Category Archives: mills

156: Gail Cooper’s Air-Conditioning America

In Air-Conditioning America: Engineers and the Controlled Environment, 1900-1960, Gail Cooper examines the development of air-conditioning technology and the tensions between engineering philosophy and consumer preference that shaped its design.  Working from a variety of sources, including trade literature, popular magazines, newspapers, and corporate records, Cooper argues that air-conditioning developed via a process of contestation, and that the three systems that resulted – custom-built systems, centralized air, and window units – are each an imperfect mix of the interests of engineers, corporations, and various consumer groups, legacies of the times when each group was more dominant than the other two.

Per Cooper, air conditioning development went through three major phases.  From 1900 to WWI, engineers Alfred Wolff, Stuart Cramer and Willis Carrier adapted industrial heating, ventilation, and freezing systems to offices and factories.  Their custom designs attempted to control both heat and humidity, though they focused mainly on humidity until the 1930s.  The first custom systems were installed in stock exchanges, banks, and Southern textile mills.  Because Progressive reformers were obsessive about healthy ventilation for schoolchildren, schools also became testing grounds for the new technology.

In the interwar years, alternative cooling technologies challenge the engineers and their custom-built systems.  In the 1920s, movie theatres installed mechanical cooling and introduced the public to a/c; attempts to introduce window units in the 1930s failed, but more because of high costs during the Depression than because of a lack of consumer demand.

From WWII to 1960, air-conditioning companies exploit the consumer demand opened up by movie theaters and window units and introduce standardized or central air.  New central systems reshape buildings – just think of the sealed picture windows in suburban tract housing.  By the 1960s, cooled air had become a necessity rather than a luxury, and residents of older buildings began buying up window units – which, while inefficient, live on because they are affordable and portable.

Throughout her narrative, Cooper is attentive to the interests of various groups affected by air-conditioning: engineers who want to create a wholly artificial indoor climate; managers who want to reduce seasonal fluctuations and be able to locate buildings without regard to geography; workers (and consumers) who want comfort and health and don’t like centralized systems they can’t control; movie theaters who use a/c as marketing; public schools who treat children as test subjects; poor people who just want to be cool at any cost.  She also discusses the detrimental environmental impact of controlled indoor environment – one more reminder of what happens when you let turn of the century engineers run the show.


153: Walter Licht’s Industrializing America

In Industrializing America: The Nineteenth Century, Walter Licht complicates the process of industrialization in the United States during the 19th century by re-examining both the context of American industrial development and the composition of American industry.  In the first move, he situates manufacturing within a rapidly expanding market, which was fueled by a growing population, immigration, westward settlement, expanding cities, and developments in transportation and communication infrastructure; industrialization was a result of these changes as well as an active shaper of market relationships.  In the second move, he expands the focus of industrial manufacturing from large-scale industrialization to the broader business landscape of small factories, specialty shops, and regional diversity, which allows him to separate 19th century industrialization from late 19th century corporate consolidation.  Licht therefore deconstructs the old narrative of 19th century production-driven Progress, arguing instead for a declension from ordered mercantilism to a chaotic market economy that was only beginning to organize toward the end of the century.

Licht synthesizes business history, economics, labor history, and the history of technology to situate American industrialization in its economic, social, political, and regional contexts.  He begins in the early 1800s with regional diversity and the Jefferson/ Hamilton debates; examines the diversity of antebellum development in its mill villages, single-industry cities, diversified urban centers, and Southern “industrial” slavery; discusses artisan protests in Jacksonian American along with with evangelical reform;  charts the relationship between the Civil War and government-sponsored industrialization and transportation; and analyzes regional industrial diversity, the rise of Carnegie, Rockefeller and anti-monopoly politics, and the labor disputes, single-issue reform movements, and utopian critiques of late-19th century urban disorder.

Licht’s relentless contextualization, breakdown of industry into regions, and insistence that the voices of workers, women, and immigrants be heard are a welcome relief to the usual histories of 19th century technology.

