first as an engineer and then as a European diplomatic historian, Tom defined the vocabulary of the history of technology, introducing key concepts such as technological momentum, styles of invention, systems, and social construction. But above all, Tom was a gracious and charismatic person—a Southern gentleman—who brought people together and inspired them to do their best work.

I was fortunate to be one of Tom’s Ph.D. students and studied with him from 1977 to 1984 at the University of Pennsylvania. At the time, Tom had a number of overlapping interests—large-scale systems, electric power, German industrialization, and inventors—and he carefully doled out dissertation topics to his students based on their interests and strengths. In Tom’s grand scheme (and he was always looking at the “big picture”), I was assigned to studying inventors and encouraged to become a biographer, with my dissertation on a contemporary of Thomas Edison, Elihu Thomson.1 Hence, in reflecting here on how Tom shaped the history of technology, [End Page 945] I am obliged to play the role of the biographer and inquire, as Tom taught me, into how his youth, education, and early career shaped the major themes that he developed across his books and articles. In particular, I will argue that his ideas followed a trajectory from order to messy complexity.


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Fig 1.

Thomas Parke Hughes, 1923–2014.

Always proud of his Southern roots, Tom was born on 13 September 1923 in Richmond, Virginia, to Hunter Russell Hughes Sr. (1893–1945) [End Page 946] and Mary Quisenberry Hughes (1894–1983).2 Tom had one older brother, Hunter Jr. (1918–1991). The Hughes family ran a lumber business in Richmond, but during the heady days of the 1920s, Hunter Sr. opened a Ford dealership in Charlottesville, Virginia. The dealership, unfortunately, failed in the early years of the Depression, and Tom’s family moved back to Richmond. Through the 1930s, Hunter Sr.’s business affairs remained unsteady, leading Tom to become a delivery boy so that he could contribute to the family.

Tom responded to the economic disorder of his youth by developing a strong sense of responsibility and self-reliance that permeated all of his personal and professional friendships. But these difficulties also set Tom on an intellectual path to search for order. Underlying much of his writing about inventors and engineers such as Thomas Edison or Bernie Schriever was a strong narrative that these men were seeking to create order out of chaos, to create technologies that would make the world harmonious, peaceful, and productive.3 One of the most compelling passages in Tom’s biography of Elmer Sperry discusses how Sperry detested the chaos of nature and sought to bring order through his feedback-control inventions.4

But writing about Sperry lay twenty-five years in the future. After graduating from high school in the early 1940s, Tom spent a year at the University of Richmond but soon followed his older brother and moved to the University of Virginia (UVa) to study engineering.5 Tom thrived at UVa, and he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, the Raven Society, and the Trigon Engineering Society. He was also president of UVa’s chapter of Kappa Sigma fraternity. UVa conferred on Tom a degree of social respectability, illustrated by the fact that Tom lived in his fourth year on the Lawn, the original part of the University designed by Thomas Jefferson; in later years, whenever Tom visited UVa, he would always make a...