The History of Science and Technology
Historians studying the history of science have questioned and revised many traditional assumptions. They have challenged the popular notion that technology marches of its own predetermined accord, and they have revealed the many ways that the practices of scientists are shaped by their societies and cultures.
They have also pointed out the serious pitfalls of triumphalist narratives of scientific progress.
The origins of science and technology are a complex matter. Historians of science have a variety of ways to approach the subject, ranging from tracing a scientific concept’s genealogy through time to analyzing its current state for hidden flaws.
Historians of science and technology have also studied the interaction between science and society, especially as it affects social groups with different values and priorities. This is a large part of the motivation behind the field of science and technology studies, which encompasses the histories of physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, engineering, medicine, and many other disciplines.
The Bancroft Library has an extensive collection of materials related to the history of science and technology, including bound, edited interview transcripts and tape-recorded interviews in its Oral History Program. These oral histories are often used in the teaching of the history of science and technology, but they have a broader significance as well. They reveal that science is not a neutral pursuit, but is profoundly affected by the values and assumptions of those who conduct it.
Obviously, a compressed account of technological development must adopt a framework that will allow it to make some allowances for the specific features of particular periods. The pattern chosen is largely chronological, with emphasis placed on the major events and developments that took place at each period.
Scientific research relies on evolving technology to conduct experiments and validate theories. For example, Galileo used a telescope to upend the prevailing belief that the sun revolved around the earth and prove that it orbited the moon instead.
The development of advanced tools enabled scientists to discover the inner workings of the human body, other planets, and the universe. Scientific discovery has led to revolutionary changes in medicine, agriculture, transportation, telecommunications and many other areas of society.
The Bancroft Library has a wide range of collections that document the history of science and technology. These include bound, edited interview transcripts and taped interviews, as well as manuscript materials. The Library’s Oral History Program and the Center for Science, Technology and Culture have also conducted many oral histories of individuals involved in such fields as physics, chemistry, medical physics, virology, aeronautics and the development of computer hardware.
Science and technology are woven together: scientists rely on evolving technologies to conduct experiments; for example, Galileo used his telescope to demonstrate that the Sun revolves around the Earth. Historians explore the social, political and cultural impacts of science and technology in historical context.
The History of Science and Medicine Division cultivates a deep understanding of the history of science and medicine in the context of the larger intellectual environment. Its collections offer insights into the ways in which scientists change their minds dramatically, and compete quite vigorously, to defend ideas in the face of overwhelming counterevidence.
The division also supports scholarly work in the history of science and medicine through graduate fellowships and assistantships, teaching, and event programming. Its extensive holdings include the Dibner Library of Rare Books and the Heralds of Science Collection, one of the premier collections in this area. The division is committed to preserving these materials for future generations of scholars and students.
Whether studying ancient tools used to harvest and process plants for food (farmers’ ploughs, shovels, knives and sickles, pestles and pounders) or the revolutionary new methods of measurement Galileo applied with his telescope to upend traditional beliefs in the earth-centered universe, students who study the history of science and technology gain insights into how our understanding of nature has changed over time. They also learn that scientific endeavors look and operate differently at different points in history, and they are influenced by their cultures and societies.
Constructivist historians of science have emphasized the importance of cultural factors in shaping scientific developments. For example, they have shown that supposedly self-evident features of experimentation—such as precision measurement—are shaped by and contribute to an industrializing culture. Nineteenth-century scientific managers such as George Biddell Airy viewed their observatories and laboratories as industrial workplaces, and they relied on regimes of routinized measurement to discipline their workforces.