- Exploding Steamboats, Senate Debates, and Technical Reports: The Convergence of Technology, Politics, and Rhetoric in the Steamboat Bill of 1838, and: Twisted Rails, Sunken Ships: The Rhetoric of Nineteenth-Century Steamboat and Railroad Accident Investigation Reports, 1833-1879
These paired books by an eminent scholar of technical communications explore the relationship between evolving steam propulsion technology and technical writing. Steamboat and railroad accident investigations were a natural venue in which they came together. Brockman begins his analysis of steamboat accident reporting in Exploding Steamboats, Senate Debates, and Technical Reports with the passage of an 1838 bill, the first legislation passed by Congress to regulate interstate commerce to ensure public safety. Nearly 3,000 Americans had been killed in steamboat explosions since the first boiler exploded in 1816. As Brockman points out, "at this time in the early 19th century, nothing else created by humans could wreak such havoc outside of war" (55). Public outcry over these accidents led Congress to fund a study by the Franklin Institute that resulted in a report written by some of the nation's top scientists and engineers, which in turn formed the basis of the 1838 bill. However, a Senate select committee deleted a key passage in the bill, rendering it ineffective. Deaths from steamboat boiler explosions mounted for another fourteen years, until Congress passed effective legislation regulating the operation of steamboats. [End Page 659]
Brockman argues that "many worlds converged" in this deleted passage, including evolving and often poorly understood steam technology, "public hysteria" over the accidents, and a new "world of technological persuasion" (1–3). Brockman is most effective at exploring the public's reaction to steamboat accidents and how they helped to create new genres of accident reports and, for the general public, sensationalist disaster literature. He makes excellent use of contemporary illustrations and artifacts that captured public concern over these accidents, such as sheet music commemorating accident victims (songs like "I Do Not Want to Be Drowned" and "Mamma! Why Don't Papa Come Home?") and a children's jigsaw puzzle called "Blown Up Steamboat."
Brockman extends his discussion in the second book, Twisted Rails, Sunken Ships, to include railroad accidents. He examines postevent reporting for seven major accidents between 1833 and 1876, including steamboat and locomotive explosions, train collisions, and an Ohio bridge collapse. He closely reads three types of investigative reports: findings of coroners' juries, studies by railroad or steamboat lines, and reports by scientists. Brockman argues that several major changes during this period affected the genre of accident reporting: increasing technological and bureaucratic complexity, evolution of the concept of legal liability for accidents, and the rise of disinterested scientific investigations to replace coroners' juries.
These short volumes provide a good introduction to the emerging genres of accident investigations and popular disaster literature as well as a useful summary of the evolution of steamboat design. In particular, Brockman gives a good discussion of the safety problems inherent in high-pressure steam engines, with respect to faulty design, poor maintenance, and human-factors engineering. Brockman gives close readings of many important reports and makes excellent use of ephemeral sources. Historians interested in the evolution of technical writing and accident reporting will find a wealth of information here, and technical writers like Brockman will find these books informative and enjoyable.
However, as is often the case with books written by specialists in other fields, historians will find these volumes less useful. From the perspective of the historian, Brockman does not provide sufficient analysis of the accident reports he discusses, nor does he embed them in a larger historical or technological context. The long and frequent quotes that Brockman uses are indications of insufficient analysis and contextualization. There are also some errors in research, such as his attribution of a short [End...