Thomas Hughes, “American genesis : a century of invention and technological enthusiasm, 1870-1970”

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“American Genesis” seeks to provide a unified account of both worldwide technological innovation from 1870 to 1970, and the rise of the United States as economic, military, and cultural superpower during the same time. His is not, then, a history of technology in the sense of a chronological account of the origins of significant or influential technologies; his project is both less complete and more ambitious: his narrative places technology at the center of a century of American history, thus arguing for not only the intelligibility of American history in terms of technological development, but the importance, even centrality, of this historiographic approach. This is a tall order, and Hughes tackles it very strategically. The first thing we must notice is the thematic approach to his narrative. Rather than starting in 1870 and ending in 1970, Hughes’ chapters delineate a series of technological and historical themes. The success or failure of his narrative depends upon how well he ties these two thematic categories together: as long as technological invention maps on to historical change, he will presumably have demonstrated the necessary connection between the two. For instance, his enthusiastic first two chapters (“A Gigantic Tidal Wave of Human Ingenuity” and “Choosing and Solving Problems”) attempt to describe and generalize the nature of the American “independent inventor” as well as account for the rapid changes in American life during the final third of the nineteenth century. The former is a non-academic, non-scientist, nonconformist driven to problem-solving, solitude, experimentation, and model building. The latter is the result of complex new technological systems that help to shape society, such as the telephone and the electric grid. Hughes’ argument is that the independent inventors of the era were fundamentally concerned with building systems, and that this resulted from their methodology. Thus “the greatest invention of the nineteenth century [was] a method of invention.” (28) This method generated not merely technological artifacts, but large systems of interconnected machines, distribution platforms, bodies of knowledge, techniques, training programs, careers, etc. In Hughes’ narrative, the system is key, not only to understanding technology itself, but the process of invention, and—crucially—the link between technological invention and social change. It is the conceptional linchpin of his narrative.

Hughes’ approach necessary leaves out and skips over a great many developments, both technological and cultural. This is to be expected, as he is for the most part only working with technologies that can be explained as constitutive of or subsumed by systems. Hence he greatly emphasizes such fundamental systems as the electric power grid (the subject of his earlier work, “Networks of Power”), naval fire and control, aeronautical stabilization and weaponisation, automobile manufacture and infrastructure (which significantly includes gasoline technologies like catalytic cracking and lead additives), large government projects such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Manhattan Engineer District, and such meta-technological systems as Fordism (mass production) and Taylorism (scientific management). Finally, Hughes includes rather detailed accounts of the adoption of US technology by European and Soviet states, as well as (mostly European) artistic and architectural responses to American technology. While Hughes explicitly distances himself from hard technological determinism and progressivism (his final chapter is entirely devoted to the rise of a counterculture that is suspicious of the cultural price of technological systems ubiquity), there is nonetheless a certain inevitability embedded in his account: The methodology of invention pioneered by independent inventors in the late nineteenth century gives way to commercial laboratories staffed with industrial scientists during and after the First World War, leading to the development and seemingly endless expansion of the systems their predecessors had built. This methodology, and its resultant technology, spread to Europe and the nascent Soviet Union, where it was implemented with less success (particularly in latter case) precisely because the underlying systemic networks of expertise and infrastructure were lacking. The connection between private industry and government-run projects was greatly strengthened in the interwar period (as typified by the Tennessee Valley Authority) and during the Second World War (the Manhattan Engineering District), leading to the military-industrial-university complex of the post-war period, with its nuclear power network. However, as “technological enthusiasm” waned and high-profile system failures (the Challenger disaster, Three Mile Island) caught the public’s attention, a growing counterculture arose, leading to an emphasis upon simpler, decentralized, “appropriate” technological systems. Much of the force of Hughes’ narrative is the result of its coherence and internal momentum: evolving methodologies of invention lead to evolving technological systems, which in turn make sense of over a century of American life.

-ZH

3 Comments

  1. […] by Hounshell would be produced by one of the insiders, Thomas P. Hughes, in the form of “American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm, 1870-1970.” Tagged with: contextualist • externalist • internalist • technological […]

  2. […] of Power”. However, he is less pleased with Hughes’ no less seminal synthetic history, “American Genesis”, which Edgerton reads as innovation-centric and naively progressivist. Tagged with: […]

  3. […] of Power”. However, he is less pleased with Hughes’ no less seminal synthetic history, “American Genesis”, which Edgerton reads as innovation-centric and naively progressivist. Tagged with: bias • […]

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