History 398 - Fall 2006
Technologies and Their Societies: Historical Perspectives

First Essay: Reading a Machine

There is an immense amount to be learned simply by tinkering with things. It is not possible to learn from books how everything is made --and a real mechanic ought to know how nearly everything is made. Machines are to a mechanic what books are to a writer. He gets ideas from them, and if he has any brains he will apply those ideas.
Henry Ford, My Life and Work (Garden City: Doubleday, 1922), pp.23-24

In this course we will be using a variety of historical sources, but the most important will be the objects of technology itself: the machines, structures, processes, and systems that embody the intentions and aspirations of the people who design them. In lectures I will undertake readings of the mill, textile machinery, the steam engine, the factory, the Model T, and the computer. In each case I shall try to elicit from the design of the object itself a sense of what the designers were trying to accomplish and, in particular, what they were assuming about the people who would use it. What is the object designed to do? Is it part of a system? If so, where and how does it fit in? What is the expected input and where will its output go? Who will use it and how? What is that person expected to know? What is she or he supposed to be able to learn? How does the object define the worker's relation to it and to other workers?

It will help if you, too, have undertaken such a reading, working directly with a technical artefact (or at least good pictures of it) to elicit its meaning from its structure. You may choose an artefact from any time in the past or present; attached is a list of subjects examined by students in earlier years. Your reading, set forth in an essay of about 1000 words (maximum 1200), should focus on the object itself. You may seek assistance from secondary sources for technical details, but information of a broader sort not rooted in the physical design of the artefact will be treated as irrelevant. We are interested not in what others have said about the object, but in what you can see in it.

Essays are due by 3:00 PM, 4 October, in your preceptor's box in the History Department Office, 129 Dickinson Hall.

Topics from Earlier Years

Coffee Maker
Mountain Bike
The Wright Flyer
Fax Machine
1941 Farmall Model B-N Tractor
Digital Alarm Clock
Chinese Abacus
Ball-Point Pen
Advanced Communications
Satellite System
Electric Razor
Washing Machine
Answering Machine.
Petrographic Microscope
Refrigerator Automatic Teller Machine
Bonsack Tobacco Machine
Office Building
American Steam Locomotive
Gumball Machine
Video Vending Machine
Atari 800 Personal Computer
Hewlett-Packard 35 Calculator
Apple Macintosh SE
Overhead projector
Traffic light
Sewing machine
Contact lenses
Vacuum Cleaner