A NEW TEXTBOOK FINALLY PUTS TECHNOLOGY WHERE IT HAS ALWAYS BELONGED IN AMERICAN HISTORY: FRONT AND CENTER
WHO NEEDS THE HISTORY OF TECHNOLOGY? WE ALL DO, historians in the field believe; it’s a central part of the story of the making of our world. But getting the word out hasn’t been easy. A major step forward came recently in the form of a new college textbook, Inventing America , published, in two volumes, by W. W. Norton. It’s the first general American history text to draw significantly on scholarship in the fields of science, technology, and invention. It’s surprising that such a text was never written before, given the obviously major role of science and technology in American history.
As Merritt Roe Smith, one of the book’s four authors, explains, the project was conceived in a meeting called over a decade ago by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which has long been dedicated to enlightening the public about the scientific and technological past. The idea of a new college textbook in American history captured the imagination of the foundation’s president, Ralph Gomory, and Smith, a historian of technology in MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society, assembled a team of historians from diverse specialties to create it: Alexander Keyssar, from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, a specialist in the history of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; Daniel J. Kevles of Yale University, an expert on science, technology, and politics in the twentieth century; the MIT professor Pauline Maier, a specialist on early American history who has written extensively on the American Revolution; and Smith himself, an authority on the history of technological innovation. Also recruited was Rob Martello, of Olin College, who conceived, researched, and developed an accompanying CD-ROM.
I spoke with two of the authors of Inventing America , Merritt Roe Smith and Pauline Maier, and they reflected on their joint enterprise and how their career paths converged on the book. Smith is best known as the prizewinning author of Harpers Ferry Armory and the New Technology ; Maier, a self-described “plain vanilla historian” whose many writings include American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence , discloses a previously hidden affinity for technology. What joined them was a shared belief in the vital importance of integrating technological history with political history. Here they describe how they arrived at innovation as a unifying theme throughout the American past, and they talk about what they learned while preparing the book. Maier is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of American History at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Smith is the Leverett and William Cutten Professor of the History of Technology, also at MIT.
How did you decide to write this book?
MRS: A little more than 10 years ago a group of historians of technology were invited to talk to the people at the Sloan Foundation about what the foundation might do for the history of technology. I happened to say how disappointed I was at how American history textbooks marginalized science and technology. About two weeks later I got a phone call from someone at Sloan saying, “If you’d like to do a textbook in American history, we’d be interested in supporting it.”
If you look at anything about technology or science in textbooks, it’s almost always separated from politics and society. And I’ve long thought that these things needed to be integrated. That was what we tried to do. We call ourselves a technological society, yet we don’t pay much attention to technology in our texts. And we surely don’t relate it to the politics and the social issues that are important in our society.
PM: He’s absolutely correct. Issues having to do with technology or the history of science are just not in previous American history textbooks.
How did you go about integrating them? And how does that distinguish your book from others?
MRS: We tried to stick with the general chronology of American history—but at the same time insert technology. Discussion of the American Revolution is usually totally separated from anything about Oliver Evans’s automated mill or John Fitch’s steamboat, which, in fact, few textbooks even mention. Pauline tied the subjects together. I worked very hard on the chapter that dealt with the 1820s, which is usually less interesting than it should be because people leave out the technology. There was a little-known law passed in 1824 called the General Survey Act that allowed West Point-trained engineers to be seconded out to private corporations like the B&O Railroad to conduct surveys and to initiate construction. And the first interchangeable parts were being developed at the time. I try to weave these things into the fabric of the administration of John Quincy Adams. I can guarantee you that no other textbook in this country does that.
All American history textbooks use the decade of the 1850s to provide the background for the Civil War. My chapter starts out with the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London, which was the event that advertised America’s coming of age as a technological nation. Then I go on to discuss American science and technology in the 1850s. Army engineers were surveying the West, getting involved in one of the biggest controversies of the time, trying to determine where the transcontinental railroad was going to go. Stephen Douglas, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the whole slavery issue were tied up with engineering questions. Those guys were out there surveying, but my God, they were involved in a much bigger game than simply laying out a railroad. By the 185Os it meant a great deal to both Northerners and Southerners where the eastern terminus of the railroad was going to be, in a Northern or a Southern city.
