America’s Golden Age
This historian believes the nation’s technological flowering from 1870 to 1970 will be compared someday to the Renaissance in Italy
Who are the real makers of modern America? Not the politicians or the business magnates, according to Thomas Parke Hughes, Mellon Professor of the History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania, but the inventorentrepreneurs, industrial scientists, and engineers who contributed to the golden age of American technology between 1870 and 1970. They created the vast systems shaping modern life—systems such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Manhattan Project, and the automobile industry. One of the pioneering practitioners of the history of technology, Hughes, sixty-five, has devoted a lifetime to understanding the people and institutions that have set America and Western civilization on their current technological course. In his biography of the inventor and engineer Elmer Sperry, published in 1971, Hughes provided a case study of one of America’s first professional inventor-entrepreneurs. In his next book, Networks of Power (1983), he developed the concept of technological systems that has become his hallmark. (Both these books won the prestigious Dexter Prize of the Society for the History of Technology.)
Now he has just published a new book, American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm, 1870-1970 (Viking Penguin), in which he develops a new technological interpretation of American history. Lavishly illustrated, American Genesis is addressed to general audiences as well as to historical specialists, in keeping with Hughes’s determination to make the history of technology an integral part of general history. He describes America as a nation of builders and artifact makers—artifacts that have come to include the whole man-made landscape. And he reveals how the rest of the world has sometimes perceived this better than we Americans. In American Genesis Hughes—who is also Torsten Althin Professor at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm—shows how figures as different as V. I. Lenin and Walter Gropius fashioned a modern European culture around American technological genius.
This interview took place last December in Hughes’s home, a house in Philadelphia designed by the postmodern architect Robert Venturi.
You were trained as an electrical engineer, and you obviously have a continuing interest in engineering. What induced you to shift to the history of technology?
I had two years of liberal arts college, at the University of Richmond, before I went into engineering, and I enjoyed the liberal arts very much. After three years in the Navy in World War II and getting my engineering degree at the University of Virginia, I had the opportunity to use the GI Bill to continue my education. Agatha and I had recently married; this was 1948.1 was working as a manufacturer’s representative, and we decided that we would like instead to have an academic life. So back we went to the University of Virginia. The people there told me I was foolish to give up a good job to go for a graduate degree in history, but we stuck it out.
Were there any figures who were particularly important in drawing you to the history of technology?
In the 1950s, while I was teaching, Lynn White gave lectures that were later incorporated in his book Medieval Technology and Social Change . I had the good fortune to meet him. Not only did White and his book give me a perspective on how encompassing the history of technology could be, but also it was very encouraging to find a scholar of his reputation and high standards doing the history of technology.
You are about to come out with a major new synthesis, American Genesis . The title suggests that you’re dealing with something more than the history of technology, doesn’t it?
Yes. I consider my new book a history that focuses on technology, rather than just a history of technology, which implies narrow specialization. My colleagues and I are historians who are interested in technology. There are other historians who are interested in politics and economics. I do not wish to see our field become—or continue to be—a field of specialization. It should be recognized as a part of general history, and a very important one. I think technology and science are at the core of historical developments in the twentieth century.
It has been suggested that you are almost calling for a revision of Turner’s frontier hypothesis. He said the grand theme of American history was the conquest of the frontier; you seem to say the grand theme now is the technological transformation of that former frontier.
I wouldn’t go so far as to compare my theme to Frederick Jackson Turner’s, which is a remarkably memorable one. But I would say that the theme of twentieth-century America could be encompassed by the expression “a nation of builders.” I was careful not to use that expression too prominently in the book because “builders” suggests only bridges and railroads. By builders I mean people who wish to construct an artifact. And the world can be an artifact. A city can be an artifact. A painting can be an artifact. We have transformed a wilderness into an artifact in these several centuries of American history, so we’re a nation of builders. I think this is an admirable theme for historians to rally about as they write of modern America.
American Genesis is to my knowledge one of the only scholarly surveys of American technology for the modern period. Why did you think it important to write such a book?
I suppose the answer is the question, Why did I think it was important about fifteen years ago to begin teaching a course on American history since 1870? I did so because 1 think that when our history is looked back upon a hundred years from now, this century, roughly from 1870 to 1970, will be seen as one that was dominated by the creation of technologies. It will be compared to such remarkable eras as the Renaissance period in Italy or the Victorian period in Great Britain.
If the past one hundred years were indeed a golden century for America, why don’t Americans themselves seem to want to celebrate it as such?
