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Shot In Mid-life

Winter 1991 | Volume 6 |  Issue 3

CLEVELAND, OHIO: The Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) was born here in 1957, when Melvin Kranzberg convened a group of scholars dissatisfied with the low importance historians of the day assigned to technological matters. Through the years SHOT has grown in numbers and in respect, and upon returning to Cleveland for its annual meeting last October, it found itself facing the challenges of middle age. (The same cannot be said for Kranzberg himself, who retains the energy of an excited teen-ager.)

Many battles from SHOT’s early days appear to have been won. Several speakers—they came from around the nation and Europe—noted the acceptance that technological history now enjoys within the larger historical profession and the way technology is taken for granted as an element of historical analysis, even by nonspecialists. The flip side of this—the need to take economics, cultural attitudes, and so forth into account in assessing technology—has become a truism: When someone made such a point, it was usually accompanied by an apology for stating the obvious. Indeed, Edwin T. Layton, Jr., winner of the Leonardo da Vinci Medal for lifetime achievement, felt compelled to point out that “internal” (i.e., nuts-and-bolts) history was still important.

Yet with these advances a new set of questions emerges. Merritt Roe Smith, the outgoing president, spoke of a trend toward fragmentation, a loss of the common principles, concerns, and beliefs that brought SHOT into being in the first place. When one could encounter discussion of “denaturalizing the conceptual basis for distinguishing between subjecthood and objecthood” one day (in a paper devoted to “the epistemological challenges presented by” automatic teller machines), and hear that “the girders consisted of three parallel tubing sections arranged in a triangular construction” the next (in an explanation of airship design), it was easy to see what he meant.

Robert C. Post, the editor of Technology and Culture , SHOT’S journal, also addressed this point. The current variety of approaches is a good sign for the continued growth of the field, he said. But he feared that one day the different schools of technological historians might be unable to talk to one another. The role of technology as central to the discipline, rather than as a jumping-off point for philosophy, sociology, and what have you, is in danger of being lost. Post extended the hope that the new scholarship might yield a new unifying principle—perhaps a notion of technological “force” or “momentum.”

Layton touched on these issues in his acceptance speech. It is now widely agreed, he said, that technology is not simply applied science. The history of technology is “not only respectable but even popular.” And he was excited by the extension of its boundaries to include topics previously ignored, such as gender. The consensus in Cleveland seemed to be that diversity without diffusion should be the goal. If today’s scholars can achieve that, the history of technology will retain the vigor of its youth.

GENDER? Some readers may be wondering about that. After all, most inventors have been male. And their inventions work the same whether a man or a woman is using them. What’s there to study?

Quite a bit, as it turns out. Women inventors are indeed rare, but there have been a few. How they succeeded, and how the achievements of other women have been discouraged or ignored, is one area of inquiry. Another is the differing effects that technological advances have on the two sexes, and how gender attitudes affect the reception of new technology.

For example, Carol Lee of Bucknell University points out that household generators were available years before the widespread rural electrification of the 1930s. Reformers and promoters saw them as a way to keep women on the farm by making their life less arduous. While the generators may have done so, they did not increase women’s leisure time but merely allowed them to do more work in the same number of hours. In any case, they did not catch on, says Lee, because men were reluctant to buy something that mostly benefited women. Or consider the sewing machine. As Cheris Kramarae of the University of Illinois has written, for men its main effect was to make clothing cheaper. For women it replaced the sewing circle, a place where they could talk and share confidences, with the sweatshop.

As general historians learn to respect technology, technological historians learn to better appreciate the role of women.

Gender issues also play a big role in labor history. A recent book by Patricia A. Cooper of Drexel University examines the cigar industry. Early in this century automation began allowing certain tasks to be done by low-paid, unskilled women. The cigar makers’ union, a close-knit group of male craftsmen, refused to admit them, thinking that if they had women members, it would be easier for management to push them around. As automation advanced, however, the union’s membership and influence declined. Its efforts to preserve the traditions of handrolling in the face of mechanization failed, and in the end both men and women lost.

