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Murrysville

Murrysville native traces the origin of the modern 'tech worker' to Pittsburgh's suburbs

Patrick Varine
| Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018, 2:00 p.m.
Above, a Westinghouse Research Laboratories facility in the 1940s.
Submitted photo
Above, a Westinghouse Research Laboratories facility in the 1940s.
Eastern Connecticut State geography professor and Murrysville native Patrick Vitale.
Submitted photo
Eastern Connecticut State geography professor and Murrysville native Patrick Vitale.

Despite Pittsburgh being passed over by Amazon as home to its second headquarters, a New England professor and Murrysville native has been recognized by a national economic research journal for his work tracing the invention of the modern “tech worker” to an unlikely location: the Steel City’s suburbs.

Patrick Vitale, a geography professor at Eastern Connecticut State University, won the journal’s Ashby Prize, awarded to the most innovative paper of the year published in “Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space.”

Vitale’s 2017 paper, “Making Science Suburban: The Suburbanization of Industrial Research and the Invention of ‘Research Man,’” examines how Pittsburgh’s industrial firms began to shift research away from plants in crowded urban areas and into the suburbs in the early 1900s, and how the shift affected the economics of the region’s towns and cities.

Vitale explains that workers, scientists and engineers had once worked alongside each other in factories. However, starting in the early 1900s, they increasingly worked in different places, lived in different communities, and began to see themselves and their labor as different.

These new “labs” created a geographic and social division between mental and manual work. Vitale’s paper explores the Westinghouse corporation as an example.

“The class, race and gender relations of the suburbs were essential and invisible components of science and engineering,” Vitale wrote. “In capitalist economies now and in the past, science and engineering are rooted in injustice, misery and inequality; the very problems they are supposed to solve.”

Industrial firms created a new title for scientists and engineers — “research men” — and argued that they needed to be isolated from the factory to do their work.

“Many of the most prominent industrial scientists in the United States embraced their identity as ‘research men’ to cement their own place within industry and society,” Vitale wrote. “Scientists and engineers actively adopted a class position that industry was producing for them.”

The paper dovetails with some of Vitale’s other recent writing, including an examination of Pittsburgh’s tech rebirth, “ The Pittsburgh Fairy Tale ,” from Jacobin Magazine.

Vitale’s article is a part of a larger research project: a book manuscript titled “The Atomic Capital of the World,” which explores the role of science and engineering in the remaking of Pittsburgh during the Cold War.

The full paper is available by subscription or for purchase at Journals.sagepub.com .

The Ashby Prize was established in 1990.

Patrick Varine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Patrick at 724-850-2862, pvarine@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MurrysvilleStar.

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