The end of the Second World War saw a rise in both government sponsored corporate research and corporations, such as General Electric, influencing the mentalities of both scientists and ordinary Americans. The General Electric Company had been a fixture in American households since it was formed in the late nineteenth century. By the end of World War II, GE’s industrial research laboratory, the House of Magic as it was often called, was a place where talented scientific and engineering minds went to hone their craft and work in a collaborative environment. This is the environment that impacted how the two brothers Bernard and Kurt Vonnegut viewed technology, science, and the place of man in nature. It was more than just the company itself that left a lasting impact; while at GE Kurt met and Bernard worked with Nobel Prize winning scientist Irving Langmuir.
My goal is to show that Kurt and Bernard were fundamentally changed intellectually by their time at General Electric and their interactions with Langmuir. This paper will explore the effect that their time at GE had on the early work of the brothers Vonnegut, particularly Kurt’s first novels and Bernard’s work on silver iodide in cloud seeding. Kurt worked in GE’s public relations department where he interviewed scientists and told their stories; and his interaction with Langmuir was particularly important, inspiring his two most biting commentaries on man’s relation to technology, Player Piano and Cat’s Cradle. Likewise, Bernard reacted to Langmuir’s view of technology, which he saw as simply a means to an end, and to Langmuir;s disregard for the human element of his cloud seeding experiments.
Why should anyone care about the views of technology and science of Kurt and Bernard Vonnegut? GE’s influence opens a window into some of the cultural associations of science and technology. Many of the fears about automation displacing workers, and world-ending technologies, which Kurt discusses at length in the two books which I am covering here, were being voiced elsewhere, within the context of a response to the beginnings of the Cold War. Bernard was overwhelmingly concerned with the environmental effects of certain technologies, while Kurt was more concerned about ideas of progress narratives surrounding technology. But both brothers voiced concerns about the relationship between human fallibility and technological progress. They thought that difficult questions, such as water and labor shortages, could be answered, but they were wary about over-extending technology, since they thought that there was a thin line between technology helping and hurting society. It is within the context of the changing technological and corporate environments of the Cold War that Kurt and Bernard Vonnegut take an intellectual stance on the relationship of technology to humanity.
It is important to understand the growing corporate approach to research during the early twentieth century in order to understand the environment that the Vonnegut brothers inhabited during their time at General Electric. Since the end of the nineteenth century, scientific research had become much more team oriented, relying on groups of people rather than individual genius to complete projects. Corporations around the world had realized that in order to capitalize on the scientific and technological innovations of the men working for their companies, they would need to assume greater control of the system in order to maintain access to patents. So they created industrial laboratories. At General Electric, the industrial lab was conceived in 1901 from the mind of mathematician Charles Proteus Steinmetz, who became the public face of the company after the death of Edison. After Steinmetz, GE would come to be known for the Nobel Prize winning chemist Irving Langmuir. It was within this lab that Langmuir came of age as a scientist and Bernard would eventually come to work.
Next week I will discuss the early life of Bernard Vonnegut and the career of Irving Langmuir before their work on “Project Cirrus.”
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