Technology and Engineering in the American Experience: A Survey of Literature


James C. Williams


The simultaneity of the American and the Industrial revolutions during the late-eighteenth century set Americans on a path that embraced technology and engineering as a major part of their national identity. Progress in political liberty seemed to go hand in hand with improved scientific knowledge, advances in technology, and engineering achievements. Technological progress reduced labor, enriched leisure, improved health, and brought forth abundance. In the rising tide of democratic-capitalism, technology was the fuel and lubricant that propelled society forward, and where Americans encountered obstacles, they most often turned to technology to "fix" them. Thus, wherever one looks in American history, technological themes are evident.

America’s technological experience began with a colonial experience abundant in natural resources and graced by a fertile craft tradition. During the revolutionary era, military necessity and the need to build a strong and independent nation sustained technological change, and settlement of the vast North American continental landmass that followed during the nineteenth century spawned development of powerful technologies and inspired remarkable engineering achievements. By 1900, the rise of a complex urban-industrial society seemed to be the logical outcome of Americans technological enthusiasm, and subsequently, a system-center technological society has characterized American life.

Historians of technology have produced a rich body of historical literature exploring these and many other topics. Interested readers will find numerous works on specific inventions, machines, and technological and engineering achievements that comprise what scholars call the "internal" history of technology. Equally numerous are studies that explore the context of specific technological developments – the resources, social conditions, and the motives, values, and worldviews of the historical actors who shaped technology. Finally, there are many "external" histories of technology – social histories, if you will – which focus on the cultural context of technology and pay little attention to questions of technological design.



Prior to the nineteenth century, Europeans and Native Americans collided in North America, creating a diverse technological milieu of tools, crafts, and inventive activity. While historians generally have studied the technologies of the Europeans, Native American technologies influenced the lives of colonists. Every American school child knows the tale of the Pawtuxet Indian Squanto teaching the Pilgrims the proper technique for cultivating maize. Carolyn Merchant, Ecological Revolutions: Nature, Gender, and Science in New England (Chapel Hill, NC, 1989), and William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York, 1983) each offer a great deal more insight into the technological lives of people in colonial New England. John McPhee brings alive the design, construction, and cultural significance of the famed Native American birch bark canoe in The Survival of the Bark Canoe (New York, 1975), and Stephen J. Pyne, Fire in America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire (Princeton, NJ, 1982), explores fire as, among other things, a significant pre-modern technology. A number of examples of technological interchange between natives and European immigrants during this era have also been explored. Colin G. Calloway, New Worlds for All: Indians, Europeans, and the Remaking of Early America (Baltimore, 1997) is a good general introduction, Patrick M. Malone, The Skulking Way of War: Technology and Tactics among the Indians of New England (Baltimore, 1991) examines how Native Americans quickly discovered the advantages of firearms and how European colonists learned forest warfare strategies and techniques from the Indians, and Barbara Graymont, The Iroquois in the American Revolution (Syracuse, 1972) explicitly discusses military technologies.

The ready availability of resources that were relatively scarce in Europe – in particular, wood – exemplified early American technology. C. A. Weslager, The Log Cabin in America from Pioneer Days to the Present (New Brunswick, 1969) addresses one of the best known icons of these early years, while Henry J. Kauffman, American Axes: A Survey of Their Development and Their Makers (Brattleboro, VT, 1972) looks at perhaps the most important tool of the period. Brooke Hindle focuses more broadly on the importance of wood-based technologies in his edited works, America’s Wooden Age: Aspects of its Early Technology (Tarrytown, NY, 1975), and Material Culture of the Wooden Age (Tarrytown, NY, 1981). More recently Thomas R. Cox, et al., This Well-Wooded Land: Americans and Their Forests from Colonial Times to the Present (Lincoln, NE, 1985), explores broader economic, social, and intellectual themes of America’s forest-based technological culture.

For metals, a less important story than wood at the time, but one that grew rapidly later, see James A. Mulholland, A History of Metals in Colonial America (Birmingham, AL, 1981). The Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site – "the forerunner of America's industrial giants" – demonstrates seventeenth-century iron-making technology and mill operations at the first integrated ironworks in North America (1646-1668), which includes a reconstructed blast furnace, forge, rolling mill, and a restored seventeenth century house (// Waterpower provided the bulk of inanimate energy in colonial America for sawmills, iron mills, and the almost ubiquitous flouring or gristmills. Terry S. Reynolds, Stronger than a Hundred Men: A History of the Vertical Water Wheel (Baltimore, 1983) provides an excellent introduction to early waterpower, and Charles Howell and Alan Keller, The Mill at Philipsburg Manor, Upper Mills and a Brief History of Milling (Tarrytown, NY, 1977) give a focused look at early grist milling at a site that can be visited today in North Tarrytown, New York (//

