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Summer 1985 | Volume 1 |  Issue 1

CAMBRIDGE, MASS . : In a small room on the top floor of building E51, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a white-haired professor addressed the following question to his assembled colleagues: “Which comes first, processed cheese or processed people?”

During the next few minutes, this issue was seriously examined. Has processed food turned us into a nation with a taste for the bland? Or did a dull appetite precede, and perhaps even inspire, the manufacture of processed food?

The occasion for this particular debate (which, not surprisingly, reached no resolution) was the twenty-seventh annual meeting of the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT). The threeday conference, held last November under the auspices of MIT, drew over two hundred participants, among them engineers, economists, sociologists, and patent lawyers as well as full-time historians of technology.

SHOT was formed in 1958 by a group of scholars who saw the need for an organization committed to the serious historical study of technology and its role in society. Its founding marked the birth of the history of technology as a distinct discipline, and SHOT remains the American society in the field.

To get an idea of what SHOT members are up to, I dipped into about half of the twenty-four seminars included on the schedule of events. The sessions had expansive titles like “Perspectives on Corporate Chemical History,” “Technology and Ideology,” and “Technology in Traditional Societies”; the papers presented within each seminar were utterly diverse: “Technology and Myth in the Homeric Age,” “The State and Early Railroad Building in Prussia,” “Class, Gender and Office Automation,” and “The Soviet and American Space Programs.” But a common sensibility held all of these together. In every instance technology was approached as much more than just hardware. It was seen as a part of an immensely complicated web of people, politics, and culture.


Upstairs at the MIT student center, overlooking hordes of engineers-to-be, I attended a seminar on “Organizations and Technological Change.” Here Jeanne Allen, a professor at Temple University, described the early days of that familiar device, the walkie-talkie. The first version of the lightweight two-way radio, called a handie-talkie, was developed by military engineers during World War II. Despite its endearing name, the instrument was seen as a threat to military tradition. It was so easy to operate that anyone could use it without the help of specially trained liaison officers. The result, some feared, might be anarchy—a prospect particularly upsetting to Air Corps men, who, said a government report, “objected to receiving tactical orders from every lance corporal of the parachute troops who might have the audacity to ask for bomber support.”

Professor Alien concluded that the military’s distaste for the handie-talkie’s egalitarian implications delayed its acceptance. Thus, the instrument’s career represents a phenomenon eagerly sought by SHOT members: a case where technological change—or its absence— has been determined by purely social concerns.

Next on my agenda was “Designing the Future: Alternative Visions.” Henry Ford and his fellow industrialist-engineers had a broader social vision than is generally known, said Howard Segal, a faculty fellow at Harvard University. When Ford built his small, rural industrial villages —planned, self-contained communities with homes and factories—he was hoping to do more than simply decentralize industry. Ford and the other technologists who tried to make these villages work wished to preserve the traditional closely knit town, with all its homely values and its “good life,” even while promoting a massive expansion of industry. As Segal put it, while they were “obviously advancing technology in their professional lives, [they] nevertheless tried to offset the very trends toward even greater scale, centralization, and urbanization to which they considerably contributed.” For the most part, the communities were failures, but Segal believes they may be failures we can learn from.

Like any healthy academic battleground, the history of technology has its share of polemicists. One of these is Samuel Florman, a practicing engineer who recapitulated a major theme of his 1981 book, Blaming Technology , in an acerbic riposte to those who make engineers a scapegoat for social ills. Engineers cannot take all the blame for harmful technologies, he asserted during a seminar on engineering in the twentieth century. Technology reflects all of us, and engineers can’t be expected to blow the whistle on irresponsible manufacturers when they have so little authority as policy-makers. If they are to shoulder the moral responsibility for their works, Florman said, they must be given a bigger role in government and civic planning, receive better pay for their public service work, and a broader education that includes more nontechnical subjects.

Florman ‘s energetic pronouncements met with mixed reactions. Some people complained that he was accusing historians of being much harder on engineers than they really are. Others suggested that no one dislikes engineers quite as much as Florman thinks—in fact, one panelist later described Florman’s defense of his profession as “paranoid.”

