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Feb 16, 2015

Welcome to Infinity, Limited

tags: technology,innovation,Coopersmith,invention

Welcome to Infinity, Limited

Doing the history of technology is like being a kid in a candy store.  There are so many possible topics and so many ways of tackling them that the tempting opportunities seem endless.  This blog will explore that candy store and try to convey some of the thrills that those of us fortunate (or deluded) enough to be professional historians of technology experience. 

Infinity, Limited is this blog’s name.  Technology enables us to extend ourselves in ways unimaginable ever a few decades ago.  Our imaginations and expectations of what technology can do are infinite, but the reality is limited by factors ranging from the narrowly technical (materials unable to fulfill desired specifications) to the economic (the best technology is worthless if too costly) to the social (are pocket protectors really cool?).  Hence “Infinity, Limited.”

Why should you read this blog?  After all, the Internet offers millions of alternatives, often done more professionally and with more provocative titles and images.  First, the history of technologies are fascinating in themselves. Second, the history of technology offers windows into understanding larger historical issues.  Third, the history of technology is fun.  You’ll never look at your laundry the same way before.   Or the LED. 

What is technology?  I favor broad, inclusive definitions:  Melvin Kranzberg, one of the founders of the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) and Carroll Pursell in 1967 wrote, “Technology, in a sense, is nothing more than the area of interaction between ourselves, as individuals, and our environment, whether material or spiritual, natural or manmade.”[i]  Two decades later, the editors of one of the seminal books in the field defined technology as the set of “physical objects or artifacts,” “activities or processes,” and “what people know as well as what they do.”[ii]  Technology is an instrument of culture as well as individuals and always occurs within a particular social context.

Technologies are ways of extending control over nature (including people). A B-2 bomber is a complex technology; an umbrella is a simple technology. One is used to exert control militarily; the other exerts control over (or minimizes the efforts of) the weather.   But control is not the only reason we use technologies in our lives. 

When I ask my students the first day of class what technology is, the replies usually are on the lines of tools to accomplish tasks better, faster, or more efficiently.  The emphasis is on work.  When I tell them that pornography was one of the first widespread uses of new communication technologies (ranging from woodblock printing in the 16th century to the internet in the 20th century), they pause.  Their image, the popular image of technology, is serious.  Steam engines are serious.  Steamy pictures are not.  But both are part of technology.

Astronauts and their Corvettes

How do historians study technologies?  We use a combination of approaches including written and oral sources, but also we analyze the technologies themselves.  Consider the Model T and a Corvette built a century later.  The essential components and concepts – internal combustion engine, four wheels, enclosed cabin, &c. – remain the same, but much else has changed.  Perhaps the most obvious difference is the height of the car body off the ground.  Ford engineers designed the Model T for driving over low-quality roads or even no roads at all as well as easy maintenance by owners.  Implicit in the Corvette is the assumption that it will be driven only on high-quality, smooth roads and maintained by professional mechanics. 

History, the future, and Harry Truman’s one-armed economist.  President Harry Truman allegedly spoke wistfully about his desire for a one-armed economist.  When asked why, the president responded that his economic advisors would outline a proposed course of action, but then pause and say, “But on the other hand ….”  Beware anyone who states “The lessons of history are ….”  Reality is complicated and rarely can historians fully and accurately comprehend the motivations and actions of all the actors of a historical event.  We can – and should – participate in contemporary policy debates and use our expertise, but we – and the people listening to our ideas – should be careful of simplistic solutions.  If the problem was really that basic, it problem would have been solved long ago. 

History of technology and public policy.  Despite that warning, if you want to use the history of technology to think about contemporary issues, follow the economics and engineering.  Specifically, look who benefits and who loses from particular technologies or policies (such as the Net Neutrality debate).  Second, effective policies usually entail the “three engineerings” of the environment, the actual technology, and the users. 

To take an example close to home, automobile accidents killed over 53,000 Americans in 1970.  If accidents had continued at the same rate (deaths per hundred million miles traveled), over 150,000 people would have died in 2013.  Instead only 35,000 Americans died.  If a friend or family member was one of those 35,000, that “only” is justifiably painful.  Three broad factors resulted in safer roads.  First, the environment changed:  rumble strips, crash barriers, and better road design made driving safer while emergency medical services reduced the death rate from crashes.  Second, cars became safer:  airbags, crash-friendly interiors, safety glass and other alternations made cars less lethal to their occupants.  Third, users changed:  Driving while intoxicated became socially unacceptable with increased legal penalties to enforce good behavior. 

That nearly one hundred people die daily on American roads shows there is still a significant problem (and a wonderful example of how we misrepresent risk, a topic for a future blog).  That five hundred people do not die daily on those roads show how engineering the users, vehicles, and environment for driving worked. 

Who am I?  I’m an academic, which means I’m defining myself by my institution, teaching and research. I have the honor to teach at Texas A&M University since 1988.  I teach unsuspecting (and sometimes suspecting) undergraduates and graduates classes in the history of technology in America and worldwide, the history of energy of America, and 20th-21st century European history.  My latest book, FAXED. The Rise and Fall of the Fax Machine explores the history of the fax machine.  My first book, The Electrification of Russia examined the evolution of electric power, lighting, and transportation in Russia from the 1880s to the 1920s.  I’ve also written about pornography and technology, how Al Gore really did help invent the Internet, and a few other odds and ends.

I hope this blog will spark your interest in the history of technology.  Please send me suggestions for topics and approaches. 


Next posting

Why failure is normal in the history of technology

[i] Melvin Kranzberg and Carroll W. Pursell, Jr., Technology in Western Civilization (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1967), I, 11. 

[ii]   Wiebe E. Bijker, Thomas P. Hughes and Trevor Pinch, eds., “General Introduction,” in The Social Construction of Technological Systems (Cambridge:  MIT Press, 1987), 4.

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