Gewinner der Karl Max von Bauernfeind-Medaille 2016
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Progress in Engineering

Science discovers, genius invents, industry applies, and man adapts himself to, or is molded by, new things was the slogan of the 1933 World Fair in Chicago.1 The official title of this exposition to celebrate the city’s centennial was A Century of Progress. True to its motto, the World fair presented a panorama of technology at the forefront of its time. A major attraction was the Sky Ride aerial tramway that stretched over the fair grounds on a lagoon in Lake Michigan. Modernist concept houses were presented as the Homes of Tomorrow, with new materials, designs, and appliances that were meant to make housework easier and more efficient. Streamlined bullet trains such as the Zephyr and the M10000, automobiles such as the Cadillac V16 and the Pierce Silver Arrow, and airships such as the Hindenburg were symbols of increasing mobility.

Since the 1930s, further developments in engineering have changed the face of western industry and science and have transformed the societies of postwar Europe and America. Passenger jets have replaced hydrogen blimps. Polymers can be given any shape imaginable and can be manipulated so that they exhibit myriad properties. Computers are now ubiquitous. Fields such as information technology, astronautics, and biomedical engineering have emerged. Methods such as computer aided design, simulation, and rapid prototyping allow faster development, testing, and fabrication for a broad range of products. It seems that the pace of progress is ever increasing.

While technological advances play a prominent role in engineering, the nature of this type of progress remains elusive on a philosophical level. Which technological advances are conceivable, and how can they be categorized? Is everything “new” progress? What kinds of changes in technology constitute progress? Does technological progress lead to a higher standard of living? When facing these questions, a sketch of the historical development of the idea of progress can be helpful.

Up until quite recently, the notion of progress apparently did not exist. In ancient India, the Vedic dogma of Samsara said that, through reincarnation, all earthly beings were condemned to an endless sequence of lives.2 At best, one could try to leave this cycle, and thus existence altogether, by reaching a state of spiritual enlightenment.

Plato (circa 429–347 BC) and Aristotle (384–322 BC), who would dominate western philosophy for centuries, were proponents of a doctrine called moira, the idea that a logos, a principle of divine reason, governed the world in a strictly periodical way. Most philosophers in ancient Greece believed that every thing and every person had an assigned and unalterable place in a more or less predetermined, quasi-static universe. While the individuals present in the world were thought to change as people are born and die, the universal order of the world was considered to essentially remain the same forever. Morale and cosmology were intricately related: The ancient ideal was not to change the world, but to learn the set of rules governing it and accept one’s fixed role in it.3

The first influential ideas of technological progress in Europe began to develop long after the ancient Greek polis under the influence of Judaic and Christian theology. Francis Bacon (1561–1626), in “The New Atlantis” from 1624, and other works, saw the process of continual technological improvement as a way for humans to bring paradise onto Earth after the expulsion of Adam and Eve from biblical Heaven.4 The belief that advances in science and engineering were per se beneficial to human well being was expounded by thinkers of the Enlightenment period and soon became mainstream thought not only in philosophizing communities, but in virtually every class of society.5

This sudden radical shift was caused by multiple complex factors. However, it suffices to take a look at the list of inventions of the Middle Ages and Renaissance given in 1750 by the Enlightenment philosopher Anne Robert Jacques Turgot (1727–1781) to get a feeling for the enormous improvements to everyday life that recent discoveries and innovations afforded the bourgeoisie and upper classes in Europe:

[…] what a host of inventions unknown to the ancients and standing to the credit of these barbarous ages! Our art of musical notation, our bills of exchange, our paper, window glass, plate glass, windmills, clocks, spectacles, gunpowder, the magnetic needle, and the perfection of navigation and commerce.6

Parallel to this unprecedented technological progress, Turgot saw constant progress in the natural sciences, which were evolving out of natural philosophy. As early as the 18th century, it was noted that individual sciences were becoming more and more specialized and separated from one another. Turgot, like most Enlightenment philosophers, held to the Ancient belief that there was a finite set of natural laws, reminiscent of the world governing „logos“. He was optimistic that at some point the search of science for the rules governing the universe would come to an end and that the sciences would be reunited into a theory of everything:

The different sciences, confined at first to a small number of simple notions common to all, can no longer, when as a result of their progress they have become more extensive and more difficult, be envisaged otherwise than separately; but greater progress once again unites them, because there is discovered that mutual dependence of all truths which in linking them together illuminates each through the other; because, if each day adds to the vast extent of the sciences, each day also makes them easier, because methods are multiplied with discoveries, because the scaffolding rises with the building.7

Meanwhile, real architectural projects became continually more sophisticated due to deeper insights into the laws of statics made possible by discoveries of scientists such as d’Alembert, Newton, and Leibniz. Not only did buildings grow in size, they began taking on completely new forms.

