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Reviewed by:
  • Technology in Postwar America: A History
  • David Edgerton (bio)
Technology in Postwar America: A History. By Carroll Pursell. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007. Pp. xvi+280. $35.

Carroll Pursell is without question one of the most interesting historians of modern technology. The author of important papers and rich textbooks, he brings a great range of reading and sympathy to the subject. His latest book, covering the United States from World War II to the present, should be on the shelves of every student of American technology. It deals with familiar themes—familiar in part because Pursell has helped make them so—including the centrality of the military-industrial complex and the importance of the cultural change of the late 1960s and 1970s (and of Reaganism too). It should be read because it sums up rather well common assumptions among the best historians about American technology in its period, and about what the historiography of technology is.

This book sets out "to tell a story about American technology since World War II: how it changed, why it took the form it did, and what it has meant to the country" (p. ix). It is aimed "not at engineers and historians of technology, but to an audience of students and the general public," intending to give Americans a better understanding of technology, through which "we approach a better understanding of ourselves" (p xvi). These are very [End Page 491] broad ambitions, well beyond those of a textbook, or of a work confined to history. The book does not set out a thesis of its own: what story it seeks to tell is unclear. Nor does it set itself explicitly either within scholarship on technology in postwar America or in American history. Nor does it discuss the particular political tradition from which it arises. These are not requirements for a book of this sort, and indeed most such books do not do so, which is interesting in itself. But it makes it difficult to review, and in particular to judge succinctly whether it modifies, amplifies, or contradicts what others have written.

Indeed, the lack of explicit engagement with the work of other historians of postwar American technology except as through citation and endorsement is, for this reader at least, very frustrating. I yearned for some differentiation from a whole range of excellent students of American technology of the period, from David Noble to David Hounshell, from Thomas Hughes to Lewis Mumford, and from Nathan Rosenberg to Ruth Schwartz Cowan, to name but a few. There are, surely, different evaluations and interpretations worth bringing out to advance our knowledge and understanding.

While not critical of historians, the book is broadly critical of the way technology has been used in the United States. It generally does not approve of what it discusses, though the criticism does not get spelled out, nor do alternative accounts get considered, since it is assumed that the readership will share the author's perspective, which is interesting given the assessment of the place of technology in the modern U.S. imagination. The book covers a lot of territory. Besides covering the standard cases of nuclear power and bombs, rockets and computers, and the internet, it takes industrialized building of homes and shopping centers, mass production in factories and farms, and consumer technologies as central to its subject. There are also chapters which deal with the world outside the United States—with Marshall Plan aid and with concerns about the brain drain, and with changing attitudes toward technology. It is certainly less innovation-centric than most general accounts of the history of technology, which is to be welcomed, and it does have sections that consider what technologies were actually in use at particular times. And yet it is difficult to get an overall picture of the technology of postwar America: what was significant and what was not, whether mass production was central or it was not, how its technology compared with that of other countries. Indeed it is not in the end very clear what is distinctive about the United States, even for a non-U.S. reader.

Despite being subtitled A History, the focus is very much...


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pp. 491-493
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