I’m of the opinion that most people who have been writing American history over, say, the past seventy-five years have concentrated on its verbal manifestations; they have tended not to be interested in things . They have been people who think of culture as artistic or verbal expression. So they have wished this country would express itself in high culture as it is traditionally defined—art and so on. But that’s putting on blinders. I think that making artifacts—defined broadly—is highly creative, intelligent work. I do think we’re becoming a little more confident about ourselves. We’re less deferential to the Europeans for their high culture, say, and for our supposed lack of high culture in the United States. And we’re beginning to face up to ourselves as we are. When we fully realize that we are builders and creators, we’ll begin to write more about this and analyze this characteristic more carefully and even celebrate it as a strength, without being sentimental.
There is the irony, however, that Europeans seem to identify us with the technological and to celebrate our culture of technology more than we do ourselves. Can you explain that?
The European architects, artists, and writers who flourished and were reaching the public between the wars felt, I think, that America was the modern technologically creative nation. But they also saw that we lacked the confidence to transform this creative activity of ours in America into a coherent cultural expression—that is, into a cultural expression in the traditional sense of architectural, artistic, and verbal expression, into the signs and symbols that capture the meaning of a people or a society. For instance, around 1910 the Italian futurist painters expressed the dynamism of the technological and industrial city. A few years later the German avant-garde architects developed the International Style architecture, which expressed itself through the use of the rectilinear and planar surfaces associated with machine design. These avant-garde Europeans knew we had the most advanced technology, but they also knew we had not yet articulated it culturally, and they believed they could do so because they understood that the essence of modernity was technology. This was a vision we lacked.
I’m puzzled because even though Europeans might perceive Americans as nonreflective or perhaps nonartistic, it’s hard to believe that we’re all that different from them.
We were that different in the first quarter of this century. Judging by what was being painted and the way it was being painted in this country, with notable exceptions, we were derivative. Of our architecture, for instance, Le Corbusier asked in the twenties, How can Americans work in an environment of modern technology yet be so derivative?
Would this imply that the true fulfillment of our golden age, as you term it, depended on what the Europeans made of us?
Definitely. I think people such as Marcel Duchamp, Le Corbusier, Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and others gave us the self-confidence to be aware of and reflect on our own remarkable characteristics. They contributed greatly to this self-confidence. Remember that both Gropius and Mies came over to the United States in the thirties. Others of the avant-garde had come over earlier, and they greatly influenced our artists, architects, and cultural critics.
And Europeans still appreciate the basic American genius that was involved in generating our technology?
Definitely. Even today they have not forgotten Henry Ford or Thomas Edison or the TVA. Europeans are no strangers to Route 128 or Silicon Valley. They see us as the creators of a technological world, and they greatly admire us for it.
American Genesis deals extensively with European developments. Is it really meaningful to speak about American technology per se, or are we actually dealing with nothing but differences in national styles?
I don’t recognize high or rigid borders between nations in technology and science. American technology, at least in the twentieth century, cannot be categorically distinguished from European technology. But it’s meaningful to speak, for contrast, of American technology just as it’s meaningful to speak of American art and American architecture. The essential, or primary, characteristics of modern technology extend over the borders of industrialized nations and between Europe and the United States.
You describe American technology as a definite shaping force on modern Europe between the wars. Yet wasn’t the United States politically and diplomatically isolationist in this period?
We had a remarkable influence on the Europeans between the wars, one deriving from our astounding ability to produce consumer goods for a mass—some would say democratic—market. Automobiles, radios, incandescent lights, and so on. But we were not so much offering ourselves to the Europeans for emulation as they were enviously looking in our direction. The Europeans were trying to fathom the workings of our great machine of production. It was easy for them to penetrate the political barriers of isolationism to obtain our technology. We exported technologies in large quantities in the interwar years, to the Soviet Union especially, and also to other parts of Europe. And not only were we exporting what is now called hardware, but we were exporting the ideas associated with our production, ideas that the Europeans then called Fordism, after Henry Ford, and Taylorism, after Frederick W. Taylor, the father of scientific management, who pioneered time-and-motion studies and strove to rationalize the workplace.
The American-Soviet relationship was very interesting in this regard.
In the pre-World War II period, the Soviet Union, under the influence of its Bolshevik leaders, Lenin especially, looked to us, as did other Europeans, as the epitome of the modern- not only of modern technology but also, potentially, of modern culture. The Russians desperately wanted and needed technology from the United States.
The leaders of the Soviet Union thought that they could remove the capitalistic characteristics from our technology, salvage the essential productiveness of America, and then transform it into a Soviet-Russian phenomenon, a Soviet modern technology that would be the great next stage in world technological development. So they were quite excited about the modernness of the United States, and they were great admirers of people such as Ford and Taylor. On the more intellectual level, many of the Soviet leaders admired the symbols and architecture and art of modern technological culture.
