History Of Scientific Instrumentation Research Paper

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In the course of the last seventy years, historical and sociological analysis of instrumentation has changed considerably. World War II serves as an important watershed. Before the war, ‘instrumentation’ referred mainly to scientific instruments. They figured in experimentation, whose purpose was to demonstrate the truths of theory by making theoretical claims visible. After 1945 the ways in which instrumentation has been perceived and the functions attributed to it have multiplied and expanded, taking into account not only devices in the science laboratory, but also apparatus used in industry, government, health care, the military, and beyond. Instrumentation is now identified in many areas of science and technology studies as central to research, engineering, industrial production, and to the processes of innovation. It is perceived as a mechanism that conditions the content of knowledge and affects the organization of work and even broader societal interactions.

In the writings of early twentieth-century students of science, instrumentation was seldom discussed and never highlighted. Historian-philosophers of science like Gaston Bachelard (1933, 1951) saw science chiefly in terms of the development of new theory. In this idealist historiographical tradition, experimentation received little attention, and instrumentation was only treated as a prop for experiments whose function was to document the discoveries embodied in scientific theories. Instruments did not invite study. Questions of instrument design, construction, and use, and their limitations, went unattended.

This is not to suggest, however, that there was no interest in scientific devices at the time. A few scholars were fascinated by them, and they strove to preserve apparatus and to unearth new devices. They were interested in the technical intricacies and novelty of instruments, for example those of Galileo Galilei. Devices were often viewed as antiquities, and due to this focus the distinction between the work of curators of science museums and instrument scholarship was sometimes a fine one. Here again, instrumentation was not treated as an active component in the knowledge production process, nor was it regarded as problematic in terms of its invention, use, or impact on the organization of research and science and technology communities.

Stimulating new perspectives in scientific instrumentation arose in the 1970s and 1980s in connection with historical and sociological investigations of post- 1945 big science. For a long time most of the research that portrayed instrumentation as a central component of science and technology focused on devices in the physical sciences. The classic study by John Heilbron and Robert Seidel (1989) of the Berkeley cyclotron in the 1930s is emblematic of the new place of instrumentation in contemporary historiography. Issues of design, finance, engineering, and construction lay at the center of the cyclotron study. The cyclotron was portrayed as an instrument whose technical and social facets involved uncertainties. It was not a ‘pure’ instrument that reflected science’s drive to probe the physical world. While the cyclotron in part served this objective, the instrument also reflected the economic and institutional environment of the San Francisco region, the hope for better healthcare, financial concessions wrung from the government, and involvement by wealthy research foundations and industry. This history demonstrates that scientific instrumentation may be guided by the scientific community, but that it is sometimes spawned by circumstances and forces outside the pale of science.

The idea that instruments are not neutral devices that serve science but elements that give structure to the scientific community first took root in studies of radio astronomy. This provocative concept was quickly extended to the sphere of high-energy physics at large (Krige 1996), oceanography (Mukerji 1992), and space science (Krige 2000). David Edge and Michael Mulkay (1976) first demonstrated that a scientific discipline, radio astronomy, which emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, was directly linked to or even defined by the design, construction, and diffusion of an altogether novel device: the radio telescope (itself an outgrowth of microwave technical research). The radio telescope discovered astronomical bodies and events. It contributed importantly to the birth of a new speciality, with its own university departments, journals, and national and international congresses. A new scientific instrument transformed knowledge, and it also affected the very institution of science.

In a more speculative, even iconoclastic representation of scientific instruments, they are depicted as the key to research career success, and yet more assertively, as decisive motors in determining what is true in science. In some areas of science, the equipment crucial to carrying out telling experiments is extremely scarce due to the expense of acquisition and operation. By virtue of possessing a monopoly in an area of instrumentation, a scientist or laboratory can exercise control over the production of the best experimental data. Studies in this vein have been done for the fields of biology (Latour and Woolgar 1979) and physics (Pickering 1984, Pinch 1986).

In this perspective Bruno Latour (1987) has suggested that scientific instruments yield not merely professional and institutional advantage, but more important, what is true and false, valid and invalid in science. A researcher’s dealings with instruments empower him or her to be heard and to be ‘right’ during scientific controversies. By dint of possessing a strategic apparatus, a laboratory is well positioned to establish what is and is not a sound claim. Latour insists that arguments and findings based on ‘weaker’ instruments, on mathematics, and on rational evaluation are a poor match against a truly powerful scientific instrument. Analyses of this sort are diametrically opposite to those of pre-World War II idealist historiography.

