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A Social History of American Technology

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Ruth Schwartz CowanEdit

Ruth Schwartz Cowan is a historian of U.S. medicine, technology and science currently working as a full professor at the University of Pennsylvania. She received her MA from UC Berkeley and her Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University. She was previously a professor in the history department at Stony Brook University.

A Social History of American TechnologyEdit

Like Cowan's previous book, A Social History progresses in chronological fashion, outlining major trends and transitions in the history is U.S. technology, but also endeavoring to discover what creates a particularly American sensibility or character to our relationship with technology. Cowan defines technology as " those things that people have created so that they can exploit or manipulate the natural environment in which they are living" (2). For her, it connotes a more general word than tool, which is the thing used to do the job of production (a house is a technology, and a hammer is one of the tools used to create it). Here again we see the influence of Cowan's interest in the technological network.

The Land, the Natives, and the SettlersEdit

In her first chapter, Cowan opens with the indigenous peoples of North America. Here, she also expresses the range of U.S. geography. Most of the continent was inhabited by 10,000 BCE (when cultures began in Egypt, Mesopotamia), but unlike their genetic relations across the Atlantic, they never developed metal working for utilitarian purposes. Without the technologies necessary to maximize what they got out of the earth, the indiginous people's never pursued that course. Their population density remained low, and they never found reason to take more resources than were necessary for the time being. The settlers, however, had an entirely different relationship to land; they stored, stockpiled, maintained and prepared, and had done so for centuries. Moreover, everything they brought with them relied on a tremendous amount of technological processing from England (plows, looms, mills, etc).

The economy of these early settlements were based on trade with England; the colonies provided raw materials (tobacco, lumber, indigo, flour, fur, salt fish), and many were set up for that very purpose. The colonialists then bought fashioned goods--clothes, tools, etc. Most tools were water powered, and the settlers quickly began to rip through the native resources (the developed the American axe).

The settlers government policy was based in mercantilism. Mercantilism involves stimulating domestic trade, producing raw materials for the production of finished goods, and discouraging imports while encouraging exports. The country should self-provide its own resources and goods, and export its excess to profit the crown (thus exporting flax and cotton were promoted, but exporting cloth was shunned--to prevent competition with England's native weavers; thus, spinning wasn't an encouraged trade, and thus didn't develop technologically). In this scenario, the settlers were the resource arm of the crown.

Husbandry and Huswifery in the ColoniesEdit

This chapter exists to dispell the myth of "American self-sufficiency". Rather than being self-sufficient, which was costly, time-consuming and dangerous (poorly built tools tend to fail), colonialists specialized, trading whatever goods they had for other goods they need. In the south, cash crops were sold to buy ammenities for the home. Self-sufficiency was only viable for those with much wealth and many servants or slaves. While Jefferson may have fantasized a land of self-sufficient small farmers, there was no technological way for this to be managed.

Colonial ArtisansEdit

This chapter explores specialized craft skills in the colonies. Artisans were heavily induced to emigrate to the colonies, often with offers of free land or resources in return for starting a trade (milling, newspapers, etc).Of special importance is the failure of the apprenticeship in the colonies. Whereas apprenticeship had been a privilege in Europe (to be the young unpaid labor to an artisan in return for room and board), cheap land in the colonies made it an undesireable activity. Why be someone's free labor when you can cheaply buy a house or start a farm? (whereas in Europe, the excess children of farmers had little hope of a career in farming, and sought apprenticeships--in Europe, too much young labor, in America not enough). During this period, technological change was slow because there was no financial inducement for development--the crown did not desire for the colonies to produce their own goods. Also, artisans relied on other artisans for tools, and this made development slow. However, it was the urban artisans who helped fuel the revolution, as the duties and taxes from the British government hampered their economic profit and freedom to import/export to their benefit.

