Category Archives: contextualization

164: Louis Hunter’s Steamboats on the Western Rivers

In Steamboats on the Western Rivers: An Economic and Technological History, Louis Hunter situates a detailed history of the development of steamboat technology in the social, technological, and economic context in which it developed; he argues that “the growth of the West and the rise of steamboat transportation were inseparable; they were geared together and each was dependent upon the other.”

Using contemporary newspapers, census documents, traveller accounts, and other primary sources form about the 1780s to the end of the 19th century, Hunter shows that steam transportation technology was the result of many people’s contributions (both English and American), not just those of a few great men.  He also shows that in America, steam navigation started on the Atlantic seaboard but quickly moved inland to the Western rivers, where steamboats dominated inland transportation and commerce for a generation; and he argues that from 1925 to 1850 the steamboat was the main technological agent in developing the Mississippi basin from a “raw frontier society” to “economic and social maturity.”  Finally, he claims that the Western steamboat was known worldwide as the “typical” American steamboat partly because it was so important to the economy of the region and partly because it was unique in its design, construction, and operation.  Published in 1949, this book was the scholarly survey of the development of steam navigation on the Western rivers that pulled together technology, operations, and governmental intervention into a consistent whole.

Americans were having a hard time with transportation in the early 19th century, so that’s where American steam innovation tended.  Hunter begins with early development in steam propulsion and the business of carrying – John Fulton patented his version of the steamboat and secured a monopoly with New Orleans, only to have it overturned in 1817 when Henry Shreve built his own boats and started running them on the Mississippi without permission.  In 1918, a steamboat boom started after Shreve reported 30-50% returns after only a year in operation.  Competition, economic depression, and improvements in steamboat technology reduced rates considerably through 1825, but boats were able to run faster and thus still turn profits.  By 1820, steamboats were well-established on the “trunk lines” of the river system (Mississippi and Ohio); by 1830 they had expanded into major tributaries and taken on most passenger and freight trade.  Keelboats remained the main transportation in smaller, shallower tributaries, and flatboats continued to be the main shipping method for bulky, low-value products until the Civil War.  By the 1840s, writers were saying that steam had “colonized the West” because it economically connected Westerners to the east and politically, via faster communication, to each other.

By the 1850s, steam had reached its golden age.  They had cast iron hulls instead of wooden ones and new high pressure boilers that led to fantastic accidents, and their opulent rooms were readily accessible to anyone who could pay the (widely fluctuating) fare, so travellers’ accounts are full of stories of the wide variety of class and race and occupation they met in steamboats.  The business of steamboating had also evolved from individual owners to small corporations that ran packet lines up and down the rivers.  However, Hunter points out that steamboats were also complicit in the growing industrialization of the West, especially in their division between cabin fare and deck passage – deck fare was 1/4 of the price of cabin fare, but deck passengers were usually the first to die in accidents, and they also had to help the crew.  And other transportation modes were beginning to have a substantial impact on the Western river trade: beginning in the late 1830s, canals diverted northern East-West freight, and railroad lines began connecting to steamboat towns in the 1840s, so that by 1860 Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville, St. Louis, Memphis, Vicksburg and New Orleans were all connected by rail.

While steamboats were profitable during the Civil War, railroads all but destroyed them afterwards: steam fare was cheap, and getting into the steam business required a low capital investment, which meant high competition and low profits in an industry already tainted by boiler explosions in the early 1850s.  Further, rails could promise what steamboats couldn’t: speed, regularity, frequency, reliability, year-round service, through-booking, direct service that could expand anywhere, not just on natural waterways, and such massive networks that they could run part of their systems at a loss just to kill local competition.  They’re also not above building extremely low bridges over waterways.  While barges are still used in the 20th century, steamboats were over before the end of the 19th century.

Although Hunter’s account is remarkably uncomplicated with respect to race and gender, and a discussion of slavery is conspicuously absent, his book otherwise shows how a transportation technology uniquely suited to the American West contributed both to the physical construction of American empire and to the construction of an American ideology based around individualism, technology, and capitalism on the landscape.

160: Reyner Banham’s Well-Tempered Environment

In The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment, Reyner Banham argues that architecture is not just about beautiful building facades – it’s also about the mechanical systems that make those buildings function.  Frustrated by the lack of attention paid to mechanical systems by architectural histories (in the late 1960s, when Banham was writing, there were apparently none), Banham pored through trade catalogues, lectures to professional societies, specialist periodicals, building plans and patent-office records, and other primary sources in pursuit not of firsts, but of mosts – of the point at which most buildings had incorporated a new technology and thus the point at which that technology had begun to shape architectural design.  His descriptions of particular buildings are thus discussions of the “typical” rather than the iconic.  With this approach, he takes architecture out of art and subsumes it into a larger category of “environmental management,” an interdisciplinary, problem-based profession that treats architecture as context-dependent technological systems or “habitable volumes.”

