Technology in American Life

Professor Michael S. Mahoney

Department of History and Program in History of Science
Princeton University

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From the early years of the republic, Americans have looked to technology to secure the material foundations of their experiment in democratic government, according special honor and encouragement to inventors and entrepreneurs. At the same time, Americans have kept a wary eye on the "machine in the garden", lest the imperatives of industrial technology undermine the values of personal autonomy and mutual responsibility on which our political system rests. The seminar will examine a series of historical episodes that illustrate this uneasy relation between technology and democracy. Topics will include the experiment in republican technology at Lowell in the early 19th century, the coming of mass production and the consumer society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the advent of the Computer Age in our own time. The sources for the history of technology begin with the artifacts themselves: the devices, processes, and systems that people have designed for human purposes. We will spend a lot of time in our sessions analyzing artifacts to see what they can tell us about the assumptions and aspirations of their designers, and I hope you will take time between sessions to look around at your technological environment and try to read it in new ways.

Schedule and Readings

The readings will be found in the packet distributed before the start of the seminar. As an overview of the subject, and a resource for pursuing it in the classroom, I recommend Ruth Schwartz Cowan's A Social History of American Technology (Oxford U.P., 1997)


 

TOPIC

READING

 

Session 1. Mills, Textiles, and Factories

9:00 
10:30 
10:45 
12:00 
1:00 
3:00 
Introductions.  Working with Artifacts
Coffee
 Spinning and Weaving by Machine
Lunch
Rockdale and Lowell - Readings in Wallace and Kasson
Adjourn
Anthony F.C. Wallace, Rockdale: The Growth of an American Village in the early Industrial Revolution, Chap. IV, "The Machines, Their Operatives, and the Fabrics"

John F. Kasson, Civilizing the Machine, Chap. 2: "The Factory as Republican Community, Lowell, Massachusetts"

 

Session 2. The Automobile and Consumer Society

9:00 
10:30 
10:45 
12:00 
1:00 
3:00 
The Model T
Coffee
The Assembly Line and the $5 Day
Lunch
Middletown - Lynds
Adjourn
M.S. Mahoney "Reading a Machine" (web document)

Henry Ford, "Mass Production", Encyclopedia Britannica, 13th ed. (1926)

Robert S. and Helen Lynd, Middletown (1927), Chaps. 6, 7, 8, 17, 18, 27

 

Session 3. Communications and Computing

9:00
Creating the Computer 
10:30 Coffee
10:45 Styles of computing - Turkle Sherry Turkle, The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit, Chap. 3, "Child Programmers: The First Generation"
12:00
Lunch
1:00
The Politics of Artifacts - Winner Langdon Winner, "Do Artifacts Have Politics?", Daedalus (Winter 1980), 121-36
Michael S. Mahoney, "Technology and the Democratic Ideal:  The Search for a Middle Landscape" (web document)
3:00 Adjourn