Val Dusek, Technology as Applied Science

Much of contemporary technology is applied science. However, to define technology simply as applied science is misleading both historically and systematically. If one understands science in the sense of the combination of controlled experiment with mathematical laws of nature, then science is only some four hundred years old. Even the ancient Greeks who had mathematical descriptions of nature and observation did not have controlled experiment.

The medieval Chinese had highly developed technology and a rich fund of observation and theory about nature, but had neither the notion of laws of nature nor controlled experiment. Technology in some form or other goes back to the stone tools of the earliest humans millions of years ago. Clearly, with this understanding of science and technology, through most of human history, technology was not applied science. Part of the issue is how broadly one defines science. If one means by science simply trial and error (as some pragmatists and generalizers of Popper’s notion of conjecture and refutation have claimed; Campbell, 1974), then prehistoric technology could be treated as applied science. However, now the notion of science has been tremendously broadened to include virtually all human learning, indeed all animal learning, if one holds a trial and error theory of learning.

Perhaps this is an example of a definition of science that is too broad. Even after the rise of early modern experimental science and the notion of scientific laws in the seventeenth century, and the development of the technology that contributed to the industrial revolution, most technological development did not arise from the direct application of the science of Galileo (1564–1642) and Newton (1642–1727). The inventors of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries usually did not know the theories of mathematical physics of their day, but were tinkerers and practical people who found solutions to practical problems without using the science of their day. Even as late as Thomas Edison (1847–1931) we find a tremendously productive inventor in the field of electricity who did not know the electromagnetic theory of James Clerk Maxwell (1831–79) and his followers, but who produced far more inventions than those scientists who did know the most advanced electrical field theories. Edison initially even disparaged the need for a physicist as part of his First World War team, thinking one needed a physicist only to do complicated numerical computations, but that a physicist would have nothing much to contribute to technology. By this time Edison’s view of the role of theory was getting somewhat dated.

Even in the contemporary situation, in which scientific training is essential for most technological invention, the notion of technology as applied science, if taken in too simple and straightforward a way, is misleading. Modern technology is pursued primarily by those with a scientific background and within the framework of modern science, but many of the specific inventions are products of chance or of trial and error, not a direct application of scientific theory to achieve a pre-assumed goal.

Many chemical discoveries have been results of accidents. Safety glass was discovered when a chemical solution was spilled on a piece of glass laboratory apparatus, the glass was accidentally dropped, and it did not break. Penicillin was discovered when a bacterial culture was accidentally contaminated by a mold. Paper chromatography was discovered when a scientist accidentally spilled some chemical on a filter paper, and the chemical separated into two components as it seeped up the paper. The Post-it was discovered when a technologist, Art Fry, using little bookmarks in his hymnal, remembered a temporary glue that a colleague, Spencer Silver, had developed back in 1968 that was too weak to permanently stick two pieces of paper together. In 1977–9 3M began to market the invention, and by 1980 it was sold throughout the USA. Charles Goodyear’s development of vulcanization of rubber involved numerous trials and experiments, but one crucial event involved him accidentally leaving his treated “gum elastic” on a hot stove, and noticing that it charred like leather. He then experimented to find a lesser, but optimum, heat of exposure (Goodyear, 1855).

Louis Pasteur (1822–95) famously said that chance favors the prepared mind. The development of these accidental discoveries made much use of the scientific knowledge of the people who made them. But the discoveries were hardly the straightforward application of scientific theory to a preset problem. For these reasons, although technology involves knowledge, particularly know-how, a definition of technology that characterizes it simply as applied science is too narrow.