Category Archives: transportation

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.

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?

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.

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.

128: Tim Cresswell’s On the Move

In On the Move: Mobility in the Modern Western World, Tim Cresswell explores mobility – which he defines as “meaningful movement” – at a variety of scales and in a variety of places in the (mostly anglophone) West.  Pulling from case studies that range from Frederick Taylor’s time and motion studies to British ballroom dancing to the LA Bus Riders’ Union, Cresswell argues that mobility is “both center and margin – the lifeblood of modernity and the virus that threatens to hasten its downfall.”  While the “mobility turn” had been taking the humanities by storm since 1996, this book is the first to interrogate what mobility is rather than defining it against what it isn’t (place, boundedness, foundations, stability.)

For Cresswell, mobility is actually three mobilities that mutually constitute one another.

  • Empirical mobility is the actual movement of people, things, birds, etc.; it is the closest to actual movement and thus the most abstract (because it traces displacement, not necessarily the meaning of displacement.)  
  • Representations of mobility are the photos, literature, philosophy, etc., that capture mobility and try to make sense of it, usually in ways that are ideological.  They might link mobility to freedom, transgression, creativity, life and so on.  They reproduce mobility and interpret it according to a particular worldview.
  • Experienced mobilities are mobilities that are practiced, embodied, ways of being in the world, as well as how we experience and feel about mobility.
Mobility is both subjective and objective, and the perspective from which we experience/ study mobility has a lot to do with how we interpret it.  Because mobility is both subjective and objective, it is also both socially constructed and universal, in the sense that everything moves, and the interplay between this universal fact of life and a particular movement within a particular context gives that movement meaning.  Mobility is thus a “necessary social production,” and a way of inextricably integrating geography with the politics of social life.
Cresswell’s writing style is wonderfully clear and engaging, and his many case studies, as well as his brief history of the development of mobility into an individual right in the modern capitalist state, cover mobility at a variety of scales ranging from the individual to the workplace to nation, empire, and the placeless place of the Shiphol Airport.  The only thing missing, maybe, is a study of imperial movement from the perspective of the colonized, with some attention to the relationship between labor migration and uneven development.

69: Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering

In This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, Drew Gilpin Faust uses a wide variety of primary materials to understand the cultural implications of the Civil War.  Working from correspondence between soldiers and their families and friends; poetry and writings by Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Ambrose Bierce, and others; and the voices of the legions of relief workers, coffin manufacturers, government bureaucrats, and other support staff, Faust shows new processes of dying and killing, along with new ways of making sense of these processes, helped shift the nation from a relatively unstructured agrarian federation to a modern, centralized, bureaucratic, industrial state.

The Civil War produced some 620,000 dead, which made death not just one of many features of the war but the defining element of it.  The sheer mass of bodies, generated by the combination of old styles of warfare with new, technologically-enhanced ways of killing, created huge logistical issues.  Soldiers died in new and gruesome ways, which made identification difficult; but even if they didn’t, there was still the problem of mitigating bodily decay while trying to identify thousands of bodies and return them to their families.  These new problems generated new social and technological systems: refrigerated coffins, new embalming practices, streamlined accounting methods, and new bureaucratic systems to oversee the sheer volume of bodies needing to be processed.  Dealing with death thus helped businesses and the nation develop more modern systems for mass production and distribution.

New ways of dying also upset the Victorian cultural practices of “The Good Death,” where the dying get familial comfort and spiritual peace before their death, so that family and friends can be assured of their spiritual fulfillment.  Americans thought that death was properly in the home, and read sacred meaning into burials of their loved ones.  The Civil War made this cluster of practices extremely difficult to maintain, and many of the modern technological developments and bureaucratic processes that developed to deal with death during the Civil War were shaped by the cultural need for The Good Death.  However, while families eager for accounts of their loved one’s last moments sought out soldiers who had survived, and businesses and the government devised systems to identify and return bodies home for proper burial, many soldiers died anonymously and were buried in unmarked graves.  Even though the Union created a special agency for finding all Union soldiers and returning them to the North, decomposition (and acts of Southern resentment) destroyed bodies beyond all recognition.  In this new world of mass anonymity in death, the meaning of death became less about an individual’s duty to God and more about his duty to the country.  Abe Lincoln sanctified this new kind of “national sacrifice” in the Gettysburg Address.

By examining the “work of death” from multiple angles, including technological, cultural, economic, and political, Faust argues that the Civil War was a turning point in American history – because it prevented Southern secession and ended slavery, of course, but also because death during the Civil War helped usher in a new modern state.

67: Janet Davis’ The Circus Age

In The Circus Age: Culture and Society Under the American Big Top, Janet Davis shows that turn-of-the-century railroad circuses and wild west shows were central to the formation of a new, modern American nation-state because they presented an ambiguous picture of America that questioned, played with, and interrogated changing cultural norms.

Davis combines extensive archival work and interdisciplinary methodology to bring the world of the circus to life.  She emphasizes the ways in which transvestites, weight-lifting women, near-naked star performers, and the constant display of married freaks and “abnormal” body types both heightened fears and expressed anxieties about transgression of gender roles within a raced and classed society.  Daring white female riders and animal trainers were presented as dainty ladies despite the risks they took at work, while nonwhite performers were often presented with inverted gender roles and sexualized bodies in sideshow displays; race and class intersected to create a spectacle of gender transgression.  She also shows how circuses played with their relationship to capitalism, both literally as sites of proletarianization and labor unrest (as well as sites of leisure where people went to escape industrialization) and figuratively as fantastic reconfigurations of imperialism in exotic locales.

Throughout, Davis balances performance (both literally and in the academic sense) with the physical production of the circus itself, including advertisements, transportation, and logistics, and she shows how the circus was as much a product of industrial capitalism and empire as it was an escape from the massive social upheavals and prevailing attitudes regarding race, class, and gender.  The book also provides a particular historical answer to a major question in American Studies: by showing how American imperialism abroad intersects with social divisions at home.