A craft tradition supported technology in early America. Products were made one at a time, the entire process carried out by a skilled master artisan, perhaps with the assistance of apprentices. Carl Bridenbaugh, The Colonial Craftsman (New York, 1950) studies the artisans of this period; Charles F. Montgomery, America’s Arts and Skills (New York, 1957) studies the artifacts produced by American artisans; Silvio A. Bedini Thinkers and Tinkers (New York, 1975) brings both artisan and artifact together; and Brooke Hindle, David Rittenhouse (Princeton, NJ, 1964), tells the story of America’s most celebrated artisan, who worked entirely within traditional technologies. Hindle’s The Pursuit of Science in Revolutionary America, 1735-1787 (Chapel Hill, NC, 1956) weaves American crafts into the era’s cultural context, and an excellent collection of essays that goes beyond this period is Judith A. McGaw, Early American Technology: Making & Doing Things from the Colonial Era to 1850 (Chapel Hill, NC, 1994).

Shipbuilding became one of America’s most important craft-based industries, and the size of the American colonial merchant fleet eclipsed those of all its competitors by the mid-eighteenth century. There is a vast literature focusing on this topic, among which Joseph A. Goldenberg, Shipbuilding in Colonial America (Charlottesville, VA, 1976) is marvelous in its technical details, and Christine Leigh Heyrman, Commerce and Culture: The Maritime Communities of Colonial Massachusetts, 1690-1750 (New York, 1984) deftly describes the community-based character of maritime activities. A number of museums preserve this early maritime heritage, including the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park (// and the Cape Code Maritime Museum (// One also can visit San Francisco's Maritime National Park (// or Seattle’s Center for Wooden Boats maritime heritage museum (//, both of which explore this craft tradition as it evolved into the nineteenth century.

The American Revolution and subsequent independence from Great Britain stimulated inventive activity in America at the end of the eighteenth century. Neil Longley York, Mechanical Metamorphosis: Technological Change in Revolutionary America (Westport, CT, 1985) connects the quest for political independence with that of technological independence through topics such as home manufactures, the munitions industry, the Pennsylvania Rifle, and fortifications. M. L. Brown, Firearms in Colonial America: The Impact on History and Technology, 1492-1792 (Washington, D.C., 1980), covers a specific aspect of military technology during this era as does Wallace Hutcheon, Robert Fulton: Pioneer of Undersea Warfare (Annapolis, MD, 1981).

By the end of the eighteenth century, technology was on the cusp of becoming a defining part of American life. Within another century it had become just that. The magnificent technological constructions that appeared in America awed people, as David E. Nye points out in his book American Technological Sublime (Cambridge, MA, 1994), and because of the force of technology and technological change, many people fell into the all too easy understanding that technology determined America’s subsequent history. This idea of "technological determinism" has been long debated by historians of technology, and Merritt Roe Smith and Leo Marx, eds. Does Technology Drive History? The Dilemma of Technological Determinism (Cambridge, MA, 1994) explores the latest thinking on the subject, and the concepts of the technological sublime and technological determinism provide a good foundation for exploring the period of the industrial revolution in America.


American Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain. Canals built during the late eighteenth century vastly improved transportation, which accelerated change from a traditional agrarian and artisan society to one based on manufacturing and machine-made goods. Coal replaced wood as fuel, technological innovations occurred in textile and iron production, improvements in precision machining of wood and metal established the foundation of the machine tool industry, and James Watt’s 1769 invention of a steam powered engine eventually revolutionized manufacturing power and transportation. Even though British legislation prohibited the export of new technologies, the new United States nevertheless acquired and expanded on Great Britain’s advances.

The transfer of technology from England to America came most visibly via the immigration of skilled artisans and mechanics, as well as through industrial espionage.

David J. Jeremy, Transatlantic Industrial Revolution: The Diffusion of Textile Technologies between Britain and America, 1790-1830s (Cambridge, MA, 1981) covers this process, as well as the subsequent reverse transfer of technology back to England from the United States. Barbara M. Tucker’s Samuel Slater and the Origins of the American Textile Industry, 1790-1860 (Ithaca, 1984), focuses on one of the most important immigrant mechanics of the period, and Carroll W. Pursell, Jr., Early Stationary Steam Engines in America: A Study in the Migration of a Technology (Washington, D.C., 1969), follows the dispersion of steam power in early American industry during the early 1800s. Brooke Hindle and Steven Lubar, Engines of Change: The American Industrial Revolution, 1790-1860 (Washington, D.C., 1986) is a well-illustrated and smartly written overview of American industrialization. The National Museum of American History marvelously tells the story of the American industrial revolution (//

Transportation and Communication

Transportation and communication technologies were especially crucial to the physical, political, and economic development of America. Robert C. Post’s recent contribution to the American Historical Association and Society for the History of Technology’s new pamphlet series on technology, society and culture, Technology, Transport, and Travel in American History (Washington, D.C., 2003) provides a marvelous introduction to the subject.

