Carnegie Mellon University

Joel Tarr

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Expect the Unexpected

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Joel Tarr, Carnegie Mellon’s Richard S. Caliguiri University Professor of History and Policy, described his reaction to learning that he was named this year’s Leonardo da Vinci medal winner.

“I was astonished, and very, very honored,” he said.

The honor is the highest recognition given by the Society for the History of Technology and is awarded to an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to the field.

Tarr, a respected member of the Carnegie Mellon faculty for more than 40 years, has worked extensively in the area of urban history, particularly urban technology and the urban environment.

One of the first people acknowledged to work in urban environmental history, Tarr was greatly influenced by his 1967 arrival in Pittsburgh.

“Here I became interested in the impact of technology on society and on cities,” he said. “Pittsburgh was the ideal place to study that and Carnegie Mellon the ideal university.”

Tarr has joint appointments in the Departments of History, Engineering and Public Policy, and the Heinz School of Public Policy and Management.

“Carnegie Mellon has such flexibility with regard to disciplines,” Tarr said. “For a person of my interests in moving out into different areas, it’s a great place. I truly appreciate the environment here tremendously and the receptiveness of faculty from other disciplines to relate to a historical perspective.”

Tarr has spent a great deal of time researching urban environmental issues, including water, air and land pollution. He has also taken an interest in the brownfield problem caused by industrial contamination that was so prevalent in the Pittsburgh area.

Using ‘retrospective technology assessment,’ Tarr traces the development of such contemporary problems, identifying critical decisions made and pivotal turning points. He works with a system-wide perspective, noting the widespread ramifications of these historical moments.

When looking toward the future, Tarr stresses the importance of flexibility in dealing with critical, unexpected events.

“You really have to understand the evolution of unpredicted events … the fact that things are not always going to go according to schedule,” he explained. “How do you deal with changes if they occur? How do you take advantage of them once they do occur? You have to be prepared for the unexpected…and think in a system-wide way.”

Last year's award winner, David Hounshell, is also a Carnegie Mellon faculty member. Hounshell studies innovation at the intersection of science, technology and industry.

Related Links: Heinz School  |  Engineering & Public Policy  |  History