Category Archives: roads

162: James Flink’s The Automobile Age

In James Flink’s The Automobile Age, the automobile, and its attendant complex of technologies, mass-production techniques, industrial development, roads, economic and public policy, and changes in American “lifeways” resulting from “mass personal automobility,” are central to the history of capitalist development in general and to American history in particular.  Flink’s materialist approach combined with the scope of this book – he attempts to cover the rise and fall of the Automobile Age in its social, technological, business, and global contexts, from the turn of the last century to the early 1970s – make it both a fascinating history of automobility and an argument for human agency even in what looks like global domination by the car.

Flink’s narrative covers many of the canonical topics within industrialization and automobility: the Fordist system of mass production/ mass consumption; transformations in social relations and the landscape as a result of automobility; Sloanism, bureaucracy, and flexible, style-based mass production;  global automobility coupled with competition from Europe and Japan; and social and environmental critiques of automobility combined with the “world car.”  He discusses these processes by carefully tracing technological diffusion within the technological system of the automobile.

But Flink also argues that the automakers, form the very beginning, articulated themselves within both American nationalism and industrial capitalism, so tracing the car allows him to trace and critique these larger systems.  He thus shows how Ford’s particular brand of paternalism was more social control than benevolence; how the auto boom in the 1920s directly contributed to the Great Depression in the 1930s; how cars fragmented and rearranged neighborhoods and social networks; how the world car has led to uneven geographical development, and how the American “romance” with the car was actually the product of a lot of lobbying by automakers for more and better roads rather than public transit, so that an inefficient, capital-intensive system was largely funded by American tax dollars.

Flink argues that the automobile age ended in the 1970s, when public outcry led to increased safety and environmental regulations, but that the automobile will continue to be the dominant mode of transportation, especially in the US, for the foreseeable future.  I agree with him on both counts, and I hope that the recent resurgence of interest in bicycling and public transportation broadens to include more social groups so that the burden of automobility doesn’t continue to be shouldered by the poor.

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.

63: George Rogers Taylor’s The Transportation Revolution

In The Transportation Revolution, 1815-1860, George Rogers Taylor argues that transportation played a key role in the shift from a “colonially oriented economy” to a “national economy” by 1860 by facilitating the shift from an “extractive-commercial” economy to an industrial one.  Because the US is so vast, revolutions in transportation and communication were the only way to connect the country enough to facilitate the massive growth in the later decades of the 19th century.

This book was published in 1951, and it provides a clear, readable survey of the development of the various transportation networks in the US.  Taylor builds his history out of histories of the various transportation modes, economic data from government sources, photos from Culver and other readily accessible archives, and detailed tables that piece together the costs associated with building roads, canals, steamboats, and railroads, with an eye toward the rather substantial federal subsidies that went into transportation in the 19th century.  He also integrates economic history, labor history, and discussions of industrialization and urbanization, so that transportation development occurs within its larger social, geographic, and economic contexts.

Taylor’s layered, chronological narrative clearly periodizes the transportation revolution.  It traces mercantile capitalism, the mostly privately-funded early road-building initiatives; the more expensive state-funded canals; the relatively low-capital but highly-regulated steamboat industry; the increasing corruption of railroads; and the rather fascinating story of the development of the merchant marine from small ships to clippers to packets and steamers.  Throughout his narrative, Taylor “follows the money,” and as he moves slowly through increasingly capital-intensive transportation modes he is careful both to tabulate relative costs (of shipping by one mode versus another, or of building one mode versus another) to show the increased cooperation between business and state that went into building them and to rationalize shifts in consumer choice.  He then links transportation to different components of an emergent industrial capitalism, particularly proletarianization, which he links to the new mass markets for standardized goods made accessible by improvements in transportation.  He also shows how decreased over-land shipping costs and the growing network of Western markets shifted the focus in east cost cities from the wharves to the tracks in this time period, as well as how low costs and high speeds facilitated regional specializations.

Most importantly for American Studies – he shows how this new transportation network ultimately knit together a new nation, united geographically under a new industrial capitalism and an emergent mass market. While this book probably needs to be more critical of this process (if only to inquire what happened to the displaced Native Americans and the slaves and immigrants who built the railroads, for instance, or to investigate the environmental impact of the transportation revolution), it still provides an interesting history of technology, geography, and economics of the development of transportation in the early 19th century.