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.


142: Marcus & Segal’s Technology in America

Alan Marcus and Howard Segal’s Technology in America: A Brief History is a clear, readable, social constructivist history of technological development in the United States from the early 17th century to the late 20th.  While its scope keeps the history of any particular technological development to the length of an encyclopedia article, its investment in social construction means that technologies are contextualized within social, economic, cultural, and historical developments.  The result is a history of America told through the history of technology, with an emphasis on the ways in which American culture determines technological development.

Throughout, Marcus and Segal focus not on why things didn’t happen, but on how things did happen.  What made a technology acceptable and therefore applicable was a) how it was conceptualized and b) how it was explained to and understood by the people who would use it.  Both technologies & their implementation are the products of what their inventors, investors, and potential users understand of their situation and whether they think a particular

technology is a likely solution.  Therefore, in the early 1800s, the government sponsored roads, turnpikes, canals, and bridges to facilitate the pursuit of individual opportunity in commerce, while entrepreneurs imported skilled mechanics and machines from Europe because America lacked both skill and cheap labor for production.  Before the steamboat, America imported most technologies, from mills to railroads to guns, from Europe, sometimes resorting to corporate espionage, and made only minor adaptations to these technologies once they brought them to America, often under federal sponsorship and always under the guise of promoting individualism and entrepreneurship.  Technological development in the mid-19th century followed systems thinking, which was mirrored in the social systems envisioned by late 19th century reformers.  After the 1950s, technology developed not in relation to massive industrial systems but relative to the human body.  With each period, Marcus and Segal provide short summaries of major economic, social, and cultural developments, which provide points of departure for discussions about sociohistorical context.

I appreciate their clear periodization and their emphasis on contextualization, and I think their argument for the uniqueness of American technological development is actually somewhat valid (they argue that all cultures are different, and technology develops within culture, so American technology is unique – but not better).  However, I’m concerned that their emphasis on social construction doesn’t leave any room for internal technological development, which means that it proceeds as though technologies don’t have a history apart from culture.  Technologies may only “work” if they are accepted by culture, but they still have to function, at least somewhat, for culture to consider them in the first place.


54: Paul Johnson’s Sam Patch

Paul Johnson’s Sam Patch, the Famous Jumper uses a microhistory of a gentleman named Sam Patch to trace larger processes of proletarianization, growing income disparities, and evangelical reform movements in the Jacksonian era.  Although the book does not have an expository thesis per se, it shows how industrialization in the early 1900s turned once-proud independent farmers and artisans into deskilled, unlanded factory workers tied to an urbanizing market economy.

Sam Patch, the man, was a mule spinner who lived in Paterson, NJ, the descendant of an English family that arrived in Salem in 1636; the family became poorer with each successive generation, in large part because the trades they worked were made obsolete by the new mills.  Patch was moody and a drinker; he was one of many working-class men in Paterson who jumped from nearby Passaic Falls as a kind of bodily escape from the regimentation of their jobs and a protest against the harnessing of nature.  He was daring, and after his first professional jump in September 1827 (to protest privatization of the working-class space of the falls), he progressed to more and more dangerous leaps – to the delight of the local, then national press.  He died in a November 1829 leap from Genesee Falls, drunk, morose, and sloppy.

Patch left no diary, will, property, marriage certificates or even next of kin, so Johnson reconstructs his life from a motley collection of vital statistics, tax lists, church rolls, wills, deeds, court records, and newspaper clippings and handbills that chronicle his brief stint as an early celebrity.  But in doing so, he also reconstructs an emerging working-class culture that resisted alienation even as it was constructed by it.  Although the fine-grained detail required by the microhistory approach sometimes leads Johnson to speculate (about Patch’s death wish, for instance) and often leads to privileging personal details over other historical elements (like tensions between Irish and native workers in New England), it makes history so readable that I could easily see assigning this book to undergrads, and then spinning off of it into labor history, urbanization, the environment, and the process of proletarianization.