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Technology’s Antiquarians

This year’s Dibner fellows study weather control, spacecraft accidents, tools for measuring sound, and earthquakes of the 19th century.
April 1, 2005

For the past seven years, David Pantalony has spent much of his time poking around dusty museum and university storerooms in Rome, Paris, and rural England. He’s been searching for long-forgotten devices like the Clang Analyzer and the Phonautograph—late-19th-century instruments for studying sound designed by Karl Rudolph König, one of the founders of modern acoustics. This year, as a fellow at MIT’s Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology, Pantalony is writing a book about König’s workshop in Paris, which drew leading physicists, physicians, and musicians. Pantalony, who recently worked as a curator of scientific instruments at Dartmouth College, seems bemused that a collection of tuning forks will compel him to travel halfway around the world. However, he has discovered that König’s work is an important part of several larger stories, about the dissemination of scientific knowledge in the 1800s, the cross-fertilization between musicians and physicists, and the role of the craftsman in the sciences. “The history of instruments is small and obscure, but it actually opens up into so much territory that it’s potentially about many, many other things,” he says.

Many of the 27 other scholars at the Dibner Institute this year would agree that their individual projects, while seemingly narrow in scope, actually say volumes about particular time periods and provide insights that are valuable to other researchers. The fellows are a diverse lot, including graduate students, scholars who have earned their doctorates in the past five years, and well-established historians of science. According to George Smith, PhD ‘79, the Dibner Institute’s acting director, the fellows are chosen more on the strength of their proposed projects than for their academic or professional backgrounds. “Their projects are far afield, even in style. But while here, they develop a real sense of the integrity of these projects, why it’s worth doing,” says Smith.

The Dibner Institute was established in 1992 to support advanced research in the history of the natural sciences, mathematics, and technology, and the fellowship program is its operational core. The institute is a consortium involving MIT, Boston University, and Harvard University, and it is supported by the Dibner Fund, which was created by Bern Dibner. Dibner was an inventor, engineer, and science history enthusiast who founded Burndy, a manufacturer of electrical connectors. Finalists for the fellowship are selected by a rotating committee of former Dibner fellows. Graduate student fellows, however, come from doctoral programs at the consortium schools and are nominated by their departments. During their year at MIT, the researchers have few commitments other than pursuing their projects, whether they involve rummaging through vast storerooms of archived material at NASA or searching for a long-dead scientist’s relatives in Russia. Here are a few of the projects this year’s fellows are pursuing.

Controlling the Forecast

Postdoctoral fellow Kristine Harper is spending her year at MIT writing a book about weather control in the United States from the end of World War II through the 1970s. Harper stumbled across the topic while at Oregon State University, where she got a PhD in 2003 for her dissertation on the development of numerical weather models in the 1940s and ’50s. “The point of numerical weather prediction models originally was not just to predict weather but to control the weather,” she says. Researchers assumed that once they built a computer powerful enough to run their models, they could figure out which variables in the atmosphere they should adjust to get the weather they wanted.

After World War II, the U.S. government aggressively pursued research in weather control. By the early 1950s, President Eisenhower had formed the Advisory Committee on Weather Control. Soon, 15 percent of U.S. land was being treated using weather modification techniques, such as cloud-seeding, in which materials are added to clouds in order to encourage precipitation.

Weather research raises some interesting questions, says Harper. For example, what happens if clouds are forced to drop precipitation in one country, and another country suffers a drought as a result? “Who owns the water vapor overhead?” Harper asks. “Is that owned by everybody, or does it belong to whoever is standing underneath it at the time?” To find out how the U.S. government dealt with these questions, Harper has scoured government and weather-related archives. “Every time I pick something up, I’m just amazed by what I find,” she says.

Although public funding for weather control had largely dried up by the 1980s, Harper says she wouldn’t be surprised if, as demand for clean drinking water grows, scientists started looking at these techniques again.

The Great Quakes of the Midwest

Senior fellow Conevery Valencˇius, a former faculty member at Washington University in St. Louis, is also pursuing an earth sciences topic: the major earthquakes centered in New Madrid, MO, that occurred in 1811 and 1812. Valencˇius is particularly interested in how scientists explained the quakes at the time, and how those explanations were later revised. The earthquakes, which were felt as far off as Montréal, are among the strongest to have hit North America; but their exact strength is much debated, since there was no way to measure it at the time. There’s also debate about why the quakes happened in central North America, since no tectonic plate boundary runs through the region.

At the time of the earthquakes, scientists had many explanations for them, says Valencˇius. Some theorized that they were caused by a large volcano to the west. Others thought they were caused by lightning, or by electricity in the earth. People also described their experiences of earthquakes differently than they do today, says Valencˇius, often focusing more on the associated noises than on the damage done. For example, Valencˇius unearthed this description, given to a scientist by a former student: “The shock was preceded by a hoarse grumbling noise, something like distant thunder….Dogs howled, cattle bellowed, and horses intimated their dread by running from place to place.” Valencˇius says it’s a challenge to find accounts of these earthquakes. But, she says, that’s what makes the research so exciting.

Space Cases

Graduate student fellow Alexander Brown got the idea for his project in the aftermath of the space shuttle Columbia disaster. At the time, the doctoral candidate in MIT’s Science, Technology, and Society program was helping engineering history professor David A. Mindell, PhD ‘96, research the Apollo guidance system. “The Engineering Systems Division, the Sloan School, and the aero/astro program got together a group to talk about Columbia, to think about the implications,” Brown says. “I got involved with that and started thinking that there was more than enough material to write a dissertation.” Brown decided to study three fatal NASA accidents: the Apollo 1 fire in 1967, the Challenger explosion in 1986, and the Columbia disaster in 2003. These accidents have already been studied extensively, but Brown is focusing on the accident reports themselves. “If you look at these three accident reports, over time it shows changes in the way we understand engineering and the natural world,” says Brown. He describes the Apollo 1 report as an almost purely technical document. The Challenger report, however, takes into account much larger social and organizational factors. The Columbia report looks at the technology and the organizational factors, but also at the effects the Challenger disaster had on them.

The Dibner fellows’ research can seem obscure, even to them. But for the most part, they also consider it unfortunate that these instruments, scientists, and events have been largely ignored by historians. Valencˇius points out that historians and scientists have rarely spoken with each other about the New Madrid earthquakes. “Part of my interest is to say, I wonder what we historians could learn from the scientists if we start to read their stuff,” she says. Similarly, Harper remembers that when the topic of weather control came up when she was in grad school, “the professor just rolled his eyes and said, ‘I’m not even going to go there.’” But, Harper says, old weather control experiments might not be so irrelevant: in 2003, the National Research Council published a docu­ment on the potential of weather control techniques to provide clean drinking water. Scientists often seem to live decades in the future, but it’s also useful to keep an eye on the past.

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