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The Dexter Prize

Since 1968 the Society for the History of Technology has annually awarded the Dexter Prize to the author of an outstanding book in the history of technology published in any of the preceding three years. The prize is funded by the Dexter Chemical Corporation of New York City, manufacturers of industrial chemicals. In 1997, for the third time since its inception, the prize went to two authors: Thomas J. Misa, for his A Nation of Steel: The Making of Modern America, 1865–1925 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), and Michael J. Neufeld, for The Rocket and the Reich: Peenemünde and the Coming of the Ballistic Missile Era (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995). The citation read:

These equally outstanding books make their considerable contributions to the history of technology in complementary ways. Thomas Misa’s A Nation of Steel, written with style and analytical rigor, brings fresh insights to a major story of industrialization: the development of the steel industry in the United States from the railroad boom following the Civil War to the burgeoning car culture in the 1920s. Misa reinvigorates this history by employing an innovative methodology that ties an analysis of producer-consumer interactions in five sectors of the steel industry to major social and economic events in American history. From the 1860s to the 1920s, steelmaking firms used the Bessemer process in a form of “reckless mass production” to turn out mile after mile of rails for the empire building that settled the American West, adopted the basic open-hearth process to make strong steel beams for the skyscrapers and bridges that undergirded urbanization, made surface-hardened steel for the United States Navy’s dreadnought revolution, experimented with high-speed tool steels that underpinned the so-called Taylorist reform of factories, and invented alloy steels and electric furnaces to supply the manifold consumer requirements of automobility. Misa’s innovative approach allows him to treat this wide-ranging technical, business, and social history in a remarkably short compass and integrate it with the [End Page 512] broader scope of American history. In explaining how the United States became a nation of steel, Misa creates a new form of contextualism in the history of technology.

Michael Neufeld’s The Rocket and the Reich is just as impressive. Neufeld has written a page-turning, superbly researched account of the origins of one of the most “modern” technologies, ballistic missiles, in the hothouse, wartime atmosphere of one of the most repressive regimes of the modern era, Nazi Germany. Neufeld begins his fascinating story by exploring the popular rocket craze in Weimar Germany and the rise to power of the egocentric Werner von Braun and his rocket colleagues. He then guides us through a tortuous course of technological development, full-scale testing, industrial production, and deployment through the momentous years of military buildup and war-making of the Nazis, ending with the irony-filled transfer of rocket technology and scientists to the United States and the Soviet Union after the war. One of the many reasons Neufeld succeeds so admirably is by telling his story in full-textured contexts that we have come to label technical, military, political, cultural, and social. This rich account that spans only two decades thus illuminates broader relationships between high-tech artifacts and systems, sophisticated technical knowledge, and explosive social relations. A moving chapter on slave labor harnessed to the production of the V-2 missile graphically illustrates the terrible human costs incurred in creating a technology whose military and civilian uses have been of much concern then and now. Neufeld’s compelling book is hard to put down, even as it brings us face to face with some of the starkest themes connecting technology and culture in the twentieth century.

The Abbott Payson Usher Prize

The Usher Prize was established in 1968 to honor the scholarly contributions of the late Dr. Usher and to encourage the publication of original research of the highest standard. It is awarded annually to the author of the best scholarly work published during the preceding three years under the auspices of the Society for the History of Technology. The 1997 Usher Prize went to...