In the nation’s first decades, just as in England, canals played an important role in launching American industrialization. No general history of canal building in North America has been written, but a number of excellent works exist on specific canals. Elting E. Morrison, From Know-how to Nowhere: The Development of American Technology (New York, 1974) contains a wonderful essay on how Americans learned to build canals, and his introduction to America’s first canal, the Middlesex, is fleshed out in Mary Stetson Clark, The Old Middlesex Canal (Melrose, MA, 1974). Carol Sheriff, The Artificial River: The Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress, 1817-1862 (New York, 1996) beautifully weaves together technological, political, and social history in telling the story of America’s best known canal, and George Rogers Taylor, The Transportation Revolution, 1815-1860 (New York, 1951) places the canal in context with other transportation technologies of the nineteenth century. The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park (// preserves an important example of America’s canal history. From 1828 to 1924, the 184 mile long canal served as a crucial shipping link between Washington, D.C. and Cumberland, Maryland, goods traveling through seventy-four locks, across striking stone aqueducts, and through an impressive 3,118-foot long brick-lined tunnel.

While horses and mules towed canal boats during most of the nineteenth century, steam engines took hold on America’s rivers as well as on land. Louis C. Hunter, Steamboats on the Western Rivers (New York, 1949) remains the essential book on this topic, augmented by Erik F. Haites, James Mak, and Gary M. Walton, Western River Transportation: The Era of Early Internal Development, 1810-1860 (Baltimore, 1975). Brooke Hindle, Emulation and Invention (New York, 1981), brilliantly examines the process of invention and inventive thinking that distinguished development of the steamboat as well as the telegraph. Also see Edith McCall, Conquering the Rivers: Henry Miller Shreve and the Navigation of America’s Inland Waterways (Baton Rouge, LA, 1984), and Frank D. Prager, ed., The Autobiography of John Fitch (Philadelphia, 1976).

Railroading has long captured the attention the American people, and hundreds of historians and antiquarians have written on the subject. For a technological focus, begin with John H. White, Jr., American Locomotives: An Engineering History, 1830-1860 (Baltimore, 1968) and his The American Railroad Freight Car: From the Wood-Car to the Coming of Steel (Baltimore 1993). John F. Stover History of the Baltiimore and Ohio Railroad (West Lafayette, IN, 1987) looks at the business side of railroad development; Walter Licht, Working for the Railroad: The Organization of Work in the Nineteenth Century (Princeton, NJ, 1983) explores railroad laborers, their organization, recruitment, and role in creating the railroad bureaucracy; and F. Daniel Larkin, John B. Jervis: An American Engineering Pioneer (Ames, IA, 1990) gives insight to the life of an important early American civil engineer. William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York, 1991), brilliantly explores the role of the railroad in the growth and development of Chicago, its vast hinterland, and by extension the railroad’s importance to urban growth everywhere in America. The crucial role of the steel industry in railroad and American history is dealt with by Thomas J. Misa, A Nation of Steel: The Making of Modern America, 1865-1925 (Baltimore, 1995). A hands-on feel for railroading and its social and cultural context can be gotten at Steamtown National Historic Site (//, the former Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad yards.

The telegraph and telephone accompanied and eventually surpassed the railroad in advancing communication between Americans. Brooke Hindle, Emulation and Invention (New York, 1981) contains a lovely essay on the invention of the telegraph, and Menahem Blondheim, News Over the Wires: The Telegraph and the Flow of Public Information in America, 1844-1897 (Cambridge, MA, 1994) discusses one of the most important social impacts of the telegraph. The invention of the telephone is covered by Robert V. Bruce, Bell: Alexander Graham Bell and the Conquest of Solitude (Boston, 1973), and Neil H. Wasserman, From Invention to Innovation: Long-distance Telephone Transmission at the Turn of the Century (Baltimore, 1985) explains the innovations that permitted the telephone to shrink vast distances between people. The broad social impact of the telephone, issues of race and labor in the telephone industry, and the business context of the telephone are dealt with in three excellent works: Claude S. Fischer, America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone to 1940 (Berkeley, 1992); Venus Green, Race on the Line: Gender, Labor, and Technology in the Bell System, 1880-1980 (Durham, NC, 2001); and George David Smith, The Anatomy of a Business Strategy: Bell, Western Electric, and the Origins of the American Telephone Industry (Baltimore, 1985). Finally, Carolyn Marvin, When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About Communications in the Late Nineteenth Century (New York, 1988) examines how these and other new communication technologies affected America’s social habits and customs.