PM: What happened with our textbook is really very curious. The traditional history of politics became much easier to integrate with the history of everyday life and ordinary people. Technology linked them. You can’t talk about the history of science and technology without dealing with questions of state, but on the other hand, what has transformed ordinary life more than technology? Everything from diet through transportation and even relationships between different groups in the society are powerfully affected by changes in technology. So in some ways the pieces are held together much better if you come at it from a new angle, the angle of innovation.
Can you give me an example of this?
PM: Today the word technology suggests complex electronic devices. It takes some imagination to consider the arrival of the horse as a revolutionary advance in communications technology, but that’s what it was in sixteenth-century North America, and it helped the Spanish consolidate their power. Native Americans just didn’t have equivalent ways of sending information from one place to another.
The emphasis on technology in Inventing America often amounts simply to answering a common human question: How did they do that? How did fifteenth- and sixteenth-century European sailors who crossed the Atlantic manage to get where they wanted to go? The book explains the practice of “running down the latitude,” essentially sailing north or south to the degree of latitude they sought, then turning west (or, on the return trip, east) until they saw land. It also describes in accessible language the devices they used—the quadrant and astrolabe—and how those devices worked. Navigation is of course an obvious topic in a period when water formed the world’s best highway system.
It’s amazing, I think, that nobody found a good way to measure longitude—so sailors could calculate how far they had gone—until the mid-eighteenth century. Thanks to Dava Sobel’s book Longitude , lots of people now know about the Englishman John Harrison’s marvelous chronometers and how they provided the solution. We retell that story, but we also tell about Nathaniel Bowditch, a self-educated American from Salem, Massachusetts, whose New American Practical Navigator taught American seamen a cheaper way of doing the same thing with celestial observations. Generations of American seamen went off with their “Bowditch” in stow and spent their spare time reading the book. The impact on oceangoing commerce, a critical part of the American economy in the new Republic, was immense. But I don’t think you’ll find Bowditch or Harrison or, for that matter, astrolabes mentioned in most American history textbooks.
MRS: We started out asking how we would integrate science and technology with the narrative of American history. It dawned on us once we started writing chapters that there was a theme that runs throughout the textbook, the idea that one distinctive thing about the American people is that they’ve been enormously innovative throughout their history. That point struck me as I read Pauline’s chapters on the 1780s, particularly her description of constitution writing on the state and national levels. Those first constitutions were enormously innovative. The innovation in our book, I realized, was more than technological. It was social and political as well.
How did technological and other kinds of historical change come together for you?
MRS: Take the case of the telegraph and the rise of political parties. Newspapers played a central role in building modern political-party organizations, one of the great political innovations of the early nineteenth century. They were among the first institutions to use the telegraph to communicate news from one region of the country to another. This sped up the process of information gathering and dissemination, and it enhanced the power of party organizations.
Electricity is another good example. Electricity not only changed night into day, it also reconfigured the living spaces of urban America. Earlier people of all classes and backgrounds lived within walking distance of where they worked. In the middle of the nineteenth century, when hundreds of thousands of Irish and German immigrants entered the country, native urban dwellers sought to separate themselves from this foreign element by moving out of the city centers where the new immigrants gathered. They did so at first by relying on horse-drawn vehicles and streetcars and, to an extent, elevated railroads. But the real change came with electrified streetcar systems, because they penetrated miles out of the cities into what became known as suburbs.
Suburbs became one of the great innovations in American life, and their initial growth owed much to the electrified streetcar system. Of course, they grew even faster with the coming of the automobile.
PM: We started by agreeing we were talking about technology not in the very narrow sense, having to do with mechanisms, but as a tool that humans devise to serve their convenience and their needs. Technology is a tool, and government under written constitutions in a sense is a similar creation.
Were you always interested in technology yourselves?
MRS: I studied history at a time when no one really knew what the history of technology was. As a graduate student at Penn State I was interested primarily in military history, but I started doing research on a guy named John H. Hall, who worked at the Harpers Ferry Armory and played a key role in the development of interchangeable parts. That shifted my interest away from battles and leaders and guns toward how things got made and manufactured.
