George Wilson’s Inaugural Lecture, “What is Technology?”

           Dr. George Wilson’s speech on the nature of Technology, in 1855, is one of the first of such attempts at lecturing on Technology in England. He discusses the usefulness of technology for individuals, for himself, for society as a whole and Western society specifically. He deftly defines Technology in a new and reasonable way. Then he elaborates on his personal use of technology, as a division of knowledge and labor amongst his fellow professor Chairs. Finally, he promises to make his work as Chair a benefit to both academic and non-academic students alike. Overall, he makes strong connections between civil society, religion, and labor.

           As a medical doctor, it is confusing to guess at how the Dr. Wilson became the Chair of Technology at the university of Edenborough. He gives us clues, by claiming that he would not be where he was had it not been for the close friendships of other chairs of the same University. He uses his own personal story as a microcosm of the story of man and technology, by putting side-by-side his own meager situation to the “industrialness of man,” being, “singularly illustrative of his combined weakness and greatness.” He explains all technology as caused by two realities, which are, “the result of our being born without clothes; the other half of our being born without tools.” He is eager to show man’s use of technology as granting him, “a place of power and dignity, separating him…from every other animal.” He claims that technology is a gift from “the heavens”, all flowing from man’s original use of fire. He also distinguishes men of western society from those “savages”, saying that architecture itself stemmed from the building of huts with branches, saying of them, “his twisted branches…grow into Grecian columns…and Gothic pillars.” In making these references, Wilson has made the case for Western Exceptionalism, as well as the case for the needed progress of technology.

           Dr. Wilson continues in making a case for the use of technology in society, further defining his purpose in that society as Chair, and that society’s place in the world. He claims that technology should continue to be pursued, once begun, in saying, “From the moment that we quit the guidance of instinct, for that of interpreting, devising, and constructing intellect, we are bound to employ the last to the full.” He posits that his position as Chair is useful towards the aim of reducing the negative impact of technology on human life. He claims that technology is for the betterment of society, saying, “We require, accordingly, perpetually to transfer knowledge from the wise to the unwise,” and proposing that his position as Chair is to facilitate “such transfers.” He said. “No inventions have changed the entire world more than steam and gunpowder.”  He claims that as a society we progress, “largely because we are the ministers and masters of fire.” In making these claims, Wilson returns full circle to the implicit claim that Western society is greater than other societies of “savages” due to its use of technology to dominate others. He even incorporates a sort of Cosmology for technology, claiming, “as there is but one God, the Author of all, so there is but one Science, the expression of His power.” Wilson plays a common tune from the Western IR, in which men viewed their work and duty as an act for God himself, bringing happiness and meaning to human life. He calls Science, “the expression of His [God’s] power,” (word in brackets added).

           Dr. Wilson defines technology differently than the textbook definition of his time. He defines technology as far more, “limited.” He spends some time conceding that the Fine Arts are not “Useless arts,” and that they are in fact Arts and even “Utility, through or by means of Beauty.” However, he disregards them as being part of the realm of technology, which is, “Useful, Utilitarian,” and, “Economic.” He further defines technology as, “are the Industrial Arts, or Handicrafts.” He goes further to restrict his definition to, “certain Departments of Industrial Art.” He excludes Medicine from Technology’s sphere of influence, if only because it is “so useful,” that it requires its own branch of thought. Wilson gives great length at the end of his lecture, to discuss the different Chairs and the boundaries between the subjects they teach. For such reasons, he further narrows technology’s purpose for his Chair, to “The chemical, much more than the mechanical industrial arts.” The fact that he labors intensely, to explain the ways which he will not be stepping on the toes of other Chairs, is evidence to the notion that Wilson only became a Chair due to his friendships with them.

           Wilson used much rhetoric that made him seem like a Deist, which I believe was popular in that era and place, but finally he admits to being, “content to answer in the most catholic and expansive way.” I wonder whether his use of the word catholic, being not capitalized, was meant as a sort of verb. Regardless, Wilson certainly appeals to the religious amongst him, for in his final statements he gives credit to God and Jesus. He connects labor with righteousness, when speaking of God, “who now stretches forth His divine hand to bless all honest, earnest labour.”

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