A balanced, subtle, intellectual, and social contribution of instrumentation in the work of scientific research is found in the writings of Peter Galison. In How Experiments End (1987), this author argues that in twentieth-century microscopic experimental physics, instrument-generated signals are often crucial to settling rival claims, and he suggests that the work of separating noise from signals constitutes a key component in this process. In Image and Logic, Galison (1997) states that, contrary to what is often argued, scientific findings are not the outcome of interactions between theory and experimentation. He factors in a third element, namely instrumentation. Science thus derives from a triangular exchange between theory, experimentation, and instrumentation. Galison speaks of a ‘trading zone’: a language and realm where these three currents merge, and where intelligibility is established. The brand of philosophical realism espoused by Ian Hacking (1983, 1989) likewise accords a central position to instrumentation. He insists that physical entities exist to the extent that instruments generate unarguably measurable effects. The classical example given by Hacking is the production of positrons whose presence induces palpable technical effects.

Today, other science and technology studies identify instrumentation as an element which influences and sometimes structures the organization of work. Instruments are depicted as rendering obsolete some activities (functions) and some groups, as stimulating fresh functions, and as helping create the backdrop for organizational transformations. In the case of early big science, high-energy physics, highly specialized physicists were replaced in the task of particle detection and tracking by armies of low skilled women observers because of the emergence of alternative large-scale photographic technologies and protocols. In parallel, new technical roles, framed by new work arrangements, arose for engineering and technician cadres who were assigned to design or maintain novel devices or to assure effective interfaces between instrument packages. In a different sphere, the introduction of the first electronic calculators and computers near the end of World War II transformed occupations and work organization as they spelled the end of the human calculators (mostly women) who during the early years of the war contributed to the military’s high-technology programs. Due to the advent of the electronic computer in the late 1940s and 1950s, small horizontally organized work groups supplanted the former vastly bigger and vertically structured work system.

Outside science too, for example in the military and industry, instrumentation is also currently viewed as having a structuring impact on the organization of labor. Control engineering, connected as it is with chains of cybernetic-based instrument systems, is depicted as having profoundly modified the organization of certain activities in military combat operations, fire control, and guidance. Other studies highlight instrumentation as a force behind changes in the composition and organization of many industrial tasks and occupations, through automation and robotics (Noble 1984, Zuboff 1988). These alter the size of a work force and its requisite skills, and the internal and external chains of hierarchy and command.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, students of science and technology tracked and analyzed the development, diffusion, and implantation of devices in spheres increasingly distant from science and the laboratory. The concept ‘instrumentation’ took on a broader and different meaning from the initial historical and sociological concept of ‘scientific instrumentation.’

Studies of medical instrumentation led the way in this important transformation. Stuart Blume’s (1992) investigations of the emergence and diffusion of catscan devices, NMR imaging, and sonography illuminated the links between academic research, industrial research, the non-linear processes of industrial development of medical instrumentation, and the farflung applications of such apparatus. Blume’s and similar analyses had the effect of introducing significant complexities into the earlier fairly clear-cut notion of instrumentation. They blur the former understanding of a ‘scientific instrument’ by showing the multiple sites of its origins and development. They further show that an instrument may possess multiple applications, some in science and others in engineering, industry, metrology, and the military. One thing stands out with clarity; a scientific instrument is frequently coupled to industry in powerful ways: design, construction, diffusion, and maintenance. This link is historically situated in the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, and it appears to grow constantly in strength. This situation is pregnant with material and epistemological implications for science and beyond, as experiment design, laboratory work practices, reasoning processes, the organization of industry, and daily life are now all so interlocked with instrumentation.

With only a few exceptions, however, little historical and sociological work has thus far concentrated on firms specifically engaged in the design, construction, and diffusion of instrumentation. It was not until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that the military general staffs and politicians of certain countries (Germany, France, Great Britain, and somewhat later the US, the USSR, and Japan) began to perceive that their nation’s fate was tightly bound up with the quantity and quality of the instrumentation that endogenous industry could conceive and manufacture. In part because of this new consciousness, as well as the growth of scientific research, the number of companies involved in instrument innovation and production increased impressively. Mari Williams (1994) indicates that instrument companies must be thought of as key components in national systems of education, industry, government policy, and the organization of science. During much of the nineteenth century, France enjoyed the lead. England challenged the French instrument industry at the turn of the century, but by this time leadership clearly belonged to recently united Germany. Success in the scientific instrument industry appears to have been associated with tight organic bonds between specific firms and specific research laboratories, which was the case in England for companies close to the Cavendish. Germany’s immense success was the product of an organic association between the military, government, industrial manufacturing, and instrument making firms (Joerges and Shinn 2001). In the twentieth century, such proximity (not only geographic but perhaps more particularly in terms of working collaborations and markets) similarly proved effective in the United States.