Were you a technology buff before that?
MRS: Yes. My best friend in high school was a big hot-rodder. My parents wouldn’t allow me to own a car, but I would go over to his garage and tinker. This was in the 1950s. I had a friend who owned a '39 Ford, and I remember wanting so badly a black sedan with Hollywood mufflers and dual carburetors. I kept asking my mother why I couldn’t have a car. Also, my father was a big hunter. He was an optometrist, but these old farmers would come in and say, “Doc, I’ve got this Civil War musket. Do you want it?” Before you knew it, he started assembling a collection of old firearms. And I was brought up around that stuff and was interested in it from day one.
PM: So to go from there to the history of the manufacture of firearms was easy.
MRS: Yes, but when I was a graduate student, I proposed to write a paper on the aesthetics of the Pennsylvania Kentucky rifle, because I knew from the literature I had read that you could actually tell where a firearm was made from the decorations on it. But the professor said I was too young and inexperienced to write something that sophisticated. He told me to find another topic. I was stymied, because I really wanted to do that paper. That’s when I discovered John H. Hall, at Harpers Ferry.
Pauline, how did you encounter technology?
PM: Well, I come at this from a very different angle. There’s none of the history of technology in my background. But I realize that instinctively as a teacher I always brought it in. I remember, when I first started to teach, assigning Charles Sorensen’s My Forty Years With Ford . Sorensen was Ford’s right-hand man at the River Rouge manufacturing plant, and his book told a lot about the nuts and bolts of making cars, as well as about Henry Ford, his politics, labor relations, and so on. I discovered that the technology discussion got a hook into some students who I would otherwise have trouble reaching. One student, I remember, asked me what such an interesting book was doing in a boring old American history course. I said what that book talked about was history, and he noticed that history isn’t boring.
MRS: Pauline is at heart a farmer.
PM: I have a theory that many mechanical innovations have come from people on farms, because you have to fix things when you’re there. When my rototiller breaks, what am I going to do? It isn’t like a car, which you can take to a garage. Either I fix it or it’s out of use. And of course you start thinking about how the device could be improved. I remember calling my father in Minnesota one day to have him explain to me how to use a ratchet wrench so I could get the rototiller’s belt back on. He very patiently described how to take off the housing. My father would have been a perfect MIT student. He never went to college, but he was very good at math, very mechanical, and very supportive of his daughter’s mechanical ventures. If I started asking questions, he would explain and say, “You can do that. You and your sister, Debbie. If you just look at something long enough, you can figure it out and fix it.”
Working on this book, as a historian of colonial and Revolutionary America, I became more and more impressed by the significance of mills. Water mills, sawmills, gristmills—they all were part of the landscape in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Today they’re under the local Dunkin’ Donuts or something; they’re really lost. They’re lost from historical memory. I was very, very impressed by their significance, and I wrote about them. And one of our graduate students connected them with the beginning of the industrialization of the textile industry, which used waterpower and so drew on two centuries of American experience with other kinds of water-powered mills.
In your attention to the history of technology, have you revised traditional themes in American history?
PM: One thing reviewers have picked up on is our innovative way of talking about the development of American political institutions in the Revolutionary period. I wrote a fairly long section on the development of state constitutions after 1776 and the state legislatures’ creation of corporations in the 1780s. The corporation was traditionally understood as an institution of privilege. It seems bizarre that it was revived during the Revolution and made into an important American institution. The British had all but abandoned the corporation as a business and didn’t turn to it again until well into the nineteenth century. But it had a particular usefulness here, where manufacturing lagged because of high labor costs and lack of capital. Corporations allowed entrepreneurs to collect small parcels of capital from a large number of small investors. And if they invested that capital in machines modeled on basically stolen English technology, well, they could make goods, especially textiles, with less labor. State legislators, who enthusiastically supported “improvements”—what we call development—understood that. But they had to tinker with the inherited form of corporation to make it fit a republic. So they put in the same kind of creative energy other Americans were putting into designing constitutions.
