Science Fiction Project - Free Culture
Analog - All editorials - John Wood Campbell
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GADGETEER VS SCIENTIST

The essence of the gadgeteer is a driving urge to invent something - to find a way, or a mechanism, that will accomplish something he wants accomplished, or thinks people need to have accomplished. Not infrequently it is authoritatively known that what he's trying to do is impossible, but not understanding the argument that proves the impossibility, he keeps on trying anyway. And, not infrequently, succeeds in doing what all well-trained authorities know can't be done.
The essence of the scientist, in contrast, is to understand why things work. To him, the underlying factors that lead to the operation of the Universe are important - all important. Frequently great scientists are completely incompetent in a laboratory - like the fabled bride, they couldn't boil water without burning it. Many take pride in their tendency to cause any kind of apparatus they touch to collapse.
To such men, the only genuine, honest, real phenomena are well-understood phenomena.
The technician is halfway in between - and there is, of course, a spectrum of people ranging from the pure gadgeteer to the pure scientist.
The immense industrial success of this country, however, was not due to scientists. Scientists contributed practically zero point zero zero to the building of this nation's tremendous capital wealth - which is a demonstrable fact decidedly contrary to the propaganda currently taught in schools, magazines, newspapers, and TV ads. Something like 99.9% of all "Marvelous New scientific Breakthroughs" cited on TV ads no scientist would own to.
The advertising agencies have been legally compelled to take the trick white jackets off of their dulcet-voiced spielers who used to deliver their laxative ads, though white-coated gentlemen surrounded by anything from alembics to Chromatograph plumbing are permitted in scouring powder ads.
Basically, the thing is based on the now-accepted status-symbol power that if it's scientific it's good. The common Aristotelian public reaction is then, not-scientific = not good.
That public concept is one quite naturally dear to the scientist type; he not only believes it himself, but gets continual reinforcement of its truth from those around him.
The facts are somewhat different, unfortunately.

First, be it recognized that Thomas A. Edison, usually cited as one of America's greatest inventors, was strictly, purely, a gadgeteer - definitely not a scientist. He found some use for hired scientist-technicians, but generally scientists kept getting in his way and causing him trouble. They kept proving that the idea which he was then working on was absolutely and completely impossible, thus making it exceedingly difficult for Edison to get the capital he needed to finish his research.
If modern income tax laws had existed then, Edison would have died a small-time telegraph operator; the graduated income tax would have stripped away the money he earned so that he'd never have built up the base capital to develop his laboratories. Setting up adequate research facilities is expensive; Edison was able to do it because the money he earned on early inventions remained in his hands, and allowed him to acquire the facilities needed to develop the next inventions.
Sam Morse invented the telegraph: he was not a scientist; Joseph Henry was a truly great scientist, and had worked out and set up an electromagnetic telegraph system in his laboratories years before. But being a true scientist, Henry would not consider putting Holy Science to work for mere commercial interests.
Eli Whitney was no scientist; he figured out the basic mechanism of the cotton gin from watching a cat on a local railroad station working on some crated chickens. Neither the cat nor the chickens could get through the bars of the crates - but the cat's clawed paw could, and the chickens' feathers did. Presto! The gadgeteer saw how to remove the clinging fibers from the cotton seeds mechanically!
The McCormick Reaper - Elias Howe and the sewing machine - Henry Ford's Model T - gadgeteer after gadgeteer dominated the history of American industry. Alexander Bell was no scientist; he was a gadgeteer trying to invent one thing - a "musical telegraph" - who stumbled on something entirely different, and had gadgeteer-wits enough (like Whitney, reacting to the cat-and-chickens observation) to recognize a discovery when it became available.
The Wright brothers were Edisonian type gadgeteers, not scientists. (The true gadgeteer, remember, doesn't spurn science - except when it gets in his way by saying he simply can't do what he's damn well determined to accomplish.)
And certainly Goodyear, who made the rubber industry possible, was the purest of pure gadgeteer types. His discovery of vulcanization was strictly the gadgeteer's willingness to grab happily at any accident that comes his way. So some of one of his messes fell on the hot stove - and Eureka! he saw he had the answer he'd spent years trying to find.
When the steel industry really got started - with the Bessemer converter - certain men became Ironmasters who controlled the blowing of the Bessemers. They watched the huge tongue of flame, and judged by its color when the iron had been blown down (decarbonized by oxidation) to steel, and signaled for the air blast to be cut off, and the converter dumped.
Later on, scientists and technicians tried to set up photocells and filters and electrical equipment to do the same thing. They achieved it eventually - but if large-scale steel-making had depended on the development of electronic systems capable of such high-order discrimination, it would have been a long, long time before a railroad reached across the continent!
Yet no scientist could explain how an Ironmaster could tell when the blow-down should be stopped.
It could not be done by just anyone; only certain individuals had the talent that training and experience could develop. Didn't matter how long you trained an apprentice if he didn't have the talent necessary.
But that was well back in the last century, when Scientists didn't have the tremendous status they have now; not having such high status, they weren't so hectically defensive.
The situation with respect to Bessemer converter control at that time was precisely the same as the situation with respect to dowsing rods now. Some people could do it; not everyone could be trained to do it. How the doers did the job could not be explained; there was no way to predict, before actual trial, which individuals would be able to learn, and which would never learn. And the ones who could do it, made the industry work.
Sure - now they have photocell systems that control such processes with superhuman accuracy. And now they have Ishihara Color Vision tests that allow distinguishing between those with hyper-acute color sensitivity, and normal people. They aren't used to distinguish trainable Ironmasters now, of course - but Du Pont, American Cyanamid, and other dye and pigment manufacturers and blenders definitely need them! They have Ishihara tests so subtle that a man needs to be able to distinguish some ten thousand different color tones to pass the tests.
And there's no use wasting years training a dye chemist if he inherently lacks the color discrimination essential to the job. No matter how much chemistry and technology you teach him, he'll never make a successful dye-chemist; his field must lie in some other type of chemistry.

