Technology & Society: The Early Years

A core theme of Fred Bernard Wood’s life and times was the intersection of technology and society, the bridging of the worlds of science and technology, and of the social and political sciences in particular.  From his early years, Fred Bernard embodied the interdisciplinary approach to human inquiry that became popular only much later in his life.  Intuitively, he was driven to approach technology and social issues from multiple perspectives.  And Fred Bernard’s interests were broad indeed.

Fred Bernard’s focus on technology and society became clear in his freshman year at the University of California at Berkeley.  After considerable thought, Fred Bernard decided to major in Electrical Engineering so that he could stay close to science and technology, and learn about how science, technology, and engineering could help advance society.  At the same time, he was active from the get go in on and off-campus activities that focused on the larger social and political environment.  For example, in his freshman year, he was active in helping organize the Alembic Society, a student council for political action, in supporting the local Junior Statesman of America efforts to reform high school curriculum to address societal issues, and in the Channing Club, a social issues discussion group associated with the Unitarian Church of Berkeley.

On February 11, 1937, Fred Bernard submitted a paper that articulated why he decided to become an electrical engineer and not a sociologist or similar.  The paper was prepared for application for associate membership in the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (the forerunner of the current Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers).  The associate membership was available to electrical engineering students at Cal Berkeley (and elsewhere).  In the paper, Fred Bernard made clear that even then, he was well aware of the importance of technical fields such as electrical engineering to the larger society.  He elected to choose a technical degree because he felt he would be more persuasive with managers and companies as an engineer.  He also selected electrical engineering because he felt he would be good at it, and because of the great opportunities ahead.  Nonetheless, Fred Bernard noted that he felt engineers should study the broader economic and social systems and aspects of their work, besides the technical side. 

It was in the context of the Channing Club (Unitarian Church) discussions that Fred Bernard first articulated his overall multidisciplinary framework for social progress.  In August 1940, he prepared a chart titled “Outposts of Social Progress: Discussion and study of the agencies contributing to social progress” that covered the physical and social sciences.  This chart formed the basis for the Channing Club discussion program in Fall 1940.  The tentative program outlined by Fred Bernard included consideration of the driving forces of social progress and the role of political science, religion, and psychology as well as the physical sciences and engineering.  The program also covered discussion of national and global social issues, practical aspects of cooperative approaches to problem resolution, and the role and position of the Unitarian Church regarding social progress.

Fred Bernard also worked on campus to promote better understanding of the connections between engineering and society.  For example, he and a colleague advocated, as representatives of Eta Kappa Nu (an academic engineering society), for a Freshman Seminar for all electrical engineering students.  The seminar would be intended to help students gain a fuller understanding of electrical engineering as a field of study and practice, and how engineering contributes to larger societal goals and needs.  The seminar would also include the historical contributions of electrical engineering inventors and inventions to society. 

The Channing Club and other discussions led Fred Bernard to conceptualize the Social Action for Engineers idea by April 1941, at the same time that he was transferring from student status at UC Berkeley to one of the youngest members of the radar technical team at MIT.  He emphasized an interdisciplinary, problem-oriented approach that included looking broadly at the world situation, while adhering to fundamentals of democracy. 

Fred Bernard’s involvement with the Channing Club for larger societal discussions led in part to his later experience with the Gannett Club, a similar discussion group associated with the Arlington Street Unitarian Church in Boston, MA, which he attended while working at MIT during World War II.  Fred Bernard assisted as an organizer and reporter for the Gannett Club just as he did earlier for the Channing Club.

Towards the end of World War II, Fred Bernard reflected on the history of both World Wars, and the use of science and technology in those wars that while necessary to defeat a strong and aggressive enemy did not guarantee world peace.  Fred Bernard began to have serious doubts about whether pursuing graduate studies in electrical engineering after the war ended would help him solve major social and political issues.  In his own words, “I question whether I can adequately do my part in solving the social problems of the day, if I continue specializing in electrical engineering and physics, leaving the social problems to my spare time.”  He considered giving emphasis to the social sciences and international relations, and to multidisciplinary studies that combined science, society, and public policy.

By October 1945, Fred Bernard had prepared a paper proposing a complete Social Engineering Research Program.  The paper outlined a concept for integrating knowledge from multiple fields and disciplines. He then used this paper as a basis for contacting several sociologists at Harvard University and UC Berkeley, the Rockefeller Foundation, and elsewhere, looking for feedback on what type of academic or research program might be most useful for Fred Bernard’s graduate studies after the war, given his social engineering interests. He also sought to inform leading academics of his and related work by scientists and engineers concerned about broader social issues.  For example, in a December 1945 letter to Professor Sorokin at Harvard, Fred Bernard outlined the activities of the American Association of Scientific Workers, Association of Cambridge Scientists, Society for Religious Culture, and the Unitarian Church. 

In the last few months of 1945, Fred Bernard corresponded with various faculty and departments at UC Berkeley regarding his options and plans for graduate study.  He received positive feedback from Dr. Lauriston Marshall, the UC Berkeley electrical engineering professor and mentor who was working for the Air Force during the war and was planning to return to campus.  Fred Bernard also had positive feedback and a strong recommendation for his wartime microwave radar work from his MIT Radiation Laboratory supervisor.   In contrast, Fred Bernard received mixed feedback from the UC Sociology Department. After careful deliberation, Fred Bernard decided to apply for graduate studies at UC Berkeley in electrical engineering.  Nonetheless, Fred Bernard’s interest in the social impacts of engineering continued, as illustrated by his December 1945 paper on “Social Engineering.”