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Technology and Culture 42.2 (2001) 292-320

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Individuals, Organizations, and Engineering
U.S. Army Officers and the American Railroads, 1827-1838

Robert G. Angevine

Creative individuals and controlling organizations, subjects long familiar to historians of technology, often clash in military settings. Military establishments, favoring uniformity, order, and control, make difficult environments for innovative spirits, particularly during eras of rapid technological change and increasing institutional complexity. The U.S. Army officers who surveyed early American railroads struggled to maintain their autonomy as they grappled with a protean new technology and a burgeoning bureaucracy. Their story provides insight into two important questions: First, does the bureaucratic need for order and uniformity limit the independence of creative spirits? Second, does military patronage define, for better or worse, the character of a technology?

The backers of early American railroads consistently emphasized the military value of railroads to promote their projects. They claimed that the all-weather, rapid-transport capabilities of railroads were ideally suited to repelling invasions, pacifying Native Americans, suppressing slaves, and moving troops, supplies, and commercial goods in wartime. When Secretary of War James Barbour explained his decision to provide army engineers for the survey of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1827 by citing the military benefits the road would provide, the military value of railroads appeared to win acceptance. Army officers participated heavily in railroad development for over a decade. 1 [End Page 292]

The U.S. Army's participation in railroad surveying was just one aspect of a much broader military contribution to American economic development during the antebellum era. Soldiers built roads along the frontier to encourage settlement, while members of the Army Corps of Engineers brought science and central planning to their work on water projects. Army topographical engineers made invaluable cultural and scientific discoveries as they explored and mapped the trans-Mississippi West. The Ordnance Department played an innovative role in the development of the production methods known as the "American system of manufactures" by providing a conceptual and institutional framework for developing and disseminating the new technologies. 2

The officers who participated in these projects were members of one of the most complex, hierarchical, bureaucratic organizations of its day. Administrative and logistical difficulties during the War of 1812 prompted a series of organizational reforms in the army from 1818 to 1825. Secretary of War John C. Calhoun centralized power within the War Department in Washington, where he created a functionally specialized administrative hierarchy that enforced responsibility and accountability through the use of detailed rules and procedures. The rise of system and uniformity as [End Page 293] organizing principles within the army paralleled the growth of modern management. 3

Members of similar military bureaucracies have, on other occasions, dramatically influenced the course of technological development. Ken Alder demonstrated that in the eighteenth century scientifically trained engineers in the French artillery corps conducted a sophisticated political campaign to implement their vision of how to organize the nation's technological life. They sought not only to transform the way France fought but also to introduce science, precision, and planning to private industry in the service of a rational, centralized state. Their pursuit of a system of uniformity in gun manufacturing created new forms of technological knowledge, established new institutional structures, and defined the state's relationship to the productive order. 4

The agenda and impact of the French military engineers bear comparison to the role of the military-industrial complex in the United States during the cold war. Once again, military organizations cooperated closely with scientists and engineers, shaping policies that extended well beyond the military or technical realms. The potential threat this collaboration posed to the integrity and autonomy of science and engineering and the distribution of political power alarmed many scholars. Paul Forman argued that military imperatives restricted the independence of quantum physicists and distorted their research agenda. In Paul Edwards's reading, the politics of the cold war permeated computer technology, even at the level of technical design. David Noble found that the military's emphasis on uniformity...


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