In Europe it was during the close of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century that suspension bridges first appeared. Because of their relatively light weight and advantageous strain distribution, they became popular among architects as an alternative to arch bridges. In addition, suspension bridges covered greater spans at greater heights. As the science of Chemistry advanced, engineers began using new materials, allowing even lighter structures. The gradually growing expertise in the construction of suspension bridges manifested itself in the Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge of San Francisco in the early 1930s. It comes as little surprise that these structures, especially the Golden Gate Bridge, which was for almost three decades the bridge with the greatest extension of its type (almost 3 km)8, soon became symbols for progress in the United States, a republic born at the zenith of the Enlightenment period.

Symboldarstellung eines Atoms.

The bridges represent what could be called a “bottom-up” approach to technological progress, that is the consideration of already known solutions to technical problems (in this case the principle of a bridge, or building a platform over an area otherwise difficult or impossible to cross) and the search for ways to make these solutions more effective. Concretely, this means looking for ways to change a technical artifact to make it more economical (e.g. cheaper in construction and maintenance), applicable to a wider range of problems and boundary conditions (e.g. a bridge that could span wider bodies of water and face stronger winds), and more efficient at its purpose (e.g. a bridge that allows greater numbers of people or vehicles to cross at once) by changing its shape, the materials used, or the configuration of its components.

On a philosophical level, this approach was highly appropriate in the traditionally pragmatic view of most US thinkers. Charles Beard describes the affinity of Americans to the notion of advancement as follows:

Into the mood of the American people … the idea of progress fits with extraordinary precision … It remains, and will remain, a fundamental tenet of American society, and while vigor is left in the race it will operate with all the force of a dynamic idea rooted in purpose, will, and opportunity.9

In America, the concept of progress gained impetus after the victory in World War II and during the years of the great space programs. Its characteristic claims as described by Taylor E. Dark can be seen as the archetype of most current ideas of progress:

(1) there are no fundamental limits on the human capacity to grow, however growth is defined; (2) advancements in science and technology foster improvements in the moral and political character of humanity; and (3) there is an innate directionality in human society, rooted in societal, psychological, or biological mechanisms, that drives civilization toward advancement.10

Across the globe, the Soviet regime may have politically opposed America on almost any other level, but at its center lay the same basic notion of progress. When America and the Soviet Union saw each other confronted in a long power struggle, the conviction of each side in the Nuclear Arms Race was that technological supremacy alone guaranteed survival. For the actors of the Cold War, failure to move forward was lethal, whereas technological advancement had become synonymous with the progress of mankind towards their respective political systems.

The invention of nuclear weaponry and energy production represents the counterpart of “bottom-up” progress, which could be described as a “top-down” process. Top-down technological advances are solutions to a problem that have never before been put into practice. Frequently these are the result of theoretical breakthroughs that lead to a new possible solution concept for a given technological problem for which the means of implementation are then searched for. An understanding of the atomic structure and the insight that heavy elements when split would emit vast amounts of energy were the basis of the Manhattan Project, which lead to first designs of the atomic bomb11, and of subsequent efforts to use nuclear energy in a peaceful manner to generate electricity. The success of this approach is not necessarily instantaneous, and is in no way guaranteed. The theory of nuclear fusion has found its way into technology in the form of the H-bomb, but its use as a source of electriclal energy “50 years from now” has been constantly postponed by its exponents for decades due to the manifold engineering difficulties that arise from the extremely high temperatures generated in the fusion process, and the high complexity of the reactors.

The categories „bottom-up“ and „top-down“ give a rough characterization of technological advances from an internal perspective of engineering. In a broader sense, however, the notion of technological progress seems to be linked to the idea that the development of machines, engines, and public works improves the quality of life in general. Thus, a crucial aspect remains to be addressed: the impact of technological progress on humans.

Over the past decades, existential threats posed by the long-term consequences of technology have become a central issue, as debates about environmental hazards through global warming catalyzed by CO2 emission, potential nuclear Armageddon, the risks of genetically modifying food crops, and countless other examples show. In the face of wars led to an increasing degree with high-tech arsenals, nobody can convincingly claim that technological advances have been positive for all people.

Is technological progress then to be viewed negatively? Does the insight that the Earth’s natural resources are finite; do the trends towards „sustainability“ and „renewable energies“ herald a renaissance of cyclical ideals?

Perhaps a certain idea of progress must indeed be given up. For many people, especially in the Third World, despite enormous technological transformations the quality of living has not risen since the 1940s, when the French existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir wrote:

And yet, despite these differences, should one not be allowed to hope for justice on a higher level? Do not all of the single sacrifices of World History find their necessary place? This is the hope with which the myth of [sociocultural] evolution theory wants to lure us. This myth promises that humanity will be united after a temporary phase of estrangement. Transcendence appears here in the shape of Progress. The entire past of humanity is present within every single human, in every single one of his actions, and is soon transgressed in its entirety into the future. The inventor thinks about old technologies and thus invents a new technology; the following generation builds upon his invention and invents an even better technology; in this future humanity that moves past him by basing itself on him, the inventor welcomes the success of his plan.12

Theories of technologically induced sociocultural evolution rest on the implicit assumption that technological progress is automatically effective in eliminating social and political conflicts by increasing material wealth or general welfare. Such a naive faith in technology as a universal solution for all social conflicts and human struggling seems misplaced in a world where child labor is still a problem and smart phones are assembled by hunger-loan wage workers in sweat shops. Sociocultural evolution theory overlooks an important point: inner-technological progress does not in itself give everybody access to the profits of technology and does not, as de Beauvoir points out, replace human commitments and actions.

