Technologies as Cultural Practice and Production
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Technologies as Cultural Practice and Production

Some thirty years ago I was reading an anthology of American tall tales, and it struck me that the folk heroes who were celebrated could be categorized in various ways: by sex, by race, by century, by their occupations and the scenes of their incredible feats.1 Three in particular shared a striking convergence. In the story of Old Stormalong, the whaling captain with the oversized sailing ship is becalmed in the mid-Atlantic when he sees what he thinks is a possible rain cloud on the horizon. It turns out to be not a cloud, but the smoke from an early steamship bearing down on him. As it passes he swears to beat it into the harbor of Boston, and, when a wind does rise, he lays on a prodigious amount of sail. Eventually his ship does indeed win the race for port, but when it arrives, the masts and rigging are a tangle and the captain himself is slumped dead over the wheel.

In a second story, perhaps more familiar, Mike Fink is celebrated as the best of the river men who poled keelboats up the Mississippi and its tributaries. Mike was renowned for his ability to shoot and fight, but as the story has it, he finally lost his biggest fight—against Robert Fulton, when Fulton's steamboats drove the river men off the waters. With his livelihood destroyed, Mike migrated to the Rocky Mountains where he hunted and trapped until, being driven mad by having to live in an alien environment, he killed his best friend in what may or may not have been an accident.

And finally there was John Henry, the most celebrated of them all. In his [End Page 715] familiar story, he pitted his skill as a steel-driving man against a new steamdrill the railroad wanted to introduce. He beat the new machine, but his great heart broke under the effort and he died with his hammer in his hands.2

It occurred to me at the time that if these were indeed authentic folktales (and this could not be safely assumed), they might represent a deep tide of artisanal unease that ran against the flood of national self-congratulation over the technological "progress" of the nineteenth century that was deskilling a large number of workers, with social and political as well as personal costs that could hardly be calculated. I never followed up on that hunch, but sometime later I found the tools with which I might have done so.

It has been more than two decades since the collection of essays titled The New Cultural History, edited by Lynn Hunt, first appeared, and the scholarly landscape she explored has changed.3 But the book then, as now, seemed full of methodological insights and exciting case studies describing a kind of history that, while not entirely novel, promised new works and understandings. I, for one, wanted to read the landscapes and artifacts of the history of technology the way Mary Ryan read nineteenth-century American parades. "The parade," she wrote, "presents historians with a kind of cultural performance from which anthropologists have extracted rich meaning," and I imagined that tools and machines might present similar opportunities. Technology is, after all, in some important sense performative.4

Cultural history has been around long enough now that one does not need to explain it in detail, but I want to emphasize three of its aspects that still promise to expand and enrich the way we do the history of technology. First, as Hunt explains, "the deciphering of meaning … rather than the inference of causal laws of explanation, is taken to be the central task of cultural history."5 One can ask many questions of a tool or machine: Where did it come from (the traditional search for an inventor or designer)? How does it work? What does it do?6 But one can also ask what does it mean—to the designer, the builder, the consumer, the casual observer, and so forth? It is in this sense that one can read parades—or dragsters or the Apollo project.

Second, again as Hunt...


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