Mathematical 'meta-tools' in 20th Century information engineering

Bissell, C.C. (2004). Mathematical 'meta-tools' in 20th Century information engineering. Hevelius, 2 pp. 11–21.



An examination of the professional practice of engineers in many disciplines reveals a history of engineers developing highly sophisticated tools to eliminate the need to ‘do mathematics’ in the conventional sense. This paper considers aspects of the history of a number of what I shall call mathematical ‘meta-tools’ in the fields of electronics, telecommunications and control engineering. I argue that, for most engineers, ‘doing mathematics’ has become something categorically different from the mathematics of physical scientists or mathematicians. The paper reviews the origins and changing fortunes of a number of classic information engineering meta-tools that appeared in the period just before or after the Second World War: the Nyquist and Bode plots (early 1930s); the Smith Chart (1939); the Nichols Chart (1947); and the root-locus technique (1948). The 1950s and 1960s saw an increasing mathematicization of engineering education, linked to the rise of the notion of ‘engineering science’ that was driven to a large extent by the legacy of WW2 research and development and the post-war funding environment in the USA and elsewhere. Such changes, and the arrival of digital computers, meant that the utility of the earlier diagrammatic tools was often played down or questioned. In recent years, however, such tools have been incorporated into powerful engineering software, where their function now is not to avoid computation, but to mediate between the user and the machine carrying out the computation.

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