The Power of Analogies for Understanding Technological Innovation: Historical Session Being Planned


I am currently putting together a session for the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) annual meeting in Portland, Maine, on October 10-13, 2013, with the title, “The Power of Analogies for Understanding Technological Innovation.” I will give a paper, as will Howard E. McCurdy, The American University. The beginning of the session abstract reads:

Everyone uses historical analogies to understand current issues and to help make decisions about present-day concerns. Sometimes they use those analogies effectively, and sometimes not. The current debate over national economic policy is rife with historical analogies and sometimes even the same analogues are deployed to support differing positions. There is a long history of the use and abuse of analogs, offering perspectives on how they might be effectively employed in analysis of current challenges. A key work, but only one of them that might be cited, is I intend to structure this set of case studies along similar lines to those developed in Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May’s classic text, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers (New York: Free Press, 1986). They offered a structure that called for analysis if each analog along three dimensions: what are the similarities with the present situation? What are the differences? And then, what are the implications of these similarities and differences? This session will explore the place of analysis using analogies to a set of episodes in the history of technology. The first paper by Howard E. McCurdy, American University, employs the history of mountaineering in the twentieth century, especially efforts to reach the summit of Mr. Everest, to illuminate patterns of innovation that might be applied to the story of space exploration. Roger D. Launius, senior curator in space history at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, revisits a classic study, The Railroad and the Space Program: An Exploration in Historical Analogy (MIT Press, 1965), in which Bruce Mazlish investigated whether or not there were lessons to be drawn from the experience of railroad development and operation that might be applied to NASA. It suggests that there have been a broad range of options pursued in the past to stimulate investment in railroads. Not all of them were successful—some failed outright and others had detrimental unintended consequences—but some might have application for NASA.

We are looking to add two additional papers to the session if anyone has anything that might fit. I am going to need a chair and a commentator as well. If you have thoughts on this, please let me know.

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