What books have you read the most times?
In studying technology, I am interested in two big questions: how do individuals create new machines and how do people then use technology to shape their culture? The most well-thumbed volumes in my library are Elmer Sperry: Inventor and Engineer by Thomas P. Hughes (Engr ’47, Grad ’53) and Alfred D. Chandler’s The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business. Hughes’ biography has served as a model for writing about how inventors bring together machines, business needs and cultural ideas in order to change the world. From Chandler, I gained an appreciation for how managers and entrepreneurs appropriated technology to create powerful corporations and hence revolutionized the American economy at the end of the 19th century. Together, Hughes and Chandler taught me the importance of thinking carefully about the role of individuals and the structure of organizations in history.
What neglected or lost classic would you recommend?
When people ask me for something to read about technology, I often recommend Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization. Mumford looks at the role of technology in Western civilization from the Middle Ages to the 20th century, but rather than chronicling one machine after another, Mumford shows how people took up different technologies in response to new ideas about religion, politics and society. He was among the first scholars to point out that people choose one technology over another in response to their ideas and values. Given how often people today choose technology first and then discover how the technology doesn’t necessarily support their values or ethics, Mumford serves as a powerful corrective.
What are you reading now?
In order to finish my biography of Tesla, I spend a lot time reading patent testimony and old electrical engineering journals. However, I believe that if you’re going to write about an inventor, then you need to understand his technology; would you read a biography of a painter written by someone who doesn’t understand how the paintings were created?
But along with these technical materials, I’m reading books for insight into the personality of creative individuals. For instance, I’m rereading Sylvia Nasar’s biography of the mathematician John Nash, A Beautiful Mind, to see how she handles the issue of mental illness. I believe Tesla probably suffered from depression and I don’t want to make any facile connections between depression and creativity. At the same time, because I’m titling the Tesla biography Ideal and Illusion, I am also reading Ken Silverman’s Houdini! to think through the issue of illusion. Inventors like Tesla need money and credibility to develop an invention, and to gain those resources, they have to create an illusion—to get people to envision the possibilities for an invention before the technology actually works.