Technology, Innovation, and Southern Industrialization: From the Antebellum Era to the Computer Age (review)
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Technology, Innovation, and Southern Industrialization: From the Antebellum Era to the Computer Age. Edited by Susanna Delfino and Michele Gillespie. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2008. Pp. xiii+215. $24.95.

Over the past decade, scholarship on commercial and industrial change in the American South has been particularly vibrant. This collection of essays represents the fertile nature of this research and suggests opportunities for wider study. A foreword by noted economic historian Gavin Wright focuses [End Page 930] on the importance of these case studies for getting beyond the “theoretical abstractions” that often consume debates about the extent of southern industrialization (p. ix). Editors Susanna Delfino and Michele Gillespie offer a contextually rich introduction focusing on the importance of comparative advantage in southern technological development. And the essays, despite differences in place and time, together make clear that industry has a long heritage in the South at the same time that cultural and geographical distinctions have offered important challenges to industrialization.

Robert Gudmestad’s essay on the antebellum steamboat industry provides a rich look at the successes and limitations of this technology for the southern economy. First introduced on the Mississippi River by northern companies, Gudmestad finds that steamboat production and transport “provided a measure of economic diversification even as they reinforced the hegemony of the plantation system” (p. 40). However, by viewing investment in steamboat operations as ancillary to staple crop production, planters missed opportunities to expand beyond regional transport and thus limited profits. While steamboats found quick application on the lower reaches of the Mississippi River, Sean Patrick Adams’s essay shows that efforts to transfer coal mining technology from Britain failed. Around Richmond, Virginia, the slave-based plantation economy prevented successful replication of the British system. Planter culture also affected technological development in Louisiana sugar production. Richard Follett finds that although sugar planters were eager to adapt steam-grinding machinery, their reluctance to form associations limited the capital necessary for technological innovations such as vacuum evaporation.

Although southern industrialists faced many obstacles in the antebellum era, Michele Gillespie’s study of Henry Merrell reveals the possibilities for the profitability of textile factories. A transplanted northerner, Merrell enjoyed his greatest success in Arkansas by “building networks of knowledge” with both northern and southern mill owners (p. 99). This knowledge sharing enabled Merrell to incorporate the latest technology into his operations. Gillespie argues that he faced crises only when he ignored his networks of knowledge.

Intraregional and interregional networks were also important in post–Civil War industrial success. By examining three different postwar textile mill ventures in three different southern communities, Pamela Edwards finds “multiple paths to community industrial development” (p. 128). A Columbia, South Carolina, company began locally, but the dependence on northern technologies ultimately led to a takeover by the northern-based Pacific Mills. In Spartanburg, the Chamber of Commerce lured Pacific Mills with tax incentives and a promise of antiunionism. Finally, the Durham Hosiery Company succeeded by means of the influence exercised by the politically and socially connected Carr family. Importantly, all three firms would be controlled by Pacific Mills by 1920. [End Page 931]

The final two essays in the collection take the story of southern industry and technology into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Stephen Taylor writes that the Tennessee Valley Authority became an important promoter of technology and reflected the federal government’s role in industrializing the rural South. Yoneyuki Sugita’s essay on telemedicine in Arizona—though it certainly stretches the bounds of the South as traditionally defined—finds important modern networks of knowledge through broadband, but also concludes that these networks remain uneven in distribution based on regional wealth.

Each of these case studies contributes to the rich complexity of our picture of southern economic and technological history and bolsters the recent trend in historiography toward stressing continuity in southern industrial and technological activity and in regional challenges to that activity. The challenge ahead is to produce a synthesis of this valuable scholarship.

Bruce Eelman

Dr. Eelman is associate professor of history at Siena College in Loudonville, New York.

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