In This Review

Rescuing Prometheus
Rescuing Prometheus
By Thomas P. Hughes
Pantheon, 1998, 672 pp

America's foremost historian of technology looks at four massive projects from the 1950s to the present: the sage air defense system, the Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile, Boston's Central ArteryffiTunnel project, and the arpanet -- the predecessor to the Internet. His subject is systems engineering, and his thesis (neatly summarized on one page) is that the vast military projects of World War II and the early Cold War gave birth to a new style of engineering, which he terms "postmodern." This included layered rather than vertical organization, project rather than production system management, and "messy complexity" rather than "rational order" -- in short, project organization that is less planned, hierarchical, and orderly than adaptive, cooperative, and chaotic.

Melding four case studies with analytic chapters on systems engineering, Hughes contends that the "systems approach" is a distinctive American style that now permeates our engineering way of life. Perhaps true, although one would need some comparative studies of Russian, British, or German projects of similar magnitude to judge.