Science and technology historian George Dyson’s new book, “Analogia: The Emergence of Technology Beyond Programmable Control,” traces 300 years of the interaction between people, nature, and technology and how a new age is unfolding. Newly released by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, it joins the author’s series of other science-themed works: “Baidarka the Kayak (1986), “Darwin Among the Machines” (1997), “Project Orion: The Atomic Spaceship 1957-1965” (2002), and “Turnings Cathedral” (2012).
The son of familiar Princeton figures, the late theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson and mathematician Verena Huber-Dyson, the 67-year-old writer unsurprisingly occasionally turns his attention to Princeton and the Institute for Advanced Study, his father’s longtime academic home, as he does in the following excerpt:
Nowhere in postwar America was there more electronics, and better electronics, than in New Jersey. From RCA’s vast Camden works and Princeton laboratories to the Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, it was New Jersey that led the way in electronics just as Thomas Edison, and the city named after him on the shores of the Raritan River, had led the way in delivering electric light.
Princeton, New Jersey, was only 20 miles from Edison, yet a world apart. Founded by a syndicate of Quaker families fleeing the 18th century gentrification of Philadelphia and New York, it remained protective of its prerevolutionary architecture, surrounded by farmland reverting back to forest or undergoing development now that food could be gown more efficiently at refrigerated distances from New York. Its central feature was a university, founded as the College of New Jersey in 1746, with a number of laboratories and institutions in its orbit, some devoted to the cultivation of ideas and others devoted to the development of stuff.
The laboratory most devoted to stuff belonged to the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). Successor to the American Marconi Company and parent to the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), RCA was established under a government order to keep the radio industry, nationalized during the wartime emergency, under U.S. control in the aftermath of World War I. RCA, and its subsidiary RCA Victor, formed through a merger with the Victor Talking Machine Company, whose trademark fox terrier, Nipper, was adopted by RCA in one of the most successful branding exercises of all time, became the dominant provider of both radio equipment and programming: a vertical monopoly that survived the transition from radio to television without missing a step. RCA, masterminded by the Russian immigrant David Sarnoff, was also the progenitor of a trend among American technology companies to separate their research facilities, requiring a permanent staff of well-compensated scientists, from their manufacturing facilities, located wherever labor was available at the lowest cost.
RCA’s Princeton laboratories, 40 miles from the dense, low-income Camden neighborhoods that were home to the 10,000 workers who build the products the engineers in Princeton designed, were established in 1941, shortly after a period of violent labor unrest at the Camden plant. The 2.5-million-square-foot Camden facility was supplied with raw materials, ranging from coal for its generating station to lumber for radio cabinets, by its own railroad and barge terminals. Up to 5,000 radio sets per day were shipped out.
The institution most devoted to ideas was the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS). Proposed in 1924 by the Norwegian American topologist Oswald Veblen, whose uncle Thorstein had coined the term “conspicuous consumption” in his 1899 “Theory of the Leisure Class,” the institute was founded in 1930 through the generosity of the Newark dry-goods merchant Louis Bamberger and his sister Carrie (Mrs. Felix Fuld) and launched into the aftermath of the Great Depression by the high school teacher turned educational reformer Abraham Flexner, who described the thinking behind his project in an essay for Harper’s Magazine titled “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge” in 1939. The Bambergers had retired to devote themselves to philanthropy, selling their operations to R.H. Macy & Co. just weeks in advance of the 1929 stock market crash. The result was an educational institution that neither required advanced degrees nor awarded them. It was intended, as Flexner describe it, to serve as “a paradise for scholars who, like poets and musicians, have won the right to do as they please.”
The scholars were divided into two classes: visiting members in residence, with rare exceptions, for one year or less, and permanent members, in residence for life. Salaries were kept high for the permanent members so they would stay, while stipends were kept low for the visitors so they would not. No reports were required, and no classes were taught. Committees and faculty meetings were outlawed because, according to Flexner, “once started, this tendency toward organization and formal consultation could never be stopped.”
The institute, whose first appointments were Flexner, Veblen, and Albert Einstein, opened with a school of mathematics, followed by a school of history, including archaeology and art, and a short-lived school of economics and politics that the Bambergers hoped would “contribute not only to knowledge of these subjects but ultimately to the cause of social justice which we have deeply at heart.” Physics and astronomy remained under the wings of mathematics until the School of Natural Science was established in 1966. During World War II most of the physicists, with the exception of Einstein, left to join the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos or its ancillary labs. Everything was different when they returned.
“Analogia: The Emergence of Technology Beyond Programmable Control,” by George Dyson, $28, 304 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.