A unique aspect of your book is your interest in the story of European architecture, design, and even avant-garde painting and sculpture. What drew you in general into the study of these and their relationships with technology?
My wife, Agatha, is a student of the history of art and architecture and is also a ceramic artist. She’s had a great influence on me in this regard. Living in this house, we became good friends with the architect, Robert Venturi, and Denise Scott Brown, his wife and partner, and from them both I learned a great deal about postmodern and modern architecture. I learned from them that postmodernism is a reaction against the technological emphasis of the International Style architecture, which had its beginnings between the wars. This bolstered my conviction that the technological content of International Style architecture was worth exploring in detail. So motivated, I looked and found the technological content in Gropius, in Le Corbusier, and in others. For example, I went into the Gropius archives and found that Gropius in the twenties referred explicitly to Fordism and Taylorism, Ford methods and Taylor methods.
Do you believe that artists and architects helped articulate the cultural values inherent in technology?
Technology played a major role in the rise of International Style architecture and modern art because the values that are incorporated in technology were transferred to architecture and art. I do not accept the argument, and haven’t for years, that technology is value-free. It’s laden with values. And by values I refer in this case to technology’s tendency to reinforce controlling, systematizing, ordering behavior. These values have permeated our culture in this century, and they were derived primarily from our technology. Artists have antennae out, and they sense the order, the control, the systemization, and the efficiency. And so you find artists and architects expressing these values in their work—people like Charles Sheeler and Charles Demuth, American artists of the first half of this century. Other artists react against these values, and that’s still an influence of technology. These artists tried to break up, to deconstruct the order and control of modern technology in their paintings.
It seems here that your goal is to elucidate the human dimension of technology, to explore the moral values inherent in it. For example, in American Genesis you detail the eventful and tragic life of Samuel Insull, who built a vast electric-power network extending out from Chicago, greatly overextended himself, and died bankrupt and disgraced.
The moral element is certainly a major concern, again because I think of creating technology as one of our most fulfilling, creative activities. If one goes back to some of the basic books of Western civilization, including the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament, one will find that humans are defined by and find expression in making things. Hannah Arendt made a nice contrast between labor and work. She stressed that unlike mere labor, work is leaving something behind; it is changing the face of the earth in a way that is lasting. When we have human involvement, then we have morality, tragedy, mistakes, embarrassments, complexity, and contradiction. The human involvement that we take for granted in political history is just as important in the history of technology.
Is there a connection between technology and freedom?
I would say there is a tension between freedom and technology. Technology can greatly restrain our freedom. I think of technology as systems, as large systems with momentum. They can restrain our freedom much as can a bureaucracy in its hierarchical and high-inertia way. So we have to be very alert to make sure we use technology as a way of establishing and utilizing freedom. Technology can reinforce the value of freedom if we are cunning and energetic enough to make it do this. For instance, we can use communications technology to convey to people truthful information that they need in a democracy to make political decisions—or we can use communications systems to transmit the halftruths of a government wanting to manipulate and constrain. Energy technology can be used in environmentally benign ways to provide free access to clean air, water, and wilderness—or used so that our access to nature is severely constrained. This does not mean technology is neutral. Once in place, it can be inherently democratic or authoritarian.
Are you pessimistic about the future vitality of American technology? Do you perhaps see a life cycle to technological societies such as our own?
I’m primarily concerned about the vitality not of our technology but of our culture, since I’m arguing that our culture, especially our values, shapes technology. A major reason I’m concerned is because of the phenomenon that I’ve labeled “technological momentum.” We become committed to the technological systems that we have created, and as a result, these technological systems have a high momentum, a high mass, a high velocity. Millions of people are committed to the way technology is being done in this country and used here. They live off the way it’s done and used. Their values shape it and in turn are reinforced by it. Their skills depend on it. And it’s hard for people who are so committed to existing technology to change course. Consider how difficult it is now to change a system of nuclear-weapon production that emphasizes output and not the reduction of environmental hazards.
It’s amazing how many of our leaders and thinkers are not well informed about technological change. They think technology is infinitely flexible, that you can change your technology tomorrow. That is not the case. Technology has all the momentum, the conservatism, of politics, and it takes years, even decades, to change it. Now, the question is, How deeply are we still committed to technological systems that may have taken essential shape in the twenties and thirties in this country—that is, mass-production technology, centralized technology, environmentally insensitive hierarchical technology, systematized technology? And if we are deeply committed to such systems, if we’re conservatively dedicated to this kind of technology, we may be on a trajectory that does not allow us to solve new problems in new ways. A case in point is the military-industrial-university complex. Hundreds of thousands of people are committed to this way of doing technology and make a living from it. It will take a remarkable set of circumstances to move people off this trajectory, even if some of the problems that the technology was designed to solve no longer exist. Some argue that our aircraft carriers and long-range bombers are examples of that.