Conversely, how does your book revise the history of technology and science?
MRS: The chapter I’m proudest of is the one I called “The Benevolent Empire.” I began it with a quotation from Daniel Webster dedicating a railroad in 1847. He said, “It is an extraordinary era in which we live. It is altogether new. The world has seen nothing like it before.… We see the ocean navigated and the solid land traversed by steam power, and intelligence communicated by electricity.… The progress of the age has almost outstripped human belief; the future is known only to Omniscience.” I used Webster’s words as a way of getting into a discussion of the idea of progress, and I tried to relate the idea of progress to concepts of the millennium in the early nineteenth century, because I’ve always thought there was a connection between religion and technological change. Evangelical groups were changing the face of religion, and they were very much in concert with the spokespeople for the new technology of the 1820s and 1830s. They were saying, “Isn’t this machinery grand? And it’s paving the way to millennium.”
What does your book teach us about more recent times?
MRS: People often look at the 1970s as a time of trouble, with the depressing end of the Vietnam War, long lines for gas, Three Mile Island, Love Canal, and the like. Inventing America shows that in the midst of all that, some remarkable technological developments were taking place, one of which was the birth of biotechnology. Another was the advent of the personal computer. Two major American industries, steel and autos, were besieged by foreign competitors, but biotech and PCs were taking root and would become major contributors in offsetting the downturn in the older rust-belt industries. No wonder some people talk about a third industrial revolution. Biotech and computers have wrought enormous changes in our society. They’re forcing us to address social and political issues different from any experienced before.
Has innovation become too much the property of powerful corporations?
MRS: Well, when new technologies are introduced, they’re not introduced just by the Thomas Edisons. They’re introduced by the people who surround a Thomas Edison. He had the vision; but he also had a whole bevy of coworkers and employees who assisted him and made critical contributions. In machine shops, when you’re developing new types of machine movements, self-acting lathes, for example, the people developing those lathes aren’t just Eli Whitneys or Samuel Colts; they’re also the people the shops employ. Regular wage workers make little kinks and changes on the machines and they make a big difference in the overall design. They’re very much bound up in the innovative process. Once those machines are introduced, however, workers start to realize that they can turn out twice as many parts in a day and double their income, or they can take off from work and go home early. Their employers aren’t dumb either. They start lowering piece rates. And then you have clashes. It’s not over the introduction of the new technology. It’s about the management of it on the shop floor.
PM: One problem with emphasizing innovation is that there’s a tendency to suggest that it’s always onward and upward, which is not the case. Take the cotton gin. It brought enormous prosperity to the South, but it also shackled it to the institution of slavery, which most Americans of the 1780s had thought would disappear over time. The cotton gin gave slavery a new lease on life. Nuclear energy might be a more modern example; even peacetime uses have become questionable since Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. And of course the jury’s still out on the environmental impact of genetically modified crops.
Also, we make no claim that Americans are uniquely inventive. In fact a tremendous number of American innovations have involved technologies of foreign origin.
But there is a myth here of America’s always being first. Even foreigners see us this way.
PM: Yet the rifle came from Germany, and early textile machinery from England. Interchangeable parts were not an American idea but French. Still, those devices or ideas were picked up and implemented here. That might explain this country’s reputation.
From the start we were anxious to avoid writing a book that just picked up current historical fashions. All four of us believed that history should be a balanced telling of the past. Perhaps a historian’s personal politics cannot be entirely removed from what he or she writes, but it seems important to try. Of course, the historian necessarily brings a perspective from a later time, but judging the past by modern values is no good. The past is a different place, shaped by different assumptions and beliefs. The moral challenge of the humanities, I was once told, is to develop the imagination to get out of ourselves and learn what it is or was to be someone else, which includes someone else who lived in another time.
The distinction of Inventing America is of course its pioneering effort to include the history of technology and innovation generally in the story of our country, and I personally think that makes the story fuller, more coherent, and more interesting. But in the long run I suspect our book will catch on for more ordinary reasons—because it’s written well, gives a balanced account of American history, and, above all, helps students understand the past and its people in their own terms. That at least is our dream.