On Saturday evening the faithful assembled for what seemed to be the most popular event of the conference, a panel discussion of the 1983 book Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930 , by Thomas P. Hughes, a professor of the history of science and technology at the University of Pennsylvania and a past SHOT president. The book is a comparative study of the beginnings of electric power systems in Chicago, London, and Berlin, which Hughes sees not only as technological constructions but also as products of complex social, managerial, political, and economic situations. Thus, as he shows in considerable detail, they grew in strikingly different ways in different places.

Hughes sees four basic steps in the rise of modern technologies. First, inventors and engineers develop the basic innovation—the light bulb, say, or the telegraph. Next it travels and takes seed in various places. Subsequently, with rapid development, it confronts and must overcome difficult, unforeseen technical barriers. Finally the system gains a momentum of its own and is established as big business. Networks of Power has been widely praised, and the scattered complaints that arose in this discussion were little more than quibbles.

Several of the seminars addressed less weighty topics. One titled “Popular Culture and Technology in Twentieth-Century America” featured a history of early radio programming and a survey of popular conceptions of outer space. These studies reflected the basic nature of their subject—they were entertaining. Nonetheless, their authors’ common purpose, as one of them reminded us, was to better understand the “inculcation of values, the shaping of attitudes … towards technology, politics, and the future.”

SHOT’s annual awards were presented during a well-attended lunch at Walker Memorial Dining Hall. The two most important honors are the Dexter Prize, for an outstanding book on the history of technology, and the Leonardo da Vinci medal, a sort of lifetime-achievement award. The year’s Dexter (sponsored by the Dexter Chemical Corporation) went to Ruth Schwartz Cowan, of the State University of New York, whose More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave describes how laborsaving devices have actually created additional duties for women while reinforcing a sex-stereotyped division of labor.

Like any healthy academic battleground, the history of technology has its polemicists.

The Leonardo da Vinci medal went to Brooke Hindle, senior historian at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, another past president of SHOT, and the author of several studies of early American technology and science. In his acceptance talk, Hindle spoke of the days when there was no professional outlet for historians of technology and applauded the fact that, at last, the history of technology has become a true profession—a recognized discipline that one can devote oneself to, not just practice on the side.

The scholars who convened in January of 1958 to found the Society for the History of Technology faced a double challenge. Not only were they proposing to create an entirely new discipline, but they were doing so out of a basic belief that technology and society are intertwined—a belief that ran contrary to a widely held idea of progress. In this common view, technological development proceeds inexorably, scarcely affected by the society or the environment in which it flourishes. Almost every new invention is inevitable and improves on previous ones. This conception would be hard to shake, but SHOT committed itself to doing so.

How successfully has SHOT met this challenge? In Technology’s Storytellers: Reweaving the Human Fabric , published this May by MIT Press, John Staudenmaier, S. J., looks for answers by analyzing 272 articles that appeared between 1959 and 1980 in SHOT’S journal, Technology and Culture .

Staudenmaier finds three main themes that bear out SHOT’S commitment to a fuller view. The first is a concern with “emerging technology.” Historians have been studying inventors, research teams, and organizations that bring about or respond to technological change, and asking how and why they have encouraged or resisted innovation.

The second theme might be called “defining technology.” What is technological knowledge? Is technology merely applied science, or does it constitute a separate branch of knowledge?

The third theme is broadly defined as “technology and culture“—the study of how entire societies respond to innovation, particularly when a technology from one region is introduced into another.

All this suggests that the old notion of simple autonomous progress has been under steady assault. But Staudenmaier points to a few omissions. Issues that seldom have been addressed include failed technologies, the perspectives of workers and of women, the conflict that occurs when a technology is introduced into a radically different culture, nonWestern technologies, and noncapitalist points of view. The list hints at a subtle adherence to the old presumption, for these are all areas where technology appears in a very different light.

But the gaps have begun to be filled (this year’s prizewinning study of household technology is a case in point), and Staudenmaier concludes with high hopes for the field. He sees an increasing commitment to the task of “telling the stories of technological developments while respecting the full humanity of the tale.”

—Emma Cobb

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