Feminist scholarship is even expanding historians’ ideas of what constitutes technology. Susan Klepp of Rider College has examined “fertility regulation” in the 1700s and 180Os as a technological field. Methods of inducing abortion were quite common, she says, usually involving herbal preparations, douches, or strenuous exercise. But they were generally described (in books or on medicine labels) as methods to restore menstrual regularity, or billed as cures for some other condition but provided with prominent warnings against use by pregnant women. Such methods have been dismissed as folk remedies, perhaps because they were mostly practiced by women without male doctors. Klepp maintains that the distinction between folk and scientific medicine was much less clearly drawn in that era; many methods used by professional doctors were just as primitive, and no more effective.

Like the history of technology itself, women within the field are becoming more generally accepted, both as scholars and as subjects for inquiry. At a recent meeting of the women’s committee of SHOT, several members conceded, hesitantly at first, that special convention sessions for women were no longer needed. Just as general historians are seeing that technology is not just an obscure specialty, so technological historians are seeing how gender issues are involved in virtually every facet of their work. As these processes continue, the entire profession of history becomes stronger.

KATONAH, N.Y.: Edward Larrabee Barnes, who designed the new Katonah Museum of Art, knows all about how technology has changed architecture. Forget computer-assisted design and reinforced concrete. The invention that’s affected his work the most is the automobile. “Sometimes it seems we spend half our time in any project working on the parking lot,” he says. Visitors may be struck by the museum’s airy atrium or the all-white interior, but the trustees’ biggest concern was keeping the place from looking like a shopping mall—that and the deer-proof tree plantings in back.

Such is life in the suburbs. But behind the parking lot and Bambi-busters, the museum inaugurated its new home this fall with an exhibition called “The Technological Muse.” It showed how artists have viewed technology through the years, and if the works on display are any guide, their thinking has changed considerably.

A famous 1857 George Inness painting shows an innocuous-looking train deep in the background, gently puffing its way through a verdant landscape. Strip mining, smog, and split-level ranches are far in the future. This benign vision contrasts sharply with Andy Warhol’s 1986 view of a huge mound of household garbage. Paper cups, plastic bags, and a discarded advertising circular pack the image (presented in quadruplicate to make sure you get the point). Technology, no longer a minor element, has become the entire picture, and it isn’t pretty.

Several photographers in the show spent the twenties and thirties recording industrial scenes: Lewis Hine with his Westinghouse turbine, Margaret Bourke-White at steel plants, Ralph Steiner with masses of interlocking gears. Their starkly lit black-and-white images reflect a growing awareness of machines as potentially beautiful, sculptural objects. Taken in tandem with Mine’s bleary-eyed young boy in a West Virginia glass factory or various artists’ drab urban scenes, they reflect an emerging distinction between the industrial artifact itself (fascinating) and its effect on people (depressing).

The most recent pieces in the exhibit take this merger of technology and art a step further, by physically including actual things such as neon tubes, shopping carts, and running water. Nam June Paik builds a sculpture of the composer John Cage out of old television sets; Robert Rauschenberg scatters some traffic signals on the floor; Donald Lipski glues dice to a nautical buoy. The idea of industrial artifact as beautiful object has certainly been replaced, but it’s not clear by what.

The exhibit’s theme of ambiguity was summed up best by Edward Kienholz’s computer-controlled assemblage of knobs, dials, and switches, which used flashing lights to answer any yes-or-no question. Recent users had apparently been mostly teenagers: lots of queries about high school sports, romances, and other adolescent preoccupations. Each one had been answered with all the false authority and illusory precision that modern technology can muster. But one young naturalist, wise beyond his years, had posed the following stumper: “Can rhinos brush their teeth?”

The machine’s answer, alas, was not recorded.

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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