144: Thomas Hughes’ American Genesis

In American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm, Thomas Hughes argues that the 100 years from 1870 to 1970 were the years in which Americans made the country over into the modern technological nation; American “technological systems” revolutionized both technology/ technological development and American culture.  American Genesis is not a celebration of American industrial might, but a critical history: because inventors, industrial scientists, engineers, and system builders created modern America via technological systems, their values have become our values, so examining the messy history of technological development can both release us from the burden of the past and free us to turn technology to our own ends.

Hughes divides the century of technological enthusiasm into several overlapping processes:

  • Invention of systems: the years from the Civil War to WWI were a heyday for independent inventors, who “forged a massive enterprise that ended up dominated by giant corporations.”  This period corresponds with Charles & Mary Beard’s “Second American Revolution,” with its massive social, economic, technological, and political changes; it is also the beginning of Mumford’s “Neotechnic” era.  As WWI approached, funding for invention increasingly came from the military; industrial scientists began to compete with investors
  • Spread of large systems: system builders (Hughes focuses on Edison, Ford, and Taylor) connected innovations into technological systems of their own invention.  Fordism and Taylorism spread around the world and were thought to solve social and political unrest in addition to production problems; “White socialism” was proposed as an answer to Marxism.
  • Emergence of technological culture, massive government systems, and countercultural reactions: 
    • If Americans made modern technology, Europe made modern technological culture: the Bauhaus/ International Style; Le Corbuiser; Italian Futurists and Soviet Constructivists, etc.  
    • During the Great Depression and WWII, private technological enthusiasm slowed in the US, but federal involvement in technological systems – the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Manhattan Project – developed systems at an unprecedented scale.
    • The atomic bomb and the massive destruction in Vietnam led to countercultural anti-technology movements in the 1960s, with an emphasis on spontaneity, passion, and organic, small, beautiful technologies instead of mechanical centralized systems, order, and efficiency.
Within each of these periods, Hughes details and analyzes various inventors and their technological systems: Hiram Maxim and the machine gun; Bell and the telephone; Edison and the incandescent bulb, phonograph, and motion-picture system; William Stanley, Nikola Tesla, & Elihu Thomson and electric light-and-power transmission; William and Orville Wright and the internal-combustion-engine airplane; Reginald Fessenden, Lee de Forest & Edwin Armstrong and wireless telegraphy/telephony (radio); and Elmer Sperry and gyrocompass and automatic control devices for Navy.  Using these, he develops several main concepts that have been instrumental in history of technology studies: 
  • technology: “the effort to organize the world for problem solving so that goods and services can be invented, developed, produced, and used.”
  • invention: the process of solving new problems.  Independent inventors tend to come up with more radical solutions and to include business concerns because they find it easier to develop their own systems than to compete with major corporations directly; industrial scientists are constrained to choose problems and solutions that incrementally improve existing systems. Neither is a lone inventor. (Edison)
  • technological systems: hardware, processes, devices, machines; transportation, communication, and information networks that connect them; and people and organizations, including businesses and sometimes regulators.
  • modern culturedevices, machines, processes, values, organizations, symbols, and  forms expressing the order, system, and control of modern technology, and to the thought and behavior mediated by these and their expression.”
  • technological momentum: when they’re new, systems are socially constructed, and inventors embed their social and political values in a technology; as they get older and bigger they become more ossified until they can no longer change, at which point they start shaping culture. (the Manhattan Project)
While I think Hughes’ work could do with a less linear, Progress-oriented version of technological change, as well as more attention to inventors who were not white and male and to other stakeholders in general, his breakup of the determinism debate is huge.
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