Invention, Innovation, and Engineering

Inventors, entrepreneurs, and engineers played three crucial roles in the industrialization of America. Inventors created entirely new things, entrepreneurs (or innovators) introduced to the marketplace the things inventors invented, and engineers designed things and completed projects that inventors and entrepreneurs initiated. Not surprisingly, they emerged as national heroes, and biographers have studied many of their lives.

Among the better-known inventors, entrepreneurs, and engineers are Thomas Edison, Andrew Carnegie, John Roebling, and Charles Steinmetz. Paul Israel’s recent biography, Edison, A Life of Invention (New York, 1998) has won critical acclaim, while Andre Millard, Edison and the Business of Innovation (Baltimore, 1990) sheds important light on Edison’s laboratory organization and business strategy. A first-hand look into Edison’s life as an inventor can be gained by visiting his home and laboratory at the Edison National Historic Site in West Orange New Jersey (// Peter Krass’s new biography, Carnegie (New York, 2002), is a compelling look at this steel industry innovator; and Ronald R. Kline, Steinmetz: Engineer and Socialist (Baltimore, 1992) explores the life of a German immigrant scientist who became chief engineer at General Electric and leader of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, as well as a socialist politician in Schenectady, New York.

Other American contributors to technological change are covered in Rayvon Fouché’s excellent new study of Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation: Granville T. Woods, Lewis H. Latimer, and Shelby J. Davidson (Baltimore, 2003), Autumn Stanley’s useful compendium of women inventors, Mothers and Daughters of Invention: Notes for a Revised History of Technology (New Brunswick, NJ, 1995), and Robert Sobel, The Entrepreneurs: Explorations within the American Business Tradition (New York, 1974). And, W. Bernard Carlson, Innovation as a Social Process: Elihu Thomson and the Rise of G.E., 1870-1900 (New York, 1991), and Alfred D. Chandler, The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (Cambridge, MA, 1977) offer important insights into how technological innovation occurs and how American business operates.

The process of invention is something that has long fascinated historians of technology. Bruce Sinclair, Philadelphia’s Philosopher Mechanics: A History of the Franklin Institute, 1824-1865 (Baltimore, 1974) explores how inventors and designers learned from each other through institutions such as the Franklin Institute. The mechanics who met in Philadelphia and at mechanic’s institutes all across America became the backbone of the engineering profession, which is recounted by a number of historians: Daniel H. Calhoun, The American Civil Engineers: Origins and Conflicts (Cambridge, MA, 1960); Monte A. Calvert, The Mechanical Engineer in America, 1830-1910 (Baltimore, 1967); Bruce Sinclair, A Centennial History of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, 1880-1980 (Baltimore, 1974); A. Michal McMahon, The Making of a Profession: A Century of Electrical Engineering in America (New York, 1984); and Terry S. Reynolds, ed., The Engineer in America (Chicago, 1991). Finally, Edwin T. Layton, Jr., The Revolt of the Engineers: Social Responsibility and the American Engineering Profession (Cleveland, OH, 1971), examines an important movement among engineers early in the twentieth century.

But just what is the process of invention, of engineering? Eugene S. Ferguson, Engineering and the Mind’s Eye (Cambridge, MA, 1992), examines how inventors and engineers actually invent and design, using visual thinking and communication. His work, along with Walter Vincenti, What Engineers Know and How They Know It (Baltimore, 1990), is essential to understanding how sophisticated invention and engineering really are. Meanwhile, over time the place in which invention occurred changed, as Paul Israel discusses in From the Machine Shop to the Industrial Laboratory: Telegraphy and the Changing Context of American Invention, 1830-1920 (Baltimore, 1992),

Finally, the patent system has played a crucial role in encouraging invention while at the same time disclosing information about inventions that are patented. Bruce W. Bugbee, Gensis of American Patent and Copyright Law (Washington, D.C., 1967) introduces the American patent system, while Carolyn Cooper, Patents and Invention (Chicago, 1991), explores the connection between patents and invention. Robert C. Post, Physics, Patents, and Politics: A Biography of Charles Grafton Page (New York, 1976), offers an illuminating look at Charles Grafton Page, who practiced medicine, experimented with electromagnetic machinery, and served as one of two senior examiners in the U.S. Patent Office for much of the nineteenth century.

Evolution of Manufacturing

Mechanization and industrial manufacturing existed in synergistic relation to inventions, innovations, and the transportation revolution of the nineteenth century. Beginning in the 1790s, machines increasingly began to substitute for manual labor. Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, patented in 1794, and Oliver Evans automated flouring mill stand as an excellent early examples of a laborsaving technology. Greville Bathe and Dorothy Bathe, Oliver Evans: A Chronicle of Early American Engineering [1935] (New York, 1972) is still the best study of Evans’s pioneering work, and Constance M. Green, Eli Whitney and the Birth of American Technology (New York, 1956), although a bit overreaching, is the best read on Whitney.

