Prof. Bruce Hunt’s new book examines how technology has shaped science
In "Pursuing Power and Light: Technology and Physics from James Watt to Albert Einstein" (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), Associate Professor Bruce J. Hunt looks at the historical roots of some of the main scientific achievements of the nineteenth century.
Posted: April 26, 2010
Prof. Bruce Hunt; cover of new book in background
He shows that the laws of heat and energy, the field theory of electricity and magnetism, and the atomic theory of matter all had close ties to the new technologies of the time, especially steam engines, telegraphs, and electric power systems.
In some cases the new technologies of the nineteenth century grew directly from scientific advances, as the traditional picture of technology as "applied science" would suggest; the invention of radio, for example, came straight out of the discovery of electromagnetic waves in the 1880s.
But just as often, it was technology that took the lead: the laws of thermodynamics, for instance, were based on studies of steam engines, while the development of field theory was given a strong impetus by phenomena engineers encountered on the first undersea telegraph cables. The pursuit of power, in the form of working technologies, and of light, in the sense of intellectual understanding, drove the advance of both technology and science in the nineteenth century. Even Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity had some of its roots in the electrical motors and dynamos he examined while working at the Swiss patent office.
Hunt has taught history of science courses at The University of Texas since 1985. His book, published in the series “Johns Hopkins Introductory Studies in the History of Science,” grew out of both his own work on the history of nineteenth century electrical physics and his course on the history of modern science.
“None of the books out there really covered the history of nineteenth century physics the way I wanted,” Hunt said. “In particular, none brought out what I see as the real relationship between the science and the technology of the time. So I finally sat down and wrote the book myself.”
Hunt’s first book, The Maxwellians (Cornell University Press, 1991/2005) is a study of the group of young physicists who revised and extended James Clerk Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory in the 1880s and 1890s. He is now writing a book on how the cable telegraph industry shaped British work in electrical science in the second half of the nineteenth century.