Category Archives: nuclear energy

163: Roger Bilstein’s Flight in America

In Flight in America: From the Wrights to the Astronauts, Roger Bilstein places the technological developments in aviation, space exploration, and the American aerospace industry in a broad social, economic, and political context.  This survey relies heavily on archival sources from the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, the FAA, NASA, and oral history, aviation, and transportation collections in Denver, New York, and Wyoming, as well as his personal experiences learning to fly in 1972.  

While Bilstein’s sources and approach are somewhat top-down and conventional, his narrative does provide a clear history of aviation in the US.  He traces aviation’s early start in stunt planes (the Wright Brothers couldn’t get the military to buy their invention, so they sold planes to the circus), post-WWI innovations in military aviation; 1920s mail routes, crop dusting, photography, professionalization, long stunt trips, crashes; 1930s streamlined passenger planes, trans-oceanic flying boats, and German rocketry; Fordist mass production, WASPs, and American air dominance during and after WWII, along with post-war fear of ICBMs, tech innovations by the military, and American desires for an intercontinental passenger network; the development of helicopters and the expansion of passenger travel and “jet setting” in the late 50s and early 60s, tech evolution of private planes (renamed “general aviation” in the 1960s to look less bougie), and the impacts of Vietnam, space exploration, the Cold War, and pop culture on flight.  Deregulation and international collaboration across globalized aerospace industries in the 1980s led to some pretty incredible tech developments along with growing fears of bombs on planes and Soviet/US competition that led to the Challenger disaster.

Throughout, the book is illustrated with photos (though some, like those of the early stunt pilots, are creepy because you know they died flying), and Bilstein works to contextualize flight in American cultural history.  He does spend a lot more time talking about military and defense projects and developments in industry and technology than he does talking about popular responses to flight.  I wonder if that was a conscious choice, if it was conditioned by the archives he chose, or if it truly is difficult to link such capital-intensive and seemingly distant technologies to everyday life?


140: Siegfried Giedion’s Mechanization Takes Command

In Mechanization Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous History, Siegfried Giedion studies the history of the mechanization of everyday life to determine how mechanization has affected human beings and what the political limits of mechanization might be with regard to humans.  In doing so, he creates an “anonymous history,” a study of “our mode of life as affected by mechanization – its impact on our dwellings, our food, our future,” as well as links between industrial methods and extra-industrial practices in art and literature.  This book is thus an early (1948) cultural history of technology, with which Giedion intends to restore faith in human agency by revealing how human “work and… innovation – whether they know it or not – are continually shaping and reshaping the patterns of life.”

Working from a wide range of sources, including models, manufacturing records, catalogues, advertising leaflets, etc. (he was frustrated to find that most inventors and businesses did not keep records of failed inventions), Giedion traces the development of mechanization in Western history, from ancient and medieval times to the mid-20th century, with an emphasis on the 19th and 20th century.  The books is arranged first thematically and then chronologically, and technologies, photography, painting, and business history are all intermingled, so that the reader can get a sense of the social and cultural context of different kinds of technologies in addition to a general sketch of their development.  For instance, his section on movement includes Oresmi’s 15th century diagrams of planets in motion, Marey’s 19th century photographic studies of birds in flight, Muybridge’s photos of men at work and Gilbreth’s abstract lines of time and motion studies; as movement becomes more abstract, representations of it (Joyce, Picasso) become more fragmented and sad about the loss of human continuity.  Perhaps mechanization, as linked to this rationalization of living movement, separates thought and feeling?

Giedion uses this vast and rather fragmented anonymous history of technology to caution against the “illusion” of progress, arguing that we have never had so many tools to abolish slavery, but all we show for it is an inability to organize the world or even ourselves.  We live in age of “mechanized barbarism, the most repulsive barbarism of all,” where a fragmented, mechanized view of the world has prevented us from seeing the whole picture even as revolutions in art and culture since the 20th century have tried to head in a more holistic direction, but it doesn’t have to be that way.  Giedion argues that in order to achieve an equilibrium between humans and technology, we need to reconnect some of the fragments: individual with community, thinking with feeling, specialized knowledges with one another, and the human body with “cosmic forces,” or both man-made AND organic environments.