The factory system of manufacturing resulted from the growth of mechanization, and most famously took shape in the textile industry, the early years of which Barbara M. Tucker traces in Samuel Slater and the Origins of the American Textile Industry, 1790-1860 (Ithaca, NY, 1984). Anthony F. C. Wallace, Rockdale: The Growth of an American Village in the Early Industrial Revolution (New York, 1978) gives a classic account of life in an early Pennsylvania textile community, and Philip Scranton, Proprietary Capitalism: The Textile Manufacture at Philadelphia, 1800-1885 (Cambridge, MA, 1983) provides a business perspective. Judith A. McGaw, Most Wonderful Machine: Mechanization and Social Change in Berkshire Paper Making, 1801-1885 (Princeton, NJ, 1987) offers an insightful look into the factory system in another industry.

Louis C. Hunter, Water Power in the Age of the Steam Engine, vol. 1 of A History of Industrial Power in the United States, 1780-1930 (Charlottesville, VA, 1979) and his Steam Power, vol. 2 of A History of Industrial Power in the United States, 1780-1930 (Charlottesville, VA, 1985), examines the contribution of water and steam power to the development of American manufacturing, and Theodore Steinberg’s Nature Incorporated: Industrialization and the Water of New England (Cambridge, MA, 1991) explores the relationship between history of technology and the natural environment in New England. The water-powered textile-manufacturing city of Lowell, Massachusetts remains one of the best examples of this historic era in American industrialization, and the Lowell National Historical Park preserves its mills, worker housing, and waterpower canals (//

Americans actually struggled over just how manufacturing should fit in their evolving republican society. How could an industrial factory system that by its very nature seemed to depersonalize all the people involved in the manufacturing process exist in a society that valued above all individual liberty and egalitarianism? Particularly important in teasing out this issue is John F. Kasson, Civilizing the Machine: Technology and Republican Values in America, 1776-1900 (New York, 1976), who builds on the essential work of Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (New York, 1964).

One view is that Americans chose to see insure individual liberty and egalitarianism by making the products of manufacturers widely and economically available to everyone. Manufacturing in quantity became a way to achieve this, and a distinctive "American system of manufactures" emerged in the nineteenth century in armories producing rifles for the military. The essential idea was to use jigs, dyes, gauges, and special machines to produce large numbers of uniform, interchangeable parts. The idea spread far beyond the arms industry, and by the twentieth century evolved into mass production. Key to understanding the American system of manufacturing are Merritt Roe Smith, Harpers Ferry Armory and the New Technology: The Challenge of Change (Ithaca, NY, 1977), his edited volume, Military Enterprise and Technological Change: Perspectives on the American Experience (Cambridge, MA, 1985), and Otto Mayr and Robert C. Post, eds., Yankee Enterprise: The Rise of the American System of Manufactures (Washington, D.C., 1981). Carolyn C. Cooper, Shaping Invention: Thomas Blanchard’s Machinery and Patent Management in Nineteenth Century America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), focuses on one fundamental machine used in arms manufacturing; and David A. Hounshell, From the American System to Mass Production: The Development of Manufacturing Technology in the United States (Baltimore, 1984) and Donald R. Hoke, Ingenious Yankees: The Rise of the American System of Manufactures in the Private Sector (New York, 1990) trace the diffusion and full evolution of America’s manufacturing system. The Harpers Ferry National Historical Park (// and the Springfield Armory National Historic Site (// help capture the beginnings of the American system of manufactures.

Finally, the physical and visual record of American manufacturing is found across the nation in historical sites, buildings, and structures. Robert B. Gordon and Patrick Malone, The Texture of Industry: An Archaeological View of the Industrialization of North America (New York, 1994) shows the centrality of industrial archeology to understanding America’s industrial revolution, and in work, A Landscape Transformed: The Ironmaking District of Salisbury, Connecticut (New York, 2001), Gordon, skillfully blends technological change with social history to tell the story of this important iron-making region in New England. When these works are connected to social histories such as Anthony F. C. Wallace, St. Clair: A Nineteenth-Century Coal Town’s Experience with a Disaster Prone Industry (New York, 1987) and Ronald L. Lewis, Coal, Iron, and Slaves: Industrial Slavery in Maryland and Virginia, 1715-1865 (Westport, CT, 1979), a truly full picture of life and work in nineteenth century industrial America emerges.


