I work to advance historical knowledge about engineering as a global activity. Scientists and engineers know that technology shapes society, but few appreciate how much society also shapes science and technology. My teaching focuses on professional cultures of engineering. My current research explores how experts understood and managed water pollution in the United States since the late nineteenth century.
My dissertation in history of science and technology at Johns Hopkins University, titled “The Pollution Experts: Engineers, Biologists, and the Problem of Water Quality in Rivers of the United States, 1935 to 1975,” analyzed the science of river pollution in the United States from the perspective of two groups—engineers and biologists—during a period of striking developments in federal funding and regulations to address a growing crisis. Our current understanding and definition of “water quality,” I argue, came from simultaneously tense and productive communication between engineers and biologists over how to define, monitor, and model river pollution. Engineers held managerial authority in state, interstate, and federal water pollution agencies by the 1950s, while biologists were relatively marginalized. The two groups had different tools, different goals, and different ways of communicating their findings. Yet their need to collaborate with each other forced them to communicate, negotiate, and overcome conflicts and misunderstandings throughout the 1960s. Together, they formed our current understanding of “pollution,” enshrined in the opening sentence of the Clean Water Act of 1972, which referred to the “chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.”
Before becoming an historian, I worked as an electrical engineer at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, where I built radio hardware for NASA’s Parker Solar Probe. My experience taught me to appreciate some of the promise and limitations of engineering practice, from the inside. Then I learned how to analyze engineering more broadly from the outside, with humanistic and historical perspective. To support the emerging, interdisciplinary field of engineering studies, I co-chair the Engineering Studies working group at the Consortium for History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Philadelphia.