Your book compares today’s huge technological systems to the dinosaurs. Environmental catastrophes destroyed them.
It may take technological catastrophe to make us rethink our patterns and our commitment. Take the great oil spills. They did make us think about the environment and what we were doing to it. Likewise Three Mile Island. And of course, Chernobyl recently forced people throughout the world to rethink the place of atomic energy.
When our technological systems have a high momentum, one needs a force of equal magnitude and velocity to change their character and direction. The demise of the dinosaur is comparable. Some scientists think a natural catastrophe eliminated the conditions needed for the survival of the dinosaur. Technological catastrophes could frighten us into changing our commitment to existing technology.
Knowing what we do now about the Chernobyl disaster and others, and with the wisdom of hindsight, how can you refer to the period between 1870 and 1970 as a golden age if these are the fruits of that century?
Well, there are problems in golden eras. There are problems in good lives and great lives, as we know. We no longer celebrate heroes uncritically. We shouldn’t celebrate our golden age uncritically. In the beginning of the golden century, Americans were fantastically creative. They were dealing with a more or less open situation, and they embarked upon the creation of the systems of production that we associate with Ford and Taylor. By the twenties they had these systems in place, and the modern technological spirit of the century was being well articulated by engineers and managers and artists and architects. Then, as we moved into the period of World War II and after, there was a certain hardening of the arteries. We were producing well; we were in a groove. The American World War II effort was certainly an impressive expression of productive power even if it was necessarily focused on instruments of war. Since World War II we have moved into, shall we say, a postmature age, in which we are trying to repeat our successes, trying to recover the values of the past, and we’re not willing enough to set out on a new course, to cast off some of the ballast of the past and move on to something new, possibly even dangerous, but challenging. We are too often offering old solutions to new problems.
Throughout your writings you show an ambivalence toward the corporate and bureaucratic efforts that built the large technological systems like our electric-power grids. On the one hand, you see them as imposing order on chaos; on the other, you seem to have a very warm spot for the solitary inventor, who is increasingly an anachronism in our times.
The people most responsible for the great burst of creativity in the early years of this century were the independent inventors. I admire them for their creative spirit. I associate them with Renaissance artists and the great Victorian engineers. You might call them free spirits. But their work was responsible for creating the systems that would make it difficult for those of us who live later to be as free in our creative activity. That’s the paradox. In Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus there’s a wonderful section in which he describes the attitudes of a young composer toward music. The composer wants to discover a system of creation. And Mann uses Mephistopheles to show that if one finds a system for creativity, then one is no longer freely creating. Mephistopheles offers the young man a system. And in this way he destroys the young man’s creativity.
We Americans have created a system, a remarkable system of mass production. And this in a sense restrains our creativity, at least along this trajectory. So I go back to the other question: What will we be able to do to break out from this constraint? I’d suggest, as did some socially responsible counterculture persons, that we concentrate on inventing technology to solve radically different problems, such as environmental ones.
You have long expressed admiration for the work of the cultural critic Lewis Mumford. In American Genesis you invoke him in your final chapters on the counterculture. How would you compare your own views with Lewis Mumford’s?
I first read Mumford decades ago when I was in graduate school. 1 was impressed by the intellectual vitality of his concepts. But at the time I wanted my own concepts, my own generalizations, to emerge from the sources, so I was not inclined in my bones to accept Mumford’s generalizations. I forgot Mumford for years. And then, as I began to write this book, I found myself saying, “Gee, now wait. I’ve run across this idea of mine somewhere before.” For example, consider the social-construction idea that’s so popular today among historians—the notion that society shapes the technology much more than the technology shapes society. When Mumford wrote Technics and Civilization in 1934, he argued that values shape technology. So as I was writing this new book, 1 began to reread Mumford, and I got reinforcement and stimulation and some refinement of my ideas.
Do you share any of his deep pessimism that emerged, for example, in the Pentagon of Power , in which he rails against the military-industrial complex?
I’m not as pessimistic as Mumford. He uses the concept of the megamachine, a technological supersystem such as the military-industrial complex. And at times he seems to think that the megamachine cannot be put off its course. I have confidence that if we become more aware of the nature of technology, of the humanness of technology, of the capacity we have to construct our technology socially, we can better control our large technological systems and redirect them.
I suppose I feel more confident than he because much of his pessimism came out of the immediate postwar period. I am writing decades after the war, and I see greater possibilities for getting control of, say, atomic energy, whereas he was laboring under the shadow of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But his oppressive megamachine is my technological system. His megamachine has the momentum 1 discuss. Both he and I are deeply concerned.