143: Ruth Schwartz Cohen’s Social History of American Technology

Like many other historians of American technology in the 1990s, Ruth Schwartz Cowan argues in A Social History of American Technology that the American technological experience is unique, shaped by a range of factors including geography and cultural diversity.  Cowan emphasizes that the social history of technology (SHOT) involves “integrating the history of technology with the rest of human history,” and accordingly she integrates familiar SHOT topics like invention, the American system of manufacturing, technological systems, scientific management, electrification, automobility, flight, and biotechnology with histories of business, economics, and the environment.  She also incorporates groups previously overlooked by SHOT folks, including housewives, engineers, scientists, and people of color (including Native Americans.)  She handles all of these different elements by using case studies rather than grand narratives; the result is a series of deep contextualizations of historical technological development.

Cowan’s book revolves around three major historical periods,. each with their own themes.  In pre-19th century America, she examines how the environment shaped Native American and European agriculture on the American continent; how populist nostalgia led to myths of heroic farmers and agrarian self-sufficiency; and how colonial artisans laid the groundwork for a political independence that would rely on an industrial economy.  From 1790-1930 (the long 19th century), she studies industrialization as a slow, evolutionary process, rather than a radical break, that separated America’s technological development from Europe’s: early inventions by Eli Whitney, Oliver Evans, and Sam Slater; the government’s role in facilitating a national transportation infrastructure; the development of technological systems with differentiated roles for inventors, engineers, entrepreneurs, artifacts, and social, political and financial institutions; the working lives of men and women; and the cultural meanings ascribed to different technologies by devotees and critics.  In the 20th century, she examines four major 20th century technological systems: automobiles, air and spacecraft, electronic communications, and biotechnology.

While Cowan should have spent more time discussing the peculiarities of American culture that created a unique cultural system (division of church and state, absence of guilds, liberal ideology, early development of the corporation and the lack of a major labor or anti-capitalist movement, for instance), her book provides a solid overview for the canonical topics in both American history and SHOT, while broadening the focus of technology studies to include women, children, people of color, and labor.  Even if she does rely heavily on super old-school historians like George Rogers Taylor and Alfred Chandler.

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