- In This Issue
The worlds of technological maintenance, Kevin Borg’s “ambiguous social space between production and consumption,” have often attracted the attention of T&C authors—auto mechanics, ham radio operators, and radio-kit tinkerers, to name a few. Lewis H. Siegelbaum (“On the Side: Car Culture in the USSR, 1960s–1980s”) adds to this literature with a refreshing and playful look inside the world of late-Soviet automobility. In a mechanical world where the official infrastructure (state-run automobile-maintenance centers) was woefully inadequate, self-trained mechanics working from rickety and ubiquitous car sheds maintained more than automobiles. Mutual bonds forged in these sheds created a culture of masculine domestic spaces, alternative living rooms where boys learned how to fix cars and how to become men in Soviet culture. State-run auto repair shops rendered mechanically-ungifted car owners impotent, but “the savior-magician role” played by informal mechanics (p. 20) created intense relationships between white collar workers and those with grease under their talented fingernails. These relationships often took the epic form of heroic comradeship, as in Literaturnaia gazeta’s fictional account of the mechanic “Uncle Vasia”: “and when the job is done and the car is turned over to [the owner] shining like new, the narrator, ‘with tears of gratitude,’ joins the guys for a celebration accompanied by vodka, salted fish, and a good deal of ‘unrealized melancholy’” (p. 19). Siegelbaum concludes his window into the last stage of classic Soviet culture by observing that the 1990s would bring a small flood of wealth and western goods pursuing the new wealthy. Computerized car systems and western-style service stations made for an automotive system that was “far less recognizably Soviet” (p. 23).
Eric S. Hintz’s “Portable Power: Inventor Samuel Ruben and the Birth of Duracell” studies the evolution of a seemingly humble consumer product, the ubiquitous compact battery. He develops three thematic lines. First, he argues that Samuel Ruben’s invention of the small mercury battery merits a prominent place in the historiography of miniaturization; created in 1942, it predated transistors by nearly six years and proved to be an essential component in most of the products that constituted the Cold War–era miniaturization revolution. Second, the history of miniature batteries is of interest in its own right because of the battery’s essential function in a vast array of military and consumer products; it has become, one could argue, the quintessential endlessly-replaceable multipurpose tool. Third, and of greatest interest to the author, is the fifty-eight-year relationship between the independent inventor Ruben and the P. R. Mallory Company (later Duracell). Their relationship provides an intimate case study not only of the viability of a stand-alone inventor, but also of a corporate innovation strategy that seamlessly blended an in-house research laboratory with a prolific inventor who chose never to relinquish his independence. Readers will have to decide for themselves which of Hintz’s themes proves most compelling, but it is likely that the next time they stop by the store to pick up a pack of AA batteries, they’ll do so with a new respect for a subtle, complex, and oft-overlooked technology.
T&C’s ordinary practice of publishing articles as they reach the head of the queue often yields revealing serendipities, independently submitted manuscripts addressing thematically related topics. So too here. W. Patrick McCray complements Eric Hintz’s study of power-source miniaturization with his account of emergent nanotechnology—miniaturization on steroids, one might say. “From Lab to iPod: A Story of Discovery and Commercialization in the Post–Cold War Era” studies nanotechnology research and development on two thematic levels. The story merits attention in its own right, according to McCray, given that early product applications in miniaturized data storage (think evermore-capacious hard drives) led to a flood of research dollars from DARPA, private industry, [End Page a] and the academy which funded leading-edge research aimed at the development of products whose technological behavior inhabited the realm of the as-yet unknown. The remarkable clarity of McCray’s exposition—don’t miss the explanatory footnotes—chronicles the densely-packed history of incremental and systemic research. “A...