Lewis Mumford

Lewis Mumford (October 19, 1895 -January 26, 1990) was an American historian of technology (by Mumford referred to as technics) and science, also noted for his study of cities. He was a disciple of the Victorian historian Sir Patrick Geddes and a contemporary and friend of Fred Osborne and Vannevar Bush.

Table of contents
1 Life
2 Ideas
3 Books
4 Reference

Life

Mumford was born in Flushing, New York, and studied at the New York School for Social Research. In 1919 he became associate editor of the Dial and wrote architectural criticisms, as well as commentating on urban issues.

His early writings established him as an authority in US architecture and urban life, which he interpreted in a social context.

Mumford was involved in numerous research positions and received the US Medal of Freedom in 1964. In 1943 Mumford was decorated Knight of the Order of the British Empire.

Mumford died at his home in Amenia, New York.

Ideas

A key idea, introduced in his best-known work Technics and Civilization (1934) was that technology was twofold:

  • Polytechnic, a technology style that rhymes with the human nature and
  • Monotechnic which is technology for the sake of technology, oppressing humanity as it moves along it's own trajectory.

Mumford also discusses large hierarchical organizations in terms of the megamachine, a machine using humans as its components. The buildings of the Pyramids, the Roman Empire and the armies of the world wars are examples of such machines.

Mumford divides human civilization into three distinct epochs:

In his earlier writings, Mumford was optimistic about human abilities, and wrote that the human race would use electricity and mass communication to build a better world for all humankind. He would later take a more pessimistic stance.

One of the more well-known studies of Mumford is of the way the clock was created by monks in the middle ages and subsequently adopted by the rest of society. He view this device as the key invention of the whole industrial revolution. He wrote for instance:

The clock is a piece of machinery whose 'product' is seconds and minutes.

Books

  • Sticks and Stones (1924)
  • The Golden Day (1926)
  • The Brown Decades: A Study of the Arts in America, 18651895 (1931)
  • "Renewal of Life" series
    • Technics and Civilization (1934)
    • The Culture of Cities (1938)
    • The Condition of Man (1944)
    • The Conduct of Life (1951)
  • The City in History (1961) often considered his most important work
  • The Myth of the Machine (1967 - 1970, 2 volumes)
  • My Work and Days: A Personal Chronicle (1979)

Reference

  • Donald Miller, Lewis Mumford: A Life (New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989)

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