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Eugene S. Ferguson, 1916-2004

From: Technology and Culture
Volume 45, Number 4, October 2004
pp. 911-921 | 10.1353/tech.2004.0176

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Technology and Culture 45.4 (2004) 911-921

Eugene S. Ferguson, 1916-2004

David A. Hounshell

Eugene Shallcross Ferguson, one of the Society for the History of Technology's founding members, its eleventh president (1977-78), and recipient of its Abbott Payson Usher Award (1969) and Leonardo da Vinci Medal (1977), died on 21 March 2004, after an extended illness. He is survived by his wife of fifty-six years, Josephine Mobley Ferguson, and three children, Daniel Ferguson of Babb, Montana, David Ferguson of Sheldrake, New York, and Judith Williams of Tucson, Arizona. Since 1979 he had been professor emeritus of history at the University of Delaware.

Born in Wilmington, Delaware, in 1916 and reared in Ridley Park, Pennsylvania, Ferguson earned a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) in 1937. At that time, Carnegie Tech's engineering program emphasized not only book learning but also practical experience, so the curriculum included regular plant tours—an exciting thing for a young engineer-in-training in a heavily industrialized region once described as "hell with the lid off."

After graduating from Carnegie Tech, Ferguson held a variety of engineering positions, ranging from manufacturing planning engineer at Western Electric Company's Baltimore plant, to refinery operator at Gulf Refining in Philadelphia, to repairs and construction engineer at DuPont's high-explosives plants at Gibbstown and Pompton Lakes, New Jersey. In this latter position, Ferguson once said, one of his responsibilities was to map where projectiles, including body parts, landed following accidental explosions at the plants so as to understand better what had happened and how to improve both processes and equipment. Ferguson's experience in touring numerous plants in the Pittsburgh region and his diverse experience in working in and running manufacturing plants provided him with a keen sense, throughout his career, of the need to know how things worked.

Moreover, Ferguson's four years at DuPont's high-explosives plants no doubt shaped the navy's decision to assign him to Ordnance Supply after he enlisted and was commissioned a lieutenant in the U.S. Naval Reserve in September 1942. During the remainder of the war he saw action in the South Pacific and also worked at the Charleston Navy Yard. A chance encounter in early 1945 with a commander whose ship had recently been sunk by the Japanese in the Philippine Sea off Samar set Ferguson on a course that would eventually lead him to become a professional historian. The commander, Robert Copeland, who was also an attorney, had become enamored of naval history and its lessons, and he shared his excitement about the subject with Ferguson. Copeland's enthusiasm rubbed off. Later, while in a navy hospital, Ferguson "found the shelf of American naval biography," as he put it, and soon discovered that Captain Thomas Truxton, commander of one of the first vessels built by the U.S. Navy, the Constellation (launched in 1797), had never found his biographer. Ferguson determined to fill that gap. A little more than a decade later, during which time he taught mechanical engineering at Iowa State College, Ferguson's Truxton of the "Constellation" appeared in print in 1956.

Ferguson often noted that he learned the hard way how difficult writing good historical prose is. As an engineer, he had smugly assumed that writing history would be easy. Several scholars—especially Iowa State's distinguished historian of agriculture Earle Ross and Harvard's naval and maritime historian Robert G. Albion—disabused him of this notion. They also provided him the criticism and guidance that proved to be crucial in his transition from engineering professor to professional historian. So did the encouragement and flexibility displayed by Ferguson's department head (and eventual dean) at Iowa State, Henry M. Black, who allowed him to submit a study titled "Development of the Engineering Profession in America, 1815-1900," to fulfill the thesis requirements for his 1955 master of science degree in mechanical engineering.

Not only did this thesis allow Ferguson to continue to advance his teaching career in mechanical engineering at Iowa State, but its "essay on sources" also became the basis for his Bibliography of the History of...