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U.S. Technological Enthusiasm and British Technological Skepticism in the Age of the Analog Brain

IP.com Disclosure Number: IPCOM000129962D
Original Publication Date: 1996-Dec-31
Included in the Prior Art Database: 2005-Oct-07

Publishing Venue

Software Patent Institute

Related People

MARK D. BOWLES: AUTHOR [+2]

Abstract

In 1876 Lord Kelvin, the British mathematician and physicist, sought to ";substitute brass for brain in the great mechanical labor of calculating"; and postulated that a ";machine for integrating differential equations ... [could] be fulfilled by pure mechanism.";' Kelvin developed this idea into a mechanical, analog device called the harmonic analyzer, which could predict tidal data, but the machine never achieved widespread use (see Fig. 1) 2 In 1931, on the other side of the Atlantic, Vannevar Bush, an electrical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), independently constructed the first differential analyzer, a device far more complex, yet related to Kelvin's original idea.3 British scientists did not construct such a machine until 1933, when theoretical physicist Douglas Rayner Hartree visited Bush at MIT, copied his plans, and returned home to build a nearly identical machine. Thus, the idea that originated with Kelvin and developed in the United States was finally adopted in Britain. Why did the United States supersede Britain in the development of the first differential analyzer? There were significant contextual issues that influenced the differing developmental paths of this machine in each country. In the United States it was the technologically enthusiastic electrical engineers who built and used the machine primarily for practical, engineering problems. In Britain it was the theoretical scientists who, while skeptical of a calculating machine's utility, nevertheless needed the machine to help solve complex differential equations in quantum physics. I want to argue that U.S. enthusiasm and British skepticism were the result of the differential analyzer being a practical machine, one that required the highly skilled physical manipulation of its components by an expert engineer. U.S. technological enthusiasm for practical machines had a strong cultural basis in utopian fiction, which ";turned to technology as a medium and agent for cultural innovation.";4 Well-funded U.S. electrical engineers, like Bush, eagerly incorporated such a machine into their work, and U.S. popular culture quickly adopted an enthusiastic rhetoric of ";giant mechanical brains"; to describe the differential analyzer. The British scientific community remained skeptical that a practical machine could assist the theoretician and failed to aggressively fund the early development of these machines, and the ";tradition-bound British culture"; rarely discussed and infrequently used the adoring metaphorical rhetoric. [Figure containing following caption omitted: Fig. 1. James Thomson's Disk-Globe Cylinder Integrator that Lord Kelvin adopted for his Harmonic Analyzer.-- Kelvill Museum ]

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Copyright ©; 1996 by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

U.S. Technological Enthusiasm and British Technological Skepticism in the Age of the Analog Brain

MARK D. BOWLES

This article is a comparative analysis of the British and U.S. differential analyzers from 1930 to 1945. The author examines me development of the Vannevar Bush and D.R. Hartree analyzers in the context of the U.S. engineering community and British scientific community, respectively. He argues that this practical machine was more readily and enthusiastically adopted by U.S. engineers, while British scientists remained skeptical of the differential analyzer due to their theoretical professional style. As a result, Hartree was a "voice in the wilderness" in Britain, while Bush received extensive funding and had the support of an enthusiastic engineering environment.

Introduction

In 1876 Lord Kelvin, the British mathematician and physicist, sought to "substitute brass for brain in the great mechanical labor of calculating" and postulated that a "machine for integrating differential equations ... [could] be fulfilled by pure mechanism."' Kelvin developed this idea into a mechanical, analog device called the harmonic analyzer, which could predict tidal data, but the machine never achieved widespread use (see Fig. 1) 2 In 1931, on the other side of the Atlantic, Vannevar Bush, an electrical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), independently constructed the first differential analyzer, a device far more complex, yet related to Kelvin's original idea.3 British scientists did not construct such a machine until 1933, when theoretical physicist Douglas Rayner Hartree visited Bush at MIT, copied his plans, and returned home to build a nearly identical machine. Thus, the idea that originated with Kelvin and developed in the United States was finally adopted in Britain.

Why did the United States supersede Britain in the development of the first differential analyzer? There were significant contextual issues that influenced the differing developmental paths of this machine in each country. In the United States it was the technologically enthusiastic electrical engineers who built and used the machine primarily for practical, engineering problems. In Britain it was the theoretical scientists who, while skeptical of a calculating machine's utility, nevertheless needed the machine to help solve complex differential equations in quantum physics. I want to argue that U.S. enthusiasm and British skepticism were the result of the differential analyzer being a practical machine, one that required the highly skilled physical manipulation of its components by an expert engineer. U.S. technological enthusiasm for practical machines had a strong cultural basis in utopian fiction, which "turned to technology as a medium and agent for cult...