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Going Virtual

Spring 1996 | Volume 11 |  Issue 4

ON THE WEB: Believe it or not, there’s an awful lot more on the World Wide Web about the history of technology than there is about, say, restaurants in Los Angeles. You might expect the brand-new information technology to excel at providing info of the moment, but judging from a recent journey through its expanses, solid history may get the best treatment of all. The Web is chock-full of history-of-technology museum displays, “virtual exhibits,” illustrated articles, teaching materials, library resources, periodicals, and more.

Tune, for instance, to , and you’ll find the Franklin Institute’s interactive program “Benjamin Franklin: Glimpses of the Man.” You can choose to be led through biographical material or to focus on any of seven of Franklin’s avocations. Pick “scientist,” learn about his various scientific activities, and you can go on to “electricity,” where among other things you can learn about lightning, hear thunder, and even move on to a full offering of electricity-related projects for schoolchildren.

The World Wide Web is chock-full of history-of-technology museum displays, “virtual exhibits,” library resources, and more

One thing always leads to another on the Web, the key to its power and versatility being hypertext, the highlighted words or pictures that you can click on to be sent to any Web site on earth that is chosen by the designer of the site you’re on. A good Web site is a maze of possibilities. “Alexander Graham Bell’s Path to the Telephone” ( ), by Michael E. Gorman of the University of Virginia, connects a “master map,” or flow chart, of Bell’s inventive process with a full narrative text and a wealth of sketches, patent drawings, and other illustrative materials. Likewise, “To Fly Is Everything … A Brief History of the Invention of the Airplane” ( ), by Gary Bradshaw of the University of Illinois, links up not just a narrative text, photos, drawings, and background information but also the Library of Congress’s entire collection of 301 glass-plate photographs that the Wrights took of their early experiments.

Museums are making the most of the technology. Both the Smithsonian Institution ( ) and London’s Science Museum ( http:// ) offer elaborate sites where you can not only get schedules and learn of special events and shows but also tour the facilities by clicking over floor-plan maps to see and learn about specific objects on display at the museums. The Smithsonian’s site seems as endlessly vast as the institution itself, and at the Science Museum you can, for example, fly up to the second floor, shoot into the marine engineering exhibit, and stop right at Parson’s Marine Steam-Engine, which in 1894 powered the world’s first steamturbine-driven vessel. You’ll see the engine itself and the ship it drove, in both color and black-and-white. That’s one of five artifacts you’re invited to visit just in that one room of the four-story museum.

The Web being so large and decentralized, you’ll want a Baedeker to get around no matter how much you enjoy getting lost in the serendipity of links that never cease to lead to new realms. A good place to start is at the homepage of the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) ( ), which leads to links to myriad academic institutions, museums, libraries, publications, and more. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of the article on geodesic domes in this issue, has assembled a wonderful list of interesting resources ( ) from a Vatican Library exhibit and the Galileo Project to the University of Georgia’s rare-map collection and the Oxford Science Museum. The World Wide Web Virtual Library ( ) offers innumerable links in History of Science, Technology & Medicine, as well as in more than a hundred other categories from Aboriginal Studies to Zoos. And North Carolina State offers 157 (at last count) links for students in the emerging field of science, technology, and society ( ).

Before long you may have passed through Henry Ford Museum ( ), the University of Virginia’s Rotunda during its 1895 fire ( ), the new Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation ( ), the complete history of the recent Enola Gay controversy ( ), and on and on and on …

The possibilities only multiply.

—Frederick Allen

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA.: With all the computer links available today, physically assembling scholars from around the world in a single place might seem almost quaint. Nonetheless, SHOT still holds a meeting every year, and during breaks the lobby can be as crowded as Grand Central Terminal during rush hour—though fortunately without the aspiring musicians. What accounts for the convention’s enduring popularity? Free coffee and doughnuts are only part of the answer. Almost as important is the chance to meet fellow scholars face to face and learn from them in ways that the written word, whether on screen or in print, cannot provide.

Of course, the payoff decreases if you see the same old faces every year, which is why SHOT likes to convene jointly with other societies. Last fall’s meeting, held at the University of Virginia, was a combined affair with the Society for the Social Studies of Science (4S). It was sponsored by an outfit with a suitably polyglot name, UVA’s Division of Technology, Culture, and Communication. As paper followed discussion followed roundtable, it became clear how the two groups differ and what they can offer each other.

At a session on space history, one 4S member invited historians to break free of their studied impartiality and give more consideration to notions of good and bad, right and wrong, fair and unfair. Space historians, he said, like those in many other sub-fields, tend to be enthusiastic about the technology they study, while only labor and feminist historians pay much attention to the costs involved. This assessment is vulnerable, to be sure: By the same token, labor and feminist historians tend to favor workers and women, and in any case, those two groups are hardly a tiny minority in SHOT. Still, the 4S member’s suggestion, and the discussion it provoked, revealed how the interplay between divergent approaches can be rewarding for those on both sides.

At another session, an engineer took a shot at evaluating peer review of nuclear waste-management procedures in light of Aristotle’s and Bergson’s theories of knowledge. He succeeded about as well as you’d expect in the twentyfive minutes he was allotted. Elsewhere, with presentations called “I Still Don’t Buy It: Discourses and Authority in a High School Physics Class” and “Do Hostile and Arrogant Scientists Become Eminent or Are Eminent Scientists Likely to Become Hostile and Arrogant?,” there was plenty of opportunity for SHOT and 4S members to benefit from cross-fertilization.

At the same time as the Charlottesville gathering, SHOT published its official account of an earlier mixed meeting: the 1991 joint conference in Madison, Wisconsin, with the History of Science Society. Relations between technology and science, between the history of the two, and between their historians have long been a concern (some would say a preoccupation) for SHOT, and in retrospect the Madison meeting, intended partly as a rapprochement, ended up raising as many issues as it resolved. Commentators on the technology side stressed what the two disciplines had in common even as they fiercely defended SHOT’S independence, waved the bloody shirt of real or imagined slights dating back to the 1950s, and battled stormily over limited research funds.

Even today it can be hard to tell what’s science and what’s technology; go back a few decades, and things get even fuzzier. Almost everyone agrees on that. The two societies might thus seem like natural allies—more so than either one is with the less precision-minded 4S. To a reader not familiar with what has come before, then, some points in SHOT’S account of the proceedings can be puzzling, like one scholar’s paragraph-long explanation of why it’s important to say “history of science and history of technology” instead of just “history of science and technology.”

By interacting with other professional organizations, SHOT maintains a keen focus on the relationships between science and technology, scholarship and advocacy, history and the present. Indeed, it sometimes seems as if half the profession spends its time setting up categories and boundaries while the other half, with equal diligence, knocks them down. Yet such questions lie at the heart of what history is about. In continuing to explore them, historians get at the nature of what they are trying to do—and remind themselves of why it’s important.

—Frederic D. Schwarz

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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