Urban-Industrial Society

America emerged at the start of the twentieth century as an urban-industrial nation. Enormous technological changes both contributed to and were spawned by the growth of cities. The very building of cities is a technological topic of importance, and Carl W. Condit, Chicago, 1910-29: Building, Planning, and Urban Technology (Chicago, 1973) and his American Building, 2d ed. (Chicago, 1983) are the perfect place to start investigating it. Amy E. Slaton, Reinforced Concrete and the Modernization of American Building, 1900-1930 (Baltimore, 2001) examines a crucial change in building technique, while Carl-Henry Geschwind, California Earthquakes: Science, Risk, and the Politics of Hazard Mitigation (Baltimore, 2001) one of the essential hazards facing those who would construct modern cities. Finally, Gail Cooper, Air-Conditioning America: Engineers and the Controlled Environment, 1900-1960 (Baltimore, 1998) examines the history of how Americans came to find living in working in massive buildings a tolerable experience. Complex technological systems, both networks both physical and social in character, emerged everywhere in modern society. The telegraph, telephone, and railroad systems born in the nineteenth century already exerted enormous influence on the lives of Americans –Carlene Stephens points out in Inventing Standard Time (Washington, D.C., 1983), railroads created the first time zones, and Gregory J. Downey, Telegraph Messenger Boys: Labor, Communication, and Technology, 1850-1950 (New York, 2002) illustrates the role of labor in one technological system – but these systems only hinted at the complexity and impact of twentieth century technological systems. Understanding how complex technologies work, why they take the forms they do, and the multifaceted contexts in which they operate is an enormous problem, the unraveling of which Thomas Parke Hughes, Elmer Sperry: Engineer and Inventor (Baltimore, 1971), Hugh G. J. Aitken, Syntony and Spark: The Origins of Radio (New York, 1976), and Reese V. Jenkins, Images and Enterprise: Technology and the American Photographic Industry, 1829-1925 (Baltimore, 1975) all contribute.

Energy systems particularly illustrate the sorts of networks to which Americans have become so accustomed that they rarely think about them, even though they sustain their very lives. Thomas Parke Hughes focused historians attention on the subject of technological systems with his prize-winning book, Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930 (Baltimore, 1983), and he introduced the important idea that large socio-technological systems develop a "momentum" that is very difficult to redirect once it takes hold. Following him Richard F. Hirsh, Technology and Transformation in the American Electric Utility Industry (Cambridge, MA, 1989) explored technological changes within the industry that led to larger and larger generating systems; Harold L. Platt, The Electric City: Energy and the Growth of the Chicago Area, 1880-1930 (1991) and Mark H. Rose, Cities of Light and Heat: Domesticating Gas and Electricity in American Homes (University Park, PA, 1995) explored electrical systems in terms of urban life; and James C. Williams, Energy and the Making of Modern California (Akron, OH, 1997) illuminated the complex character of the networked energy systems within a single state. Finally, David E. Nye marvelously synthesizes a wide variety of features of the electrical systems story in Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology (Cambridge, MA, 1990), and he deconstructs America’s penchant for using enormous amounts of energy in Consuming Power: A Social History of American Energies (Cambridge, MA, 1998).

The automobile spawned a vast, complex network of streets, highways, and freeways. James J. Flink’s two books on the automobile and American society continue to be standard works – America Adopts the Automobile, 1895-1910 (Cambridge, MA, 1970) and The Car Culture (Cambridge, MA, 1985) – as are John B. Rae’s The American Automobile (Chicago, 1965) and The Road and Car in American Life (Cambridge, MA, 1970). Tom Lewis, Divided Highways: Building the Interstate Highways, Transforming American Life (New York, 1999) shifts focus to the highway system that makes auto travel comfortable, in a readable account based on a PBS film series. Finally, Robert C. Post, High Performance: The Culture and Technology of Drag Racing (Baltimore, 1994), Virginia Scharff, Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age (New York, 1991), and Roger B. White, Home on the Road: The Motor Home in America (Washington, D.C., 2000) are three fine examples of works examining the social experience of the technological network of the automobile. The Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan (//, holds a superb automobile history collection as well as covering a number of other topics in the history of American technology.

By the end of the twentieth century, air transportation joined the automobile as perhaps the most important way Americans got from place to place. Aviation has a remarkable and adventurous past, and Anne M. Millbrooke’s Aviation History (Englewood, CO, 1999) is one of the most thorough introductions to the topic, and Roger Bilstein, Flight in America: From the Wrights to the Astronauts, rev. ed., (Baltimore, 1994) is also a good survey. Eric Schatzberg, Wings of Wood, Wings of Metal (Princeton, 1998) is a very useful study of the technological shift from wood to metal in aircraft construction, and Edward W. Constant, II, The Origins of the Turbojet Revolution (Baltimore, 1980) is a notable history of modern aircraft technology. The Wright Brothers National Memorial (// at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, commemorates Orville and Wilbur Wright’s first heavier-than-air flights; the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Park in Ohio features the Wright’s cycle company building and Huffman Prairie Flying Field where the Wright airplane was perfected (//; and the National Air and Space Museum (// looks at America’s aviation experience in depth.

