restricted access Rationality, Agency, Contingency: Recent Trends in the History of Technology
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Reviews in American History 30.1 (2002) 168-181

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Rationality, Agency, Contingency:
Recent Trends in the History of Technology

John M. Staudenmaier, S.J.

When the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) launched itself in the late 1950s, many U.S. historians found a compelling postwar framework for organizing research around an American consensus. SHOT's founding generation participated in the scholarly spirit of the time although with its own particular emphases. Cold War ideology and a morally idealistic engineering creed defined technology, if well funded and unfettered by local political passions, as leading in a clean line toward democratic societies. Apart from this technologically specified version of American hegemonic progress, the received stereotype for technological history in the 1950s was no interpretation at all. Half a millennium of curiosity about artifacts had crystallized in a balkanized landscape, islands of passionate attention to minute changes over time in one's artifact of choice--clocks, trains, automobiles, machine tools, weapons. An antiquarian paradigm and compelling Cold War urgency marked SHOT's beginnings as a (barely) visible discipline in 1958. 1 Still, a handful of landmark books had begun to suggest new directions. Lewis Mumford and Siegfried S. Giedion, in particular, achieved an international reputation for major synthetic interpretations of western technological style. Louis Hunter's Steamboats on the Western Rivers and I. B. Holley's Ideas and Weapons: Exploitation of the Aerial Weapon by the United States During World War One were less broadly known but considered breakthrough works within SHOT, comprehensive histories that situated technologies in the rich economic and political context of their times. 2 The founders understood their journal title as a move from internalism toward the still inchoate approach seen in Mumford, Giedion, Holley, and Hunter. The new journal would emphasize context: Technology and Culture.

Two principles more or less defined their emerging methodology. First, every technology has a context of origin. Historical actors, specific in motive, worldview, and resources, shape technologies, as does the ambient social order. Second, technological actors think distinctively; from the beginning, historians of technology almost unanimously rejected the received popular notion of technology as "applied science." Engineers use science as one [End Page 168] cognitive tool among several in a pragmatic blend of theoretical expertise and experiential judgment.

By 1980 consensus in the field appeared to flatly contradict the Cold War paradigm. The notion of autonomous technological progress, itself the application of an equally autonomous science and operating free from historical context had been supplanted by what came to be known as "contextualism." During these same years, however, several working assumptions suggested the latent power of the Cold War model. Patterns of research site selection and, in particular, topics seldom studied and questions rarely asked, reveal a shadow consensus. "Technology," as described by the patterns of research sites, neatly fit the chronology and geography of Western Civilization courses taught in universities at the time. Historians of technology concentrated largely on strategically successful actors: engineering, entrepreneurial, and managerial types who created technologies and moved them to market. Once launched, the technologies seemed less interesting. New-technology success stories appeared much more frequently than failure stories or studies of technologies in ordinary use. Technological cognition often seemed straightforward and strategic: define a goal, marshal resources to achieve the goal, and address obstacles as they turned up along the way. Other actors--wage workers, consumers, non-westerners, women--appeared in these accounts, if at all, as deep background, their voices muted. 3 Historians of technology were typically male and lived in the United States or Great Britain. "Getting it right," a minimal competency for SHOT historians, meant understanding how material constraints influence outcomes. Understanding what goes on inside black boxes gave historians of technology something of the character of early ham radio operators, hot rodders and computer scientists, a close knit fraternity with an arcane wisdom.

These are, to be sure, excessively delineated assertions with exceptions at every point. Nonetheless, they suggest a profile of the field in these years as simultaneously creative and narrow. The thin clean line...