The essence of the thing is that gadgeteers inevitably precede scientists. A gadgeteer does something that works; at some later time science catches up with the gadgeteer.
Sometimes the gadget is a simple contraption, with an extremely subtle basis that science can't explain for anything from centuries to decades. Sometimes it's simple in appearance, and in fact, so that science can explain it immediately after it's invented.
Marconi's great invention was the workable method of detecting radio waves. Hertz had done his laboratory work (and his work was one of the exceedingly rare instances of pure science leading to a workable gadget before the gadgeteers got there) with exceedingly insensitive techniques. The system he used was so insensitive that the maximum detectable range was measured in meters, not thousands of kilometers.
But while Marconi's coherer technique worked at kilometers instead of meters, it was still poor.
Then somebody found that for some unimaginable reason, a chip of silicon carbide, or galena, or any of several other commonly available substances, put in the circuit made far more sensitive and reliable detectors.
It was known among old-time Navy radio operators that if you used two cat's-whiskers on a single galena detector-crystal, and fed a local RF signal into one, and the distant signal in the other, the thing seemed to be fantastically sensitive. Of course there was no scientific explanation for this - it was just a bit of Navy operator folklore, and highly unofficial. So it took another thirty to forty years before Bell Labs finally discovered the point-contact transistor. That involves two pointed probes - known in older times as "cat's-whiskers" - contacting a single semiconductor crystal - galena, lead sulphide, is a semiconductor crystal that occurs naturally. A biasing voltage is applied to one point - it can be either radio frequency or DC; normally we use DC unless we're trying to use the unit as a first detector in a superhetrodyne circuit - and the signal is applied to the other.
The two-point galena detector never got anywhere largely because there was no scientific explanation for the thing, so the fact it worked was rigorously denied, the evidence suppressed as nonevidence, and the matter ignored until after a scientific explanation had been developed. Two world wars later, and after the development of radar - which forced them to learn how to produce crystal detectors of high sensitivity, since they had no vacuum tubes that would serve at those frequencies - the scientists discovered the two-point contact transistor.
Sometimes the gadgeteer gets his ideas across by making and selling working units for decades before some scientist finally discovers the explanation for what everybody has been happily using for a lifetime.
One of the reasons the medical profession turned thumbs down on Dr. Ivy's krebiozen work was that nobody could explain how and why it worked. It was held that studies of something so vague were improper.
Remarkable attitude, really; nobody yet has been able to understand the mechanism by which aspirin works. All anyone - in fact everyone! - knows is that it does work.
The scientist type tends to deny reality when he can, in full honesty, only deny his ability to understand and explain. He tends to say: "There is no possible mechanism;" when the only statement he has an ethical right to make is: "My knowledge is not sufficient to suggest a possible mechanism."