The idea of systematizing not surprisingly found its way into manufacturing and labor. The mechanical engineering Frederick Winslow Taylor introduced the idea of scientific management of manufacturing at the end of the nineteenth century, and "efficiency" became the watchword throughout every aspect of American society. Daniel Nelson, Frederick W. Taylor and the Rise of Scientific Management (Madison, WI, 1980) and Robert Kanigel, The One Best Way: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency (New York, 1997) are both readable and worthwhile examinations of this story. The application of scientific management in industry became known as "Taylorism," and it had a great impact on manufacturing labor. Hugh G. J. Aitken, Scientific Management in Action: Taylorism at the Watertown Arsenal, 1908-1915 (Princeton, 1960) look at scientific management in the arms industry, and David F. Noble, America by Design: Science, Technology and the Rise of Corporate Capitalism (New York, 1977) looks more broadly at the negative impact of scientific management and related ideas on American society.

Recently, historians of technology have joined environmental historians in looking at issues related to America’s complex urban society. Joel A. Tarr, The Search for the Ultimate Sink: Urban Pollution in Historical Perspective (Akron, OH, 1996), represents one of the best works in this vein, as does Martin Melosi’s prize-winning The Sanitary City: Urban Infrastructure in America from Colonial Times to the Present (Baltimore, 2000), which studies the urban water, sewer, and solid waste infrastructure in the U.S. and consequences of the decisions made. David Stradling, Smokestacks and Progressives: Environmentalists, Engineers, and Air Quality in America, 1881-1951 (Baltimore, 1999) examines how coal-related smoke-control efforts evolved, and

Brian Black, Petrolia: The Landscape of America’s First Oil Boom (Baltimore, 2000) combines landscape history, the history of technology, environmental history, and urban history in his examination of the early oil industry. Finally, Thomas R. Wellock, Critical Masses: Opposition to Nuclear Power in California, 1958-1978 (Madison, WI, 1998) examines the social movement that brought about a moratorium on nuclear power in California.

Along with the urban world, America’s rural countryside also has faced enormous technological change. Deborah Fitzgerald clearly shows in her recent book Every Farm a Factory: The Industrial Ideal in American Agriculture (New Haven, CT, 2003) that farms became modernized in the early twentieth century by adopting new machinery as well as the financial, cultural, and ideological apparatus of industrialism.

Ronald R. Kline, Consumers in the Country: Technology and Social Change in Rural America (Baltimore, 2000) also reveals that rural people may have adopted new technologies, but they did so on terms established by the rural, not the urban, context. No matter the terms, science and technology clearly found their way into agriculture, as revealed in Dan Charles’s rewarding journalistic history of genetic engineering in agriculture, Lords of the Harvest (Cambridge, MA, 2001), and in Edmund Russell’s linking of chemical warfare and twentieth century pest control, War and Nature: Fighting Humans and Insects with Chemicals from World War I to Silent Spring (New York, 2001).


Technology and Everyday Life

Technology’s impact on people’s day-to-day lives is ubiquitous. Transportation networks, urban infrastructures, manufacturing complexes, and energy systems quite envelop our lives. Television, radio, and telecommunication technologies are an excellent example of technologies that have become essential to our daily existence. Alfred D. Chandler Jr. and James W. Cortada, A Nation Transformed by Information: How Information Has Shaped the United States from Colonial Times to the Present (New York, 2000) explores the creation of new information systems and devices and their rapid adoption by American society. Another solid introduction to the information age is Steven Lubar, Infoculture: The Smithsonian Book of Information Age Inventions (Boston, 1993). The radio was the first wireless communication device, which Hugh G. J. Aitken examines in The Continuous Wave: Technology and the American Radio, 1900-1932 (Princeton, 1985), while Erik Barnow, Tube of Plenty: The Evolution of American Television, 2d ed., rev. (New York, 1990) studies television. Paul Ceruzzi, A History of Modern Computing (Cambridge, MA, 1998) is a solid starting point for understanding the sweeping history of hardware, software, programming, networks, people, and business that have come to so characterize America at the start of the twenty-first century; T.R. Reid, The Chip: How Two Americans Invented the Microchip and Launched a Revolution, rev. ed. (New York, 2001) focuses on Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce, who invented the silicon chip; and Janet Abbate, Inventing the Internet (Cambridge, MA, 1999) shows how both developers and users constructed the evolving technology of the Internet. Finally, James B. Murray, Jr., Wireless Nation: The Frenzied Launch of the Cellular Revolution in America (Cambridge, MA, 2001), looks and individuals and the firms that gave us the cell phone.

