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Technology in Australia 1788-1988Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering
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Sir Lindesay Clark


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The history of science is well documented. The great leaps forward of mankind and great creative minds stand out. They appeal to our sense of admiration and lend themselves to historical treatment: Single events and singular personalities. Many great scientists were also great masters of the pen. Through their own writings they have handed down authentic images of the science of their day and its creators. Publication -articulacy -is essential to modern science and often its dominant purpose. Its exponential growth during the last century has been amply documented. The historians of the science of our age will not lack material. The problem for the contemporary writer is to discern the lasting values.

By contrast the history of technology -in its broadest sense the application of science and engineering to man's economic advancement -has been far less well documented. Yet technology is the origin and feedstock of science. All sciences have developed out of techniques -mathematics from measuring in the market, surveying and keeping accounts; mechanics and physics from working wood and metals, construction and transport; chemistry from smelting ores, brewing and distilling. Technology predates written records and its origins are lost in the prehistoric past; indeed it characterises man's evolution, early and recent: the ages of stone, gold, bronze, iron, the industrial revolution and Kondratieffs cycler derive their names from it.

Technological man's aim has always been to solve problems. From primitive survival against the ravages of nature to the mastery of complex 20th century systems, his first target has been concrete achievement: shelters, tools, products and processes. Description was secondary; scientific hypothesis and abstractions were the means, not the end in itself. For centuries trades were practised secretly and handed down from generation to generation by strictly controlled guilds, by practical training only. The written record has, of course, now become part and parcel of modern technologies. Yet their complexity, their interactions with, and their interdependence on science impede exhaustive description and comprehension by the individual.

The great advances made by science in the nineteenth century have altered the historical balance between science and technology. Greek and Arab scientific genius laid the foundation of science in astronomy, mathematics, physics and medicine as far as intellectual abstraction could take them in the absence of verification by experiment. After the dark hiatus of mysticism in the middle ages progress had to await the emergence of tools which made experimentation possible: Glass vessels and the mercury pump for measuring gases in chemistry; clocks, lenses for telescopes in astronomy and physics; microscopes in biology and, most important, printing for the propagation of knowledge. The emergence of exact science followed with Galileo, Newton, Leibniz, Kopernicus and Kepler and laid the foundation for the simultaneous exponential growth of modern science and the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century. While one could almost discern alternating cycles of impulse from new technology or new science, the emergence of corporate science and technology in the twentieth century brought about fusion -and confusion -in the science/technology interaction. As De Solla Price has put it

. . . there was a far from simple relationship between science and technology as we came to know more detail of their respective histories. In the history of science, technology enters frequently, either as the provider of new opportunities to study by means of processes, substances and apparatus that had not before been available to excite the spirit of curiosity or as provider of interesting, Pasteur-like problems that start in industry and end in the scientific journals. In the history of technology on the other hand, even in cases that stand out as mountain peaks, like the transistor, penicillin, the computer and the laser, once one knows how the advance was actually made, it tends to follow more closely the nineteenth century aphorism of 'thermodynamics owes more to the steam engine than ever the steam engine owed to thermodynamics'. This must not be pushed into a flat statement of diametrical opposition to the traditional view of the application of science, for that would also err on the side of simplicity. Perhaps the most appropriate image is to consider science both a quintessential juice squeezed from technology and providing a nutritive fluid for further technology.

The simplistic linear model of direct flow from science to technology, 'today's science is tomorrow's technology' no longer holds. This recognition is of particular relevance to the smaller and middle ranking industrial nations, including Australia. Science progresses in small quanta. Although science quantum jumps differ immensely in merit, each quantum is communicable and comprehensible between individual scientists. The production cost of each quantum is -relatively -low, accessible even to scientists in small countries. Technology, by contrast, involves the combination of masses of quanta from past experience, literature and critical novel steps. Costs are immense and, as a rule, presuppose vast resources derived from international markets. Without access to such markets the scientific contribution from small nations tends to flow into the international pool from which the technology generating major economies draw. It is for this reason that the contributions to science from small countries rarely coalesce into technologies in the country of their origin. More often they contribute to world technology. The respective roles of science and technology are therefore very different in smaller economies. Imaginative and deliberate strategies are needed-differing from those of the technology-leading countries -to bring about effective interaction between technology and science. Unquestionably, in the overall economic development of small economies the role of technology import predominates over that of their own sciences. The complexity of technological growth has only recently been probed and understood better, particularly in the derivative industrial countries. A clearer vision of the history of technology is a key factor in this understanding.

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