One of the recent examples of a science finally catching up with a gadgeteer concerns studies of the electrical properties of matter.
Back before the turn of the century, Edison and his research gang developed a new, long-life, mechanically sturdy and reliable storage battery, intended for powering electric trains, cars, street cars, et cetera. He and his crew made tens of thousands of experiments; he had a whole laboratory full of first-class gadgeteers, and there were even a few scientists among them.
They came up with what's known as the nickel-iron battery. Any standard text" explains it uses iron negative plates, and nickel oxide positives in a potassium hydroxide electrolyte. More complete descriptions mention that the iron plate has a little mercury added. It was found that that worked better. And lithium hydroxide was added to the potassium hydroxide electrolyte, for no known reason, except that tests showed that the battery worked better that way.
Of course many battery types used amalgamated zinc negative plates - the mercury spread on the zinc prevented corrosion of the zinc to some extent, and helped get the zinc to plate back onto the plate when you recharged the cell.
But it was known that iron didn't amalgamate with mercury; mercury was normally shipped in iron bottles, or flasks. So there was no point in putting mercury in with the iron plates.
It was some years before it was finally found that iron could be amalgamated - by electroplating mercury onto the iron. In the Edison battery, of course, the conditions for plating a thin layer of amalgamation on the iron were fulfilled.
Now iron has a peculiar chemical characteristic called "passivity." Dunk ordinary iron in strong nitric acid - a powerful oxidizing agent - and it reacts violently for a fraction of a second then simply quits reacting completely. It's "gone passive." Now the iron plate in an Edison battery is subjected to a powerful oxidizing situation when current is drawn from the cell - it's the oxidation of the iron that supplies the energy the battery yields.
That passive condition is strictly a surface phenomenon; an extremely thin film of some tight, clinging oxide forms, and protects the mass of iron, as the thin film of aluminum oxide protects aluminum, and keeps it from corroding away rapidly in water or air. If you amalgamate the metal, the surface has a layer of liquid mercury - and the oxide film can't cling to the liquid surface. Result: No passivity.
In a storage battery - a little mercury makes the iron plate work better!
But the scientific explanation came decades after the gadgeteers put the highly successful and reliable battery on the market.
Then the matter of lithium hydroxide:
In a recent discussion of electrical properties of materials I was interested to learn that pure nickel oxide is an insulator with about ten times the resistivity of glass. As an electrochemical material, that sounds somewhat discouraging.
However, nickel oxide happens to have semiconductor characteristics. Semiconductor materials are characterized by being insulators of high resistivity when pure, but fairly good conductors when the right kind of impurities are added.
The reason for lithium hydroxide in the Edison battery electrolyte emerges. Lithium hydroxide is not a very good electrolyte - adding it to the KOH solution actually increases the internal resistance of the electrolyte. It seems against good sense to replace some of the very-low-resistance KOH with some relatively-high-resistance LiOH.
However - now they tell us! - lithium is one of the very effective impurities in nickel oxide. It reduces the resistivity of the semiconductor material by several orders of magnitude!
Do some checking yourself - and notice how many of the major inventions that have built the world's great industries have come not from scientists, but from gadgeteers.
Inventions that have, at the time, been unexplained and unexplainable - simply workable.
Who needs an explanation - if it works?

January 1968

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