The range of day-to-day technologies is enormous. One really does not have to stray outside their home to see this, although until just a few years ago, historians thinking about technology hardly paid attention to the home. Ruth Schwartz Cowan refocused historians of technology with her classic investigation of technology in the home in More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology, from the Open Hearth to the Microwave (New York, 1983). Subsequently, many excellent works stemming in part from a broader interest in women’s history have looked at domestic as well as other less visible technologies. Jeanne Boydston, Home and Work: Housework, Wages, and the Ideology of Labor in the Early Republic (New York, 1990) looks at domestic life during the colonial and early American eras, while Barbara Clark Smith’s After the Revolution: The Smithsonian History of Everyday Life in the Eighteenth Century (Washington, D.C., 1985) is based on the artifacts of day-to-day home life. Jeannette Lasanky, Pieced by Mother: Over One Hundred Years of Quiltmaking Traditions (Lewisburg, PA, 1987) examines a particular domestic craft tradition; Priscilla J. Brewer, From Fireplace to Cookstove: Technology and the Domestic Ideal in America (Syracuse, N.Y, 2000) traces the evolution of domestic cooking technology; and Susan Strasser, Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash (New York, 1999) focuses on role of women in determining household disposal behavior.

The issue of gender has become one of the most interesting and significant in the history of technology in recent years. Roger Horowitz and Arwen Mohen, eds., His & Hers: Gender, Consumption, and Technology (Charlottesville, VA, 1998) contains a series of excellent essays that explore the way gender influenced the interaction of consumers, both male and female, with new and evolving technologies. Regina Lee Blaszczyk’s Imagining Consumers: Design and Innovation from Wedgewood to Corning (Baltimore, 1999) also focuses on the intersection of technological design and consumer taste, while Alison J. Clarke explores technology and consumption in Tupperware: The Promise of Plastic in 1950s America (Washington, D.C., 1999). Margarete Sandelowski’s book, Devices and Desires: Gender, Technology, and American Nursing (Chapel Hill, N.C., 2000), takes the issue of gender and technology outside the home in an insightful case study of the complex and unintended consequences of technological change, as does Arwen P. Mohun, Steam Laundries: Gender, Technology, and Work in the United States and Great Britain, 1880-1940 (Baltimore, 1999), which is valuable both in the way it advances our understanding of the relationship between technology, gender, and culture and in its national comparative approach. Roger Horowitz, ed., Boys and Their Toys? Masculinity, Class, and Technology in America (New York, 2001) reminds us that gender includes masculinity as well as femininity, while Ruth Oldenziel, Making Technology Masculine: Men, Women, and Modern Machines in America, 1870-1945 (Amsterdam, 1999) reveals the presence of women throughout the history of engineering even as engineering became the preserve of middle-class, white men.

The impact of technology on everyday life also is seen in advertising, art, literature, and the way we envision the future. Pamela W. Laird, Advertising Progress: American Business and the Rise of Consumer Marketing (1998) and Lawrence R. Samuel, Brought to You By: Postwar Television Advertising and the American Dream (Austin, 2001) are crucial to understanding advertising in America’s consumer society. Julie Wosk, Breaking Frame: Technology and the Visual Arts in Nineteenth Century America (New Brunswick, N.J., 1992), is a marvelous exploration of the impact of technology on art, and Cecilia Tichi, Shifting Gears: Technology, Literature and Culture in Modernist America (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1987) opens a door to the impact of technology in literature. Finally, the future and technology seem inextricably linked together, a topic well studied by Howard P. Segal, Technological Utopianism in American Culture (Chicago, 1985) and Joseph J. Corn, ed., Imagining Tomorrow: History, Technology, and the American Future (Cambridge, MA, 1986).

Surveys and General Histories

There are a number of general works and surveys in the history of technology. Daniel J. Boorstein, The Americans: The Democratic Experience (New York, 1973) was one of the first general histories to give real attention to technology in American history, and David McCullough’s popular works, such as The Great Bridge (New York, 1972) and Path Between The Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914 (New York, 1978), have brought the topic to thousands of readers. Thomas Parke Hughes, American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm, 1870-1970 (New York, 1989) is also a fine synthesis from one of the fields preeminent scholars.

Carroll Pursell’s The Machine in America: A Social History of Technology (Baltimore, 1995) is a stimulating textbook, and his edited volume, Technology in America: A History of Individuals and Ideas, 2d ed. (Cambridge, MA, 1990), offers a survey of technology in American history through vignettes of historical figures. Ruth Schwartz Cowan’s A Social History of American Technology (New York, 1997) is one of the most readable survey histories and puts technology fully in the context of other aspects of the American experience. Alan I. Marcus and Howard P. Segal, Technology in America: A Brief History, 2nd ed. (Ft. Worth, TX, 1999) gives thorough coverage to the subject as well.

Two periodicals also focus on the history of American technology: Technology and Culture is the official journal of the Society for the History of Technology, and American Heritage of Invention and Technology is a popular magazine featuring excellent articles. Finally, readers who want to know how the history of technology has developed as a topic of historical study over the years should consult John M. Staudenmaier’s Technology's Storytellers: Reweaving the Human Fabric (Cambridge, MA, 1985).