Does there exist an instrument-making or instrument-maker culture? This question too has received little attention, and any answer would have to be historically limited. Nevertheless, one often-cited study does address this issue, albeit indirectly. For a sample of post-World War II US instrument specialists, the sociologist Daniel Shimshoni (1970) looked at instrument specialists’ job mobility. He discovered that when compared to other similarly trained personnel, instrument specialists changed jobs more frequently than other categories of employees. However, the reasons behind this high mobility received scanty attention. One interpretation (not raised by Shimshoni) is that instrument specialists change employers in order to carry their instruments into fresh environments. Alternatively, once instrument specialists have performed their assigned tasks, perhaps employers encourage their departure from the firm, and instrument men are consequently driven to seek work elsewhere.

One theme that has gained considerable attention during the 1980s and 1990s is the relationship between innovation and instrumentation. In an influential study, the sociologist of industrial organization and innovation Eric Von Hippel (1988) has explored the sites in which instrument innovations arise, and has examined the connections between those sites and the processes of industrial innovation. He indicates that a sizable majority of industrially relevant instrument novelties comes from inside industry, and definitely not from academia or from firms specialized in instrumentation. The instruments are most frequently the immediate and direct consequence of locally experienced technical difficulties in the realms of product design, manufacture, or quality control. Instrumentation often percolates laterally through a company, and is thus usually home used as well as home grown. Many devices do not move beyond the firm in which they originate. Hence, while in some instances dealings with academia and research may be part of industry practice, instrumentation is normally only loosely tied to science. When the connection between instrumentation development and science is strong, it is, moreover, often the case that industry spawned instrumentation percolates down to the science laboratory rather than academia-based devices penetrating industry.

Some sociologists of innovation suggest that instrumentation in industry is linked to research and development, and through it to in-house technology and to company performance. According to some studies, during the 1970s and 1980s instrumentation correlated positively with industrial performance and company survival for US plants in a range of industrial sectors (Hage et al. 1993). Firms that exhibited small concern for advanced technology tended to stumble or close when compared with companies that actively sought new technologies. According to the Von Hippel hypothesis, an important fraction of innovative technology would take the form of in-house instrument-related innovation.

The connection between academia, instrument innovation, and economic performance has been approached from a different perspective in a more narrowly researched and fascinatingly speculative study carried out by the economic historian Nathan Rosenberg (1994). Rosenberg suggests that many key instrument innovations having a great impact on industry spring from fundamental research conducted in universities. To illustrate this claim, he points to the university-based research on magnetic spin and resonance conducted by Felix Bloch at Stanford University in the late 1940s and 1950s. This basic physical research (theoretical and experimental) gave rise to nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and to NMR instrumentation; and in turn, NMR apparatus and related devices have spread outward in American industry, giving rise to new products and affecting industrial production operations. The best-known use of NMR instrumentation is in the area of medical imaging. Rosenberg suggests that the spillover effect of academic instrument research has been underestimated, and that the influence of academic research through instrumentation is characterized by a considerable multiplier effect.

In the final analytical orientation indicated here, instrumentation is represented as a transverse epistemological, intellectual, technical, and social force that promotes a convergence of practices and knowledge among scientific and technological specialities. Instrumentation acts as a force that partly transcends the distinctions and differentiations tied to specific divisions of labor associated with particular fields of practice and learning.

This transcending and transverse function is reserved to a particular category of instrumentation: ‘research-technology’ (Shinn 1993, 1997, 2000, Joerges and Shinn 2001). Research-technology is built around ‘generic’ devices that are open-ended general instruments. They result from basic instrumentation research and instrument theory. Examples include automatic control and registering devices, the ultracentrifuge, Fourier transform spectroscopy, the laser, and the microprocessor. Practitioners transfer their products into academia, industry, state technical services, metrology, and the military. By adapting their generic products to local uses, they participate in the development of narrow niche apparatus. The research-technologist operates in an ‘interstitial’ arena between established disciplines, professions, employers, and institutions. It is this in-between position that allows the research-technologist to design generalist non-specific generic devices, and then to circulate freely in and out of niches in order to diffuse them. Through this multi-audience diffusion, a form of practice-based universality arises, as a generic instrument provides a lingua franca and guarantees stable outcomes to multiple groups involved in a sweep of technical projects.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s studies devoted to instrumentation, or studies in which instrumentation plays a leading role, grew appreciably. The impressive number of instrument-related articles appearing in many of the major journals of the social studies of science and technology testify to the fact that the theme is now strong. Two general tendencies characterize today’s enquiries into instrumentation: first, a great diversity in the number of analytic currents and research schools which perceive instrumentation as basic to past and contemporary cognitive and organizational activities; and second, considerable variety in the spheres of activity that are putatively affected by instrumentation and in the mechanisms that allegedly underpin instrument influence.


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