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Technology and Culture 41.3 (2000) 616-619

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Book Review

Rescuing Prometheus

Rescuing Prometheus. By Thomas P. Hughes. New York: Pantheon, 1998. Pp. 372; illustrations, figures, notes/references, index. $28.50.

On the last page of this excellent book, Thomas P. Hughes provides a list of twenty-two pairs of evocative words and phrases, set down in parallel columns. The terms in his first column denote aspects of "modern" (pre-World War II) methods of technology, engineering, and management; those in the second stand for approaches characteristic of the "postmodern" (postwar) period. Hughes uses these shorthand "polarities," as he calls them, to compare the two eras. For example, he contrasts Taylorism in the first period with systems engineering in the second; mass production in the first versus batch production in the second; programmed control in the first as opposed to feedback control in the second; bureaucratic structures in the first versus collegial communities in the second; micromanagement in the first as against black-boxing in the second; integration in the first versus coordination in the second; hierarchical/vertical management styles in the first as opposed to flat/layered/horizontal ones in the second. [End Page 616]

The mere act of setting down this long pair of lists constitutes a series of bold generalizations on the part of the author. As they stand, they could form the basis for a course syllabus on the recent history of technology, engineering, and management. Here they appear as modest suggestions supported by the rich material that precedes them in the book. Fully developed, they would require a book at least three times as long as this one.

Certainly no historian is better qualified to posit such generalizations than is this great master. Over the last four decades, Hughes has given us a series of pathbreaking books and articles, including penetrating biographical studies of Elmer Sperry and Lewis Mumford, a strikingly well-conceptualized and deeply researched analysis of electrification in three countries, and a remarkably wise synthesis elucidating the broad enthusiasm for technology in American history from 1870 to 1970. Building on that formidable body of work, Hughes for more than ten years now has turned his historian's eye toward the daunting subject of large technological systems and has encouraged like-minded scholars in other disciplines to do the same.

In Rescuing Prometheus, Hughes analyzes the evolution of four such systems in post-World War II America. The first is the SAGE (Semiautomatic Ground Environment) effort during the 1950s to develop an air-defense system based on interconnected radar and computer installations. SAGE, says Hughes, "can be compared to the early-nineteenth-century Erie Canal project as one of the major learning experiences in technological history" (p. 15). In SAGE the learning came primarily from the use of digital computers in controlling continuous flows of information--and, hardly less important, from the ways in which the project itself evolved. In its key phases, SAGE was organized and carried out primarily by scientists and engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, along with a similar cadre from IBM. In this chapter, and throughout the book, Hughes emphasizes the modern necessity for teamwork and interdisciplinary project management in contrast to the lone inventor of romantic folklore.

The second case study is of the Atlas ICBM system, which began in 1954, was successfully tested in 1958, and then was deployed on a limited basis until replaced by the Titan and the Minuteman. Some seventy thousand people worked on Atlas, most of them for two hundred contractors and several thousand subcontractors. Here the key institutional players were the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board, the RAND Corporation, Hughes Aircraft, and Caltech scientists and engineers. The innovative management team was headed on the public side by General Bernard Schriever of the U.S. Air Force and on the private side by Simon Ramo of Ramo-Wooldridge Corporation (the RW in what later became TRW). Both Schriever and Ramo were talented administrators in addition to being first-rate engineers. They managed to create an administrative structure that overcame bureaucratic hurdles, thereby facilitating the cooperative approach essential...


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