Early Decades of IndustrializationEdit

This chapter marks Cowan examination of 3 particular technological innovators and areas of early innovation. The war ended in 1781, and within a few years Oliver Evans had developed a mill that mechanized the entire milling process. Skilled human workers were no longer necessary, which was a great benefit as they were in short supply. By removing human labor, profits increased. While there was some conservatism to unleveling an already profitable trade, Evans' techniques soon spread. He also developed Steam Engine and machine shop technology. Machine shops were intended to be able to repair complex machinery that artisans didn't specialize in; they made producer's goods, the parts for machines that produced goods. The machine tool industry quickened the pace of development and output.

Eli Whitney is also mentioned for his work on the cotton gin, but Whitney's work in armament manufactor is just as important. He went into business making muskets for the U.S. government, largely because the government was the only place where that much capital could be provided. Whitney's goal was to create "expedition, uniformitity, and exactness" in the production process. From here, a number of people develop new techniques, but particularly John Hall developed armory practice--special purpose machines (to cut and make the parts), division of labor (each tool does one thing, each laborer does one thing) and a cheap unskilled workforce (easy replaced). By simplifying designs and building machines to make pieces, everything from guns to clocks could be made quickly and to equal guage. Costs went down and production soared. The factory system also began in the era of the early 1800s; these were the origins of the famous Lowell weaving girls who lived in homes supplied by the factory. Unions were slow to form because factory workers understood themselves as transient workers who saved money to later get land. This factory work remained largely rural, partly to avoid the hazardous conditions of England city life. Energy was largely waterpower, so factories were dispersed in the countryside.

Transportation RevolutionsEdit

Between 1800 and 1870, the US developed arguably the most advanced transportation system in the world. A network of roads was necessary to facilitate movement and trade of goods, and to connect an ever-increasing nation. These improvements resulted from what Cowan calls a "uniquely American" collaboration between the federal govt, local govt, and private business. Many of the early roads (1800-1850) were produced by joint-stock turnpike companies who charged tolls to make improvements and profit their investors; states soon invested in these roads to protect their trade interests. After the Civil War, most of these companies were bankrupt, roads in disrepair, and the roads revert to state ownership. They provided an early means for immigrants to travel West. However, the joint stock company model proved useful for financing the futures of canals and railroads.

The canal boom ended around the 1840s, and after the Civil War most had revert to state property. Most were never profitable (Eire being an exception). But importantly rural commerce turned into canal-side urban commerce as people discovered it was cheaper to ship their goods for processing elsewhere, than deal with rural isolated gristmills, for example. The canals increased population and trade between the states, making succession and foreign invasion less likely. Steamboats also allowed for upriver travel and decreased transport cost--they were the fastest form of transport available. The steamboat was involved in the first legislation to regulate private property (the steamboat) and submit it to regular safety inspection. Steamboats also trained the first generation of American machinists, who played an important role in the development of the railroad.

Railroad transport began in the 1820s and was official by 1830, moving at 21 miles an hour. By 1840, there was over 3000 miles of track, mostly in the east. Most were owned by private companies, chartered by states, and would haul any people or freight for pay. Westward expansion accelerated by the 1860s, and people considered travel as a recreational option. The value of roads and canals fell. By 1869, the first transcontinental railroad was complete.

Inventors, Entrepreneurs, and EngineersEdit

This chapter traces the early history of the patent office, and the pursuits of inventors and entrepreneurs from the mid 19th-early 20th century. Her main contention is that inventors change nothing on their own--they require the labor of diffusers and implementors, as well as the laborers necessary to build the equipment. Entrepreneurs are largely responsible for diffusing new technologies into the technological systems necessary for them to flourish. Inventors were relatively useless without the aid of money and management skills [Rockefeller and Carnegie are prominent examples]. The trend in development moved away from independent inventors and toward research labs, as only large corporations had the capital to risk exploration.

Engineering also formalized itself during this period. They became distinguished from artisans and journeymen by being interested in a level of professional advancement through theoretical expertise. This was the beginning of science-based schools (the earliest generation of engineers learned their skills in machine shops and other places). The nature of these schools kept out women, the poor, and the non-white. They organized into professional leagues, but soon became figures of middle management--neither proprietors nor consultants, but no employed by a business or lab.

