Standard histories of economic thought portray Paul Samuelson’s 1948 Economics textbook as the first serious attempt at teaching economics to young engineers. In reality, many other professors, both in economics and engineering, had extensively addressed that issue before World War II. Throughout the 1930s, the Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education, faculty, and engineering professionals analyzed the relevance of economics to their work and the best ways to help students appreciate its importance. The Depression attached urgency to such discussions, as popular commentary blamed technological change for unemployment. In response, engineers sought to instill undergraduates with a self-glorifying economic history that credited engineering for all civilized progress and prosperity. Their rhetoric positioned engineers as the embodiment of disciplined rationality, the problem-solvers who could straighten out the nation’s crisis if encouraged to assume greater influence in economic governance. A number of Depression-era schools experimented with curricula for teaching engineers more economics, though approaches varied. Such developments thus situate this key episode of Samuelson’s life, the authorship of one of the most influential textbooks in modern economics, within a broader academic framework and longer intellectual context.

You do not currently have access to this content.