David Hounshell, “On the Discipline of the History of American Technology”

Writing in 1981, Hounshell identifies the discipline of the history of technology as being at a crossroads: either technological historians will broaden their inquiries into the greater sociological discourse, examining technology as a social phenomenon, or they will focus ever more narrowly on microhistories of technology, which are particularly and mostly concerned with the how of technology: the intricate inner workings of technological artifacts and systems. This latter we can deem “internalist” history. The former can take the form of either “externalist” (in which the historian focuses on technology’s symbolic importance to society, not on its innerworkings at all) or “contextualist”, in which the historian attempts to place technology in a greater societal context, while still understanding “how it works”. Hounshell argues for the latter. He considers a number of then-recent works by historians of technology insiders (for the most part those who belong to the Society for the History Of Technology—SHOT) and outsiders (historians from other sub-disciplines who have written on technological subjects). He argues that both perspectives are essential and must be synthesized for a work to be adequate. He indicates that the insiders are often guilty of ignoring the greater societal context that determines the form technology takes, while the outsiders are often guilty of lacking a clear understanding of how individual technologies actually work. Only when a historian possesses both will his or her work adequately explain how one determines the other. He holds as exemplary in this regard Merritt Roe Smith’s award-winning book, “Harpers Ferry Armory,” which “stands as a virtually definitive study of interchangeable parts manufacture in the antebellum small arms industry.” Smith focuses on the “nuts and bolts” of interchangeable parts manufacture, detailing the changes this process over time, while connecting all of these changes to intellectual (as opposed to merely mechanical) causes; that is, he explains technological change in terms of social change. Hounshell hopes that future historians of technology will follow in Smith’s stead, but also hopes that they will produce larger, broader works that focus on technological change as whole. He believe that the still-evolving field could solidify greatly if it were capable of producing such synthetic works.


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  1. […] David Hounshell, writing almost a decade earlier, was also concerned with the internalist-contextualist-externalist debate, as well as the general direction that the field was taking at the time. Tagged with: contextualist • externalist • internalist […]

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