For Banham, architectural systems fall into one of two general categories: the structure & mechanical components that provide “the basic life support that makes a viable or valuable environment,” and those elements concerned with “facilitat[ing] circulation and communication – of persons, information, and products.”  Good architecture designs takes both of these elements for a specific context.  A few examples:

  • drive-in movie theaters: people bring their own “environmental packages” with them in the form of cars, so the need for a permanent enclosing structure disappears; instead, what needs to be designed is a system of landscaping, traffic engineering, optics, and shelter for the projection equipment.
  • Las Vegas and Versailles: these are both symbolic spaces that represent power, so they are designed to make space feel vast, overwhelming.  Versailles does it with soaring ceilings and imposing structures; Las Vegas does it with electric light, so that “the effectiveness with which space is defined is overwhelming, the creation of virtual volumes without apparent structure is endemic, the variety and ingenuity of the lighting techniques is encyclopaedic.”  As an added bonus, Las Vegas was created by people who weren’t architects; it is a vernacular redefinition of architecture.
  • St. George’s School in Wallasley, by Emslie Morgan: completed in the 1960s, the school is designed to conserve energy by deriving heat from the sun, the electric lights, and the bodies of the students.  It has an E/W orientation, with large south-facing windows, and it is SUPER insulated with thick walls and layers of plastic.  It’s not great at providing outside views or light, but it’s incredible at conserving energy.  Banham likes it because it is simple and designed for “performance” rather than looks; architecture can learn a lot from vernacular rules-of-thumb.
Throughout, Banham argues that architects need to be engineers and designers rather than artists, and that they need to know enough about mechanical systems to incorporate them effectively into their designs.  He advocates for a “conscious architecture, [which,] as distinguished from vernacular building, should be able to reason out the unique solutions to specific problems.”  Thinking of architecture as a technology rather than an art can free architects from antiquated formal restrictions and reorient them to the real problem: to turn these “habitable volumes” into “well-tempered environments.”

138: Langdon Winner’s Autonomous Technology

Published in 1977, Langdon Winner’s Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-control as a Theme in Political Thought examines the idea of autonomous technology as a “convenient receptacle for a host of  contemporary anxieties.” Using literary and political writings from a wide range of historical moments, he shows how autonomous technology has been associated with fears about a loss of human agency and self-governance, both at the individual and the societal level, to machines of our own creation.  Technology therefore has a politics, and if humans are to regain control and autonomy, we need to dismantle technologies, learn how they work, and rebuild them so that they serve human needs rather than their own dominance and reproduction.

Winner argues that while technology has been central to political thought for some 200 years, the 20th century proliferation of technologies and their integration in everyday life has made technology into a “vast, diverse, ubiquitous totality that stands at the center of our modern culture.”  This diversity makes the word “technology” so complex as to be meaningless, or at least illegible, with the result that technology itself becomes a rather terrifying black box, appearing to usurp political power and move forward of its own volition.  In modernity, the complexity of technology requires a new ruling class, engineers, to interface with it, and an environment conducive to its operations, with which architects and engineers happily comply.  Technology also requires a particular social order to fulfill its operational requirements – which is to say that technology creates a particular form of technological politics, where the claim that “man controls technology” looks more irrational than the opposite.

Against this politics of autonomous technology, with its binary opposition between humans and machines, Winner proposes a more egalitarian relationship, using Shelley’s Frankenstein as his starting point.  In Frankenstein, which is usually read as a story of autonomous technology run amok, Winner identifies a theme of “the plight of things that have been created but not in a context of sufficient care,” where the monster is angry and destructive not because he wants to take over humankind but because he is “an unfinished creation, largely forgotten and uncared for, which is forced to make its own way in the world… a grotesquely animated, autonomous force reflecting our own life, crippled, incomplete, and not fully in our control.”  The way to solve the problem of autonomous technology is not to stop developing technologies but to pay more attention to the social, political, economic, and technological context in which we develop them, and to consciously work a more egalitarian relationship between humans and technology into the machines themselves.

Winner’s argument, that in order to regain control over technology, we need to make all current technologies legible and work a more egalitarian politics into future technologies, does not take into account the logistical difficulties of carrying it out (and it would be even more difficult today than in 1977), but he is kind of right – the only way to get power is to take it.

74: David Levering Lewis’ Biography of a Race

David Levering Lewis’ W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919, is a massive popular biography of Du Bois and one of two planned volumes on his life and work.  Lewis takes “biography” in two different directions: as a writer who focused on recovering African American voices and reconstructing their agentive participation in their own history, Du Bois was a biographer of a race; as a person who was born right after the Civil War and who died during the Civil Rights movement, his life can also be used to trace the trajectory of an oppressed group from slavery to freedom (and, for Du Bois, on to Africa.)  Therefore, the book is both a deeply contextualized biography of Du Bois’ life, career, and work, and an attempt to recreate the massive political, social, and economic changes impacting the lives of black Americans during his lifetime.

Biography of a Race belies a huge amount of research, and Lewis spends a great deal of time reconstructing Du Bois’ rather “prickly” personality and his tendency toward separatism as he got older. Working from Du Bois’ personal papers, he works to humanize him, so that we see his troubled childhood, his difficult relationships with his wives, and his philandering tendencies in plain relief.  And he includes a full 8 chapters on Du Bois and the NAACP, including his frustration with Booker T. Washington and the “accomodationist” Tuskegee Institute.  He also traces the shift in Du Bois’ thought around the turn of the century from a “naive” faith in science’s ability to solve racial inequality to the more political route of the NAACP.  And he ends – rather precipitously – during the “Red Summer” of 1919.

While this book really helps humanize Du Bois, Lewis’ strategy seems to be to keep in every detail, no matter how small, and he often includes several versions of the same story rather than working to figure out which pieces seem the most well-supported.  Further, his chatty speculations and asides sometimes detract from his larger point, as when he offhandedly suggests that a white woman living with him and his wife might have been a boarder – or perhaps the three were involved in a menage a trois.  He also apparently went to a psychoanalyst in the guise of Du Bois by way of interrogating his psyche.  I appreciate the humanization of the subject, but I do wish Lewis or his editor had been a little more careful.