While “technological progress” is not inherently beneficial to all of mankind, it appears to affect people on a deep personal level. In the words of de Beauvoir:

My relation to objects is not given a priori, they are not fixed: I create them every minute […] Every transgression gives me that which I transgressed from anew, and it is for this reason that technologies are a way to make the world your own: The skies belong to him who knows how to fly, the Ocean to whoever can swim and steer a ship.13

It is only by technological advances that we can claim the world of engineering, and hence the world we live in, for ourselves, and thus it appears that technological progress lies at the very heart of human endeavor.


  1. See Jennifer Chandler, “Science discovers, genius invents, industry applies, and man adapts himself…,“ in Law and Technology Theory Blog, (February 10, 2009), http://techtheory.blogspot.de/2009/02/one-of-slogans-of-1933-chicago-worlds.html (accessed October 26, 2014).
  2. See Gavin Flood, „Hindu Concepts,“ in BBC Religions (August 24, 2009), http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/hinduism/concepts/concepts_1.shtml#h4 (accessed October 26, 2014).
  3. See John Bagnell Bury, The Idea of Progress (London: Macmillan and Co. Limited, 1920), 18ff.
  4. See Jürgen Klein, „Francis Bacon,“ in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), edited by Edward N. Zalta, http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2012/entries/francis-bacon/ (accessed December 29, 2012).
  5. See Margaret Meek Lange, „Progress,“ in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2011 Edition), edited by Edward N. Zalta, http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2011/entries/progress/ (accessed December 30, 2012).
  6. Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, A Philosophical Review of the Successive Advances of the Human Mind, (Auburn, Alabama: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2011), http://library.mises.org/books/ARJ%20Turgot/The%20Turgot%20Collection%20Writings,%20Speeches,%20and%20Letters%20of%20Anne%20Robert%20Jacques%20Turgot,%20Baron%20de%20Laune.pdf (accessed January 3, 2013), 339.
  7. Ibid, 342f.
  8. For facts about the Golden Gate Bridge, see http://goldengatebridge.org/research/facts.php#LongestSuspSpan (accessed October 24, 2014).
  9. Charles Beard, Introduction, in J. B. Bury, The Idea of Progress:An Inquiry Into Its Origins and Growth (New York: Dover Publications, 1932), pp. xxxvi–xxxvii. Quoted from: Taylor E. Dark III, Reclaiming the Future: Space Advocacy and the Idea of Progress, http://history.nasa.gov/sp4801-chapter29.pdf (accessed January 2, 2013), 555.
  10. Taylor E. Dark III, Reclaiming the Future: Space Advocacy and the Idea of Progress, http://history.nasa.gov/sp4801-chapter29.pdf (accessed January 2, 2013), 555.
  11. Terrence R. Fehner and F.G. Gosling, The Manhattan Project, April 2012, http://energy.gov/sites/prod/files/The%20Manhattan%20Project.pdf (accessed January 3, 2013), 2ff.
  12. Translated from Simone de Beauvoir, Pyrrhus und Cineas, in: Soll man de Sade verbrennen? - Drei Essays zur Moral des Existenzialismus, (Reinbek/Hamburg: Rowohlt, 2007), 219f.
  13. Translated from Simone de Beauvoir, Pyrrhus und Cineas, in: Soll man de Sade verbrennen? - Drei Essays zur Moral des Existenzialismus, (Reinbek/Hamburg: Rowohlt, 2007), 200f.

Literatur

Bury, John Bagnell. The Idea of Progress. London: Macmillan and Co. Limited, 1920.

Dark, Taylor E. III. Reclaiming the Future: Space Advocacy and the Idea of Progress, http://history.nasa.gov/sp4801-chapter29.pdf (accessed January 2, 2013).

De Beauvoir, Simone. Pyrrhus und Cineas. In: Soll man de Sade verbrennen? - Drei Essays zur Moral des Existenzialismus, Reinbek/Hamburg: Rowohlt, 2007.

Fehner, Terrence R. and Gosling, F.G. The Manhattan Project. April 2012. http://energy.gov/sites/prod/files/The%20Manhattan%20Project.pdf (accessed on 3 January 2013).

Klein, Jürgen. „Francis Bacon“. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), edited by Edward N. Zalta. http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2012/entries/francis-bacon/ (accessed December 29, 2012).

Lange, Margaret Meek. „Progress“. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2011 Edition), edited by Edward N. Zalta. http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2011/entries/progress/ (accessed December 30, 2012).

Turgot, Anne Robert Jacques. A Philosophical Review of the Successive Advances of the Human Mind. Auburn, Alabama: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2011, http://library.mises.org/books/ARJ%20Turgot/The%20Turgot%20Collection%20Writings,%20Speeches,%20and%20Letters%20of%20Anne%20Robert%20Jacques%20Turgot,%20Baron%20de%20Laune.pdf (accessed January 3, 2013).


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