Category Archives: technological systems

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.