Industrial Society and Technological SystemsEdit

This chapter covers the telegraph, railroad, petroleum (pipeline system), telephone, electric (allowed factories to be anywhere) systems that formalized in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In examining these systems, Cowan concludes that America became a formally industrialized society, "interlocking physical and social networks in which all Americas--rich or poor, young or old, urban or rural--were increasingly enmeshed" (171). In the new industrialized society, manufactured goods have a more important economic role than agricultural goods. The mechanization of farming meant it took a fraction of the people to crop the land, and that more land could be harvested--so successful farmers bought up smaller farms, while laying off more people. Farming went from being 2/3 of US employment to 1/3. Cities become the political and economic center of the nation, as it is where trade is conducted. Port cities, once commercial centers, became manufactoring centers in order to stay thriving. Immigrant populations provided a ready unskilled working force. Populations stabilized, lived longer, and were less effected by natural changes.

Daily Life and Mundane WorkEdit

This chapter tracks the changes in farming, the de-skilling of workers (particularly artisans and journeyman who lost jobs to deskilled laborers producing factory goods), and the loads of unskilled factory labor that flooded into the country (and the resistance they put up toward their boring, dangerous work). And, in league with her previous book, More Work for Mother, Cowan reminds us that the largest group of workers in the country were housewives and servants--7.5 million households in the US in 1870 and 24.3 households in 1920.

Thus while work became easier for some, it became harder for others. An immigrant might take a job that paid him more than his family could have ever previously made, but his hours were long, dull and dangerous. Examinations of industrialized labor require examination of class, race, ethnicity and gender in order to give us an accurate view.

American Ideas about TechnologyEdit

This chapter centers on conflicting ideologies regarding technology in the 19th and early 20th century. It begins with the understanding that industrialization was understood as a god-ordained way to subdue and populate the earth. Later, the Romantics criticized industrialization for stripping man of the power of his hands, and turning him into an unfeeling machine. However, advocates of industrialization soon used the rhetoric of the Romantics in defense of industrialization, arguing that machines would one day free man from all labor and drudgery and leave him free to pursue intellectual and creative pursuits. This was matched by industrial themes in visual art and poetry, as well as popular literature. Engineers were seen as heros and heralds of a new world.

Automobiles and AutomobilityEdit

Cowan addressed the question of who invented the automobile by looking at two different technological system for car production--Henry Ford's assembly line production (one cheap, identical mass produced car) and Sloan's system of tiered car values, multiple colors and yearly style changes. Cars were welcomed, and by 1920 1 in 13 had an automobile. By 1930, it was 1 in 5. Cowan describes the American relationship to automobiles somewhat paradoxical. Autos cause endless problems (injury, congestion, enviro damage, resource depleation), and none of the immense legislations and standards have solved the problem of auto issues. Automobile use has in many ways singlehandedly amped our enmeshment in foreign policy, as the access and cost of oil is no longer within domestic control.

Taxpayers, Generals, and AviationEdit

This chapter largely summarizes the advances in aviation as a byproduct of national defense spending and cold war R&D. Most of the developments in commercial airplines where the offspring of military research, as well as the new materials devised to withstand the military's immense demands. In this sense, military agendas become the path to technological change; defense spending controlled the economy of several sectors, including the university. This becomes a chapter strung around the "pros vs. cons" of military-funded tech development.

Communications Technologies and Social ControlEdit

This chapter focuses on telecommunications technologies--first the developments of wireless telegraphy, wireless telephony, radio (wireless broadcasting) and their subsequent government control, then satellites which helped develop the cable television industry. The chapter wraps up with an extremely cursory look at transistors and computers, and concludes with Cowan's explanation of why the total control of electronic communication has failed. First, many amateurs participate in these activities, and they produce their own activities and innovations; second, the government helps by restraining trusts and monopolies; third, the competitive tendencies of the free market--everyone is trying to build a better mousetrap to get rich. This in turn creates the rapid pace of technological change


This chapter explores three case studies [hybrid corn, penicillian, and the Pill] in technoscience--"enterprises as agricultural, medical and military research, enterprises in which science and technology, investigation and application, resemble two sides of the same coin" (303). One of the characteristic of technoscience is that goals for abstract knowledge and practical results can develop simultaneously.

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