History, Engineering & Economics: Progress Studies is Cross-Disciplinary 

Jason Crawford

Progress Studies for Young Scholars covers the history of technology. But students who go through the course aren’t just learning history: tfully appreciate the story of progress also requires forays into science, engineering, finance, and economics. 

Science and engineering form the background for stories of invention. To appreciate a new technology, you have to understand the technical problem that it solved, and at least the basics of how the solution works. Some challenges come from chemistry: the carbon content of steel is central to the Bessemer process; the triple covalent bond of nitrogen gas provides the challenge of creating synthetic ammoniaThe electrical industry depends on the physics of electromagnetism: the equations that govern current, voltage, and power in a circuit are central to the economics of the power grid and why it uses alternating current. The mechanical engineering techniques that make the automobile possible, such as the differential gear or the rack-and-pinion steering system, require an understanding of simple machines and mechanical advantage. 

Understanding the ramifications of new technologies and their effects on society entails basic concepts in finance and economics, such as real wages, labor productivity, fixed vs. variable costs, and return on investment. These concepts are abstract, but the history serves as a learning material and a pedagogical aid: but the historical examples we study provide the illustration that makes them real and concrete. After learning how mechanization of the textile industry allowed a single spinner or weaver to output several times more thread or cloth than before, the concept of labor productivity is natural. Fixed vs. variable costs are clearly illustrated by examples of major infrastructure projects such as railroads or power plants. The advent of skyscrapers after the introduction of cheap steel illustrates the downstream economic consequences of changing prices. 

Progress studies is naturally cross-disciplinary. In Progress Studies for Young Scholars, we don’t confine the curriculum to one field. We follow the logic of the story wherever it needs to go, from physics to economics. Learning history this way is more natural, more motivating, and ultimately more rewarding. 

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