2017 Benjamin Siegel Writing Prize Winner: John Tylko, Ph.D., HASTS
May 12, 2017
We are pleased to award the 2017 Benjamin Siegel Writing Prize to “When Inspiration Yielded to Calculation: Technology and Politics of the SST in the New Frontier,” by John Tylko, a Ph.D. student in the History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, & Society (HASTS) Program. This paper offers a captivating account of the ill-fated American program to develop supersonic transport (SST) for commercial aviation during the 1960s. Drawing upon a remarkable array of historical sources—including government documents (some recently unclassified), technical papers, corporate annual reports, personal letters, audio recordings, and oral history interviews—Tylko has meticulously reconstructed how the dream of achieving supersonic passenger transport, once a central aspiration of American aviation policy, fell into disfavor and was abandoned less than a decade later. It is a story of how the technological “inspiration” that characterized President John F. Kennedy’s “New Frontier” gave way in the face of competing “calculations” of technical feasibility, political expediency, and economic profitability.
Equally at ease discussing the technicalities of turbofan engines and the machinations of congressmen, cabinet secretaries, and CEOs, Tylko offers a masterful study in the entanglements of politics and technology—and how much is to be gained by studying their respective histories in tandem. In one sense, Tylko’s paper uses the history of supersonic aviation technologies to tell a vivid, human account of a significant turning-point in postwar American public policy, when efficiency became a guiding virtue in governmental practice. At the same time, the article makes creative use of political archives and political dramas to explain a significant turning-point in the history of aeronautical engineering, when speed ceased to be a guiding pursuit in the development of commercial aircraft. All told, “When Inspiration Yielded to Calculation” offers a memorable lesson in how the values that shape our technologies and the values that shape our polities are forged together.