Book Review – Three Keys to the Past – The History of Technical Communication

Review by Noel Atzmiller

Three Keys to the Past – The History of Technical Communication, edited by Teresa C. Kynell and Michael G. Moran; Ablex Publishing Corporation, Stamford, Connecticut 1999.

If you are interested in essays about the history of technical communication, you might try reading this book. It is the final volume of the 7-volume set Contemporary Studies in Technical Communication from the Association of Teachers of Technical Writing.

Editors Kynell and Moran collected essays that describe significant individual contributions and important movements in the field of technical communication. The table of contents organizes these essays into four sections. In the first three sections (key individuals, key European movements, and key American movements) authors examine factors that affected the development of technical communication. A fourth section contains an essay titled, “Studies in the History of Business and Technical Writing: A Bibliographic Essay”. This work describes intellectual, cultural, and linguistic forces that shaped the composition of this genre of technical communication. Following the article is an extensive bibliography.

Key Individuals

Three Keys to the Past starts with a review and analysis of a document written by Joseph Priestley in 1767: “History and Present State of Electricity”. Following this, readers can find a discussion of a document from another famous individual: Francis Bacon. Oliver Evans is featured in the next analysis. One of his books, The Young Millwright and Millers Guide, was the most reprinted technical book written by an American before the Civil War.

Rounding out the section on key individuals is a chapter on Sada Harbarger, frequently credited as the person who elevated the instruction of technical writing to engineers from a “second-class status” to a useful tool for a successful career. Harbarger’s technical writing curriculum, her prominence and influence in the Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education, and her book English for Engineers prepared her engineering students for the workplace and convinced many faculty and administrators of the value of technical writing.

Key European Movements

This section of the book includes one reprinted landmark document and three original contributions. An examination of books that were written for and by Renaissance women starts the chapter. The author, Elizabeth Tebeaux, analyzes technical books and documents produced by women who lived in the 17th century. The next essay studies stylistic devices that were used before the scientific revolution (tropes, metaphors, similes, etc.). As a reaction against these complex rhetorical tools, the author describes how the “plain style” became the style of scientific discourse during the 17th century.

Medical writers will appreciate the third essay in this chapter. The original document, Deconstructing Depression: A Historical Study of the Metaphorical Aspects of Illness, examines the use of metaphor to describe depression in texts from the 5th to the 20th century. The fourth essay analyzes the work of two men who were sent by Sir Walter Raleigh to create the first maps of America based on detailed surveys. The author’s analysis of their efforts and the map they produced in 1588 demonstrates the relationship between the technical written report and this cartographic masterpiece.

 

Key American Movements

Section three of this volume continues the examination of American key movements and important advancements in the development of technical communication. The author, Robert Connor, analyzes everything from computer technology to engineering curriculum shifts. Connors starts with an essay that traces the instruction of technical writing from its humble beginnings in a few schools to its present prominence. In the next essay, three scholars study the relationship between computers and technical communication. They examine the ways in which computer technologies are developed and how their use intersects with the teaching of technical communication.

The third and final essay in this section evaluates the ways that we determine the kind of history we chronicle. The author notes that events in history are often episodic and do not always follow a neat timeline. A developmental perspective on the social nature of technical communication provides a better approach, says the author.

Bibliography in the History of Technical Communication

The single essay in this chapter, “Studies in the History of Business and Technical Writing: A Bibliographic Essay”, analyzes studies that deal with the history of business and technical writing. The author, William Rivers, tries to show “…the richness of accomplishment and the richness of opportunity for those interested in the history of business and technical communication”. In his analysis and in the lengthy bibliography that follows, he discusses and lists numerous documents published in business and technical writing journals from 1979 to 1999.

Now, having written all this, what do I think about the book?

In a few words: interesting, detailed, academic, scholarly, and somewhat thought provoking.

Is it an “easy read”? NO.

However, selections from the book should provide an “interesting read” to everyone.