So what is the lasting legacy of GE on the Vonnegut Brothers? On the professional, General Electric fundamentally changed and impacted the career path for both men. Kurt discovered that writing was his passion, he left the company after his first short stories were published in 1951, and never had a corporate job again, though he did briefly sell Fiats independently in the late 1950s. Bernard, on the other hand, became a meteorologist, a career path that he was no where near until his work on Project Cirrus. He spent the last 20 years of his career teaching atmospheric science at a university, even though he was a trained chemist. This is a huge shift.
On a deeper level, Kurt’s distrust of corporate life, and much more importantly, scientists and engineers who disregard humanity in their endeavors stems from his work at General Electric, which he states clearly in many of his interviews through the 1970s and 1980s. While Bernard did choose to work for another company, eventually he did leave corporate life for academia, teaching atmospheric science, and rarely speaking of his work on “Project Cirrus” publicly again. In the few interviews which he did give, he was critical of Langmuir neglecting to think of the overall impact that this project would have on the environment, something which clearly stuck with him nearly a decade after the end of the project, when he gave an interview in 1957.
Both of the Vonnegut brothers were deeply concerned about the place of ethics and morality in science, and the need for scientists to learn to grapple with growing corporate and government influence. Questions about the individual scientist’s morality underlie Kurt’s ideas of twentieth century science, and questions about corporate science’s lack of ethics was central to Bernard’s thinking. It is within these concerns about the relationship between the individual scientist’s morality and the push for corporate science that the Vonnegut brothers humanism is expressed. Even more than the General Electric Company, it is Irving Langmuir whom both men are responding to and pushing back against, a man who at one time was held up as the ideal of an American scientist. At a time when some scientists were feeling the need to speak out about morality in science, Langmuir was adamantly opposed to the inclusion of moral considerations in science. In this way, he was a product of his corporate setting. This put his ideas at odds with those of the brothers Vonnegut because when it comes down to it, both men are hopeful that people can be good and can create change, even if the major organizations which they are a part of cannot.
Leave a Reply