Hitting the Brakes

Engineering Design and the Production of Knowledge

Hitting the Brakes
Book Pages: 232 Illustrations: 7 photos, 2 tables Published: November 2009

Author: Ann Johnson

History > U.S. History, Science and Technology Studies > History of Technology, Sociology

In Hitting the Brakes, Ann Johnson illuminates the complex social, historical, and cultural dynamics of engineering design, in which knowledge communities come together to produce new products and knowledge. Using the development of antilock braking systems for passenger cars as a case study, Johnson shows that the path to invention is neither linear nor top-down, but highly complicated and unpredictable. Individuals, corporations, university research centers, and government organizations informally coalesce around a design problem that is continually refined and redefined as paths of development are proposed and discarded, participants come and go, and information circulates within the knowledge community. Detours, dead ends, and failures feed back into the developmental process, so that the end design represents the convergence of multiple, diverse streams of knowledge.

The development of antilock braking systems (ABS) provides an ideal case study for examining the process of engineering design because it presented an array of common difficulties faced by engineers in research and development. ABS did not develop predictably. Research and development took place in both the public and private sectors and involved individuals working in different disciplines, languages, institutions, and corporations. Johnson traces ABS development from its first patents in the 1930s to the successful 1978 market introduction of integrated ABS by Daimler and Bosch. She examines how a knowledge community first formed around understanding the phenomenon of skidding, before it turned its attention to building instruments to measure, model, and prevent cars’ wheels from locking up. While corporations’ accounts of ABS development often present a simple linear story, Hitting the Brakes describes the full social and cognitive complexity and context of engineering design.


“[A] fascinating narrative. . . . [T]his book demonstrates the importance of history in understanding the trends in society today. . . . This historical lesson alone makes this book an important reading for students not only in engineering design, but with an interest in innovation more broadly.”

— Anna Rylander, Teachers College Record

“[A]n interesting narrative of an intriguingly intricate technology in the later decades of the last century. But Johnson’s work is much more than this; it is a deeply thought-out exploration of the processes of engineering research and design. Indeed, I recommend this book to anyone interested in understanding how engineering innovation actually works in today’s world.” — Robert Friedel, Metascience,

“Ann Johnson completed a thorough and comprehensive research on the history of ABS development, put ABS development in perspective, and drew some new and interesting conclusions. This detailed history, and not technical explanations of the issues engineers had to cope with, should be seen as the contribution of this book. Johnson’s writing style keeps the reader interested from beginning to end, and the broad coverage of engineering design problems and the numerous historic examples make her book quite enjoyable and engaging for the audience.” — Markus Klausner, Journal of Transportation Engineering

“The insights and generalizations given here are interesting and somewhat academic, but also of practical importance to public policy relate to engineering research and development.” — J. D. Drescher, Choice

Hitting the Brakes is an important and enjoyable book. Cars are fascinating, and the opportunity to see how a significant safety system, antilock brakes, became part of them should interest anyone curious to learn how the cars we drive came to be as they are. But this book is more than an enjoyable history. It fundamentally rethinks how we understand engineering and the knowledge that engineers create. It will challenge philosophers to better understand knowledge and historians to better understand the development of knowledge. Hitting the Brakes is at once a social history of engineering communities, a philosophical thesis about engineering knowledge, and a great story.” — Davis Baird, author of Thing Knowledge: A Philosophy of Scientific Instruments

Hitting the Brakes pays equal attention to the social and technical dimensions of engineering practice, showing how members of knowledge communities worked across national and institutional boundaries seeking to improve the braking performance of the postwar automobile. Ann Johnson describes how researchers and practitioners confronted this multidimensional problem and negotiated their way toward the development of a road-worthy antilock braking system. Her analysis challenges the idea that a corporation’s claim on proprietary information severely limits transnational innovation; so too the idea that engineers are ‘hired guns.’ Her epilogue prompts further questions about the notion of technological progress.” — Louis L. Bucciarelli, author of Designing Engineers

“In Hitting the Brakes, Ann Johnson provides a very engaging description of the engineering design and development process in the context of a compelling case study. She takes us from conception to the commercialization of a sophisticated braking system that many automobile drivers take for granted.” — Henry Petroski, author of The Essential Engineer: Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems


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Price: $25.95
Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Ann Johnson is Assistant Professor of History at the University of South Carolina.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Preface ix

Acknowledgments xv

1. Design and the Knowledge Community 1

2. A Genealogy of Knowledge Communities and Their Artifacts 23

3. The British Road Research Laboratory: Constructing the Questions 37

4. The Track and the Lab: Brake Testing from Dynamometers to Simulations 63

5. From Things Back to Ideas: Constructing Theories of Vehicle Dynamics 85

6. Learning from Failure: Antilock Systems Emerge in the United States 103

7. Eines ist sicher! Successful Antilock Systems in West Germany 117

8. Public Proprietary Knowledge? Knowledge Communities between the Public and Private Sectors 137

Epilogue. ABS and Risk Compensation 157

Notes 167

Bibliography 187

Index 201
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4541-1 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4526-8
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