John Staudenmaier, “Recent Trends in the History of Technology”

Staudenmaier, writing in 1990, reflects on the status of the history of technology as a field. He notes that internalists (historians focused primarily on the detailed inner workings of technology and technological systems), contextualists (those focused on how social changes determine the forms and inner workings of technology), and externalists (those focused not on the inner workings of technology, but only its symbolic place in society). Within the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT), Studenmeier notes that the contextualists are winning this battle. Regardless of where historians fall on the internalist-externalist axis, most are interested in technological change: that is, which factors drive major changes in technology. The basic model, whereby invention leads to development, which leads to innovation (manufacturing and marketing), has stood virtually unquestioned from the 1950s, but the focus is beginning to shift from looking at individual technologies in isolation to viewing them as systems or components of systems. Studenmaier cites Thomas P. Hughes’ “Networks of Power” as exemplary. Hughes’ book viewed electrical systems as fundamentally constituted not only of interconnected technological artifacts (generators, couplers, relays, lamps) but also local, regional, and national political structures, perceived (and manufactured) societal need, geographical features, etc. Other areas hotly discussed in the field include the relationship between science and technology, the role of workers in the history of technology, the effects of capitalism on technological change, the effects of business and economic theory on the history of technology, and the analysis of technologies as symbolic constructs. Studenmaier closes by noting that the field has largely neglected to study non-Western technology (and non-Western perspectives on technology transfer), as well as the connection between technology and the environment.

-ZH

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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.

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  1. [THE “LINEAR THEORY”]

    Studenmaier states: “The basic model, whereby invention leads to development, which leads to innovation (manufacturing and marketing), has stood virtually unquestioned from the 1950s, but the focus is beginning to shift….”

    S. suggests that examination of individual technologies is taking the place of the basic model. I suggests that theoretical categorization is one of the legacies of the 50’s. German science in the 19th Century showed the reverse of the “linear theory”. I.e. the search for products and applications from science led to fundamental theoretical breakthroughs – e.g. physical chemistry, catalysis, organic chemistry. However, this happens only when the smartest scientists are engaged, whereas since the 1960s applied research was relegated to second class status in American research universities, whereas promotion, tenure, and appointments were primarily gained through peer-reviewed publications.

    This note may be seen by view persons since Studenmaier’s article was written 20 years ago. However, for more background and discussion see my chapter including the evolution of U.S. science policy after WWII, Frank T. Manheim, THE CONFLICT OVER ENVIRONMENTAL REGULATION …., 321 p., Springer, 2009.

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