Basically, we need to become human again, and take a more holistic, contextual approach to technological development.  In the wake of WWII and the atomic bomb and fears of nuclear annihilation, this book must have been a welcome relief to those who read it.

90: Elaine Tyler May’s Homeward Bound

In Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era, Elaine Tyler May shows how the Cold War policy of “containment” shaped and was shaped by the combination of anti-Communism and the 1950s cult of domesticity.  May builds her argument around the newly available (in the 1980s) Kelly Longitudinal Study, a 20-year psychological study of the development of personality in marriage that covered the 1930s through the 1950s and included some 600 informants, as well as movies, newspapers, popular magazines, and contemporaneous writings by professionals in various fields.  In doing so, she explains that the nuclear family became far more important for the white American middle class in the 1950s than it was at any other time in the 20th century because of a broader shift toward privatization and individualization of social ills in an age of profound national insecurity.

Per May, the 1950s were less about placid cultural stasis than they were about controlling potentially “explosive issues,” particularly sexuality and the bomb.  Because ‘fears of sexual chaos tend to surface during times of rapid social crisis,’ sexuality and the bomb became linked both visually (as with ‘bombshell’ Rita Hayworth’s image on the bomb dropped on the Bikini Atoll) and culturally (as with crusades against homosexuals and pop culture fantasies of sex and violence).  Sex was forbidden to women outside of marriage, but once in a marriage, women were expected to be highly sexual, always-attractive partners, as though sex, like nuclear power, could simultaneously destroy and hold together families.  They were also expected to stay home with their children, in their own nucleated, sexually charged version of containment.

Within these restrictive suburban nuclei, many women, especially educated ones, felt isolated and insecure about their inability to live up to social expectations.  Unlike in the 1930s, however, in the 1950s people increasingly blamed themselves (instead of the larger system) for personal dissatisfaction, and the “therapeutic model” replaced political activism.  Because they contained sexuality and alienated women, families and the suburban homes in which they lived thus contained the seeds of the countercultural revolution.

While May’s sample is restricted to white, middle-class women and is thus not indicative of all women in the 1950s, she does effectively link cultural repression to the atomic insecurity that created it… and to the cultural explosion that it fomented.

81: Paul Boyer’s By the Bomb’s Early Light

Paul Boyer’s By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age seeks to understand how the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945 affected American culture, thought, and worldview in the first 5 years of the new “atomic age.”  Accordingly, the book uses a wide range of contemporary articles, books, editorials, letters to editors, radio broadcasts, movies, popular music, opinion polls, and the personal papers of prominent political figures to reconstruct both the history of nuclear energy and the new atomic culture.  Boyer argues that the culture industry was able to channel multiple fears and reactions to the bomb immediately after the blast into an understanding that “the dread destroyer of 1945 had become the shield of the Republic” by 1950.

According to Boyer, reactions to the bomb followed a rough trajectory from multiple viewpoints to a single viewpoint in less than five years.  Right after Hiroshima, Boyer found multiple expressions of a “primal fear of extinction,” which led to support for international control of atomic energy.  However, this movement failed because the atomic scientists and other proponents of atomic energy exploited widespread anxiety about a nuclear war between capitalist and communist states… which led not to international regulation but to anticommunist hysteria.  American attempts to quell the hysteria by searching for a silver lining in peaceful applications of nuclear energy also backfired as early as 1947, when writers began suspecting that nuclear energy’s positive impact had been “badly oversold.”  The strategy that ended up working was the one taken by the federal government and allied groups, which emphasized future peaceful applications of nuclear energy combined with arguments for the feasibility of nuclear civil defense and the need for supremacy in the arms race.

Boyer finds in this story the roots of 1980s nuclear policy.  I think it also provides a compelling cultural-technological explanation for the beginning of the Cold War, as well as a strangely anachronistic interpretation of post-war culture.  Perhaps the 1940s and 50s really were as top-down as the Culture Industry would have us believe?  After all, Boyer did get much of his cultural information from contemporary pop-culture stories…