History of Technology

The History of Technology Working Group meets monthly to discuss a colleague’s works-in-progress or to discuss readings that are of particular interest to participants.


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Upcoming Meetings

There are no currently scheduled upcoming events.

Past Meetings

  • June 18, 2024

    [No meeting scheduled. Have a great summer!]

  • May 21, 2024

    At the request of TWG members, we will continue our fall discussion of the idea of a canon in the history of technology. We had a great discussion last September, and people have wanted to follow up. So: does a canon of sorts operate in the history of technology?
    At issue, really, is the identity of the field. This includes considering how identity and canon can constrain a field, and how coherent such an identity is or needs to be. As we wrote last fall, "[a] canon can help a field develop a unique and deep identity; a canon can also constrain work and artificially limit a field's boundaries. There may well be something to be said for a certain amount of incoherence in a discipline."
    Last fall we moved toward considering canon as having two facets, affecting work that gets published and also work that is chosen for teaching, especially graduate teaching. But we by no means exhausted the discussion. Also of importance are changing valences of the central term "technology", which, as Steven Walton pointed out, increasingly refers to computing and nothing else.
    Please join us for a wide-ranging discussion. Bring along any syllabi or reading lists you are willing to describe or share, and think about the works you think important for people in the field to know.

  • April 16, 2024

    Sean Seyer (Verville Fellow, National Air and Space Museum; Associate Professor of History, University of Kansas), "Battle Lines Drawn: The Postwar Continuation of the Air Trust Narrative"
    Sean Seyer is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Kansas who specializes in American aviation history and aviation policy. He is the author of Sovereign Skies: The Origins of American Civil Aviation Policy (John Hopkins University Press, 2021) and recipient of the 2023-2024 Verville Fellowship from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. His current book project looks at how persistent charges of monopoly within the interwar aviation industry shaped US patent and procurement policy.

  • March 19, 2024

    Roger Hart (NEH Postdoctoral Fellow, Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering & Technology; Professor of History, Texas Southern University), "China, the U.S., and the Global Race for Quantum Supremacy"
    “China’s rise is the story of the century in science,” Nature Index declared in 2018. China is now competitive with the U.S. in many fields, including 5G, high-speed rail, renewable
    energy, artificial intelligence, robotics, supercomputing, nanotechnology, space, and quantum technologies. This presentation focuses on the Second Quantum Revolution, arguably the most important revolution of the twenty-first century, and in particular quantum communication, an area in which China is currently ahead. In 2017 Dr. Jianwei PAN 潘建伟 of the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC) created the first quantum-encrypted intercontinental video conference using a Chinese satellite called Micius; China currently has the most developed quantum communications network. For the Chinese context, I will analyze the imperative of secure communications, state-sponsored science, state-strengthening, and global circulations of Chinese scientists. For the U.S. context, I will focus on the relation between science and defense, especially the legacy of the Cold War: DARPA and defense funding of science; NSA surveillance (from PRISM to tapping telecommunications cables in Denmark); and free-market ideologies (venture-capital, Noisy Intermediate-Scale Quantum, and the “valley of death”). My working hypothesis is that U.S. Cold War strengths have become twenty-first century liabilities, with the result that the U.S. will likely cede the economic and technological windfall of quantum communication technologies to China. To summarize in one sentence: my overall project will trace the global circulation of science from European philosophical debates over quantum mechanics to China’s quantum internet; as part of this project, this paper outlines a preliminary explanation for how the U.S. lost its early lead in the development of the quantum internet to China.

  • February 20, 2024

    Timothy Stoneman, Georgia Tech Europe, "American Evangelical Global Imaginations by Radio, 1920-70"

  • January 16, 2024

    Javier Poveda Figueroa, Independent researcher, "The dispute between Herbert Simon and Hao Wang concerning the future of artificial intelligence during the Cold War"
    During the 1960s, political scientist Herbert Simon and philosopher Hao Wang entered into a scientific dispute concerning automatic theorem proving. While Simon defended the concept of heuristics for proving mathematical logic theorems, Wang said that Simon’s approach was insufficient because heuristics had limitations. Instead, Wang suggested using Herbrand’s theorem as an approach to prove them efficiently. Wang was correct because his approach solved all mathematical logic theorems in Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica (1910-1913), while Simon’s could just solve 38.
    Even though Wang obtained better results than Simon’s, the artificial intelligence community ignored his contribution. Why Wang’s approach to proving mathematical logic theorems was not considered by the artificial intelligence community? One of the answers may lie in the tense relations between China and the USA during the Cold War.
    Using the “entangled history” approach, I suggest that Simon and Wang’s dispute can be framed in the project of modernization of China, and the  ideological dispute between capitalism and socialism blocks during the Cold War.

  • December 19, 2023

    Daniella McCahey, Texas Tech University, "A Model for Extraterrestrial Settlement: Antarctica as an Analogue for Space"
    This paper will explore how Antarctica is conceived as an analogue for space environments. It will focus on how, since the 1960s, scientists and engineers consciously design technologies eventually intended for space travel or extra-terrestrial environments, and then test them in the Antarctic. The paper argues that through their travels to Antarctica, these material objects are transformed into ones suitable for ‘other worlds,’ despite any practical limitations. 

  • November 21, 2023

    The Society for the History of Technology (SHOT), the most prominent society in history of technology, recently held its annual meeting. Join us for a discussion of the meeting, the themes and papers, and behind the scenes insights. This is a great way to share opinions on what is happening in a fast-growing field, and to learn what went on if you were unable to attend. These Redux discussions are among our most popular .

  • October 17, 2023

    Aaron Mendon-Plasek, Yale Law School, "Creativity in an irrational world of inexhaustible meaning: early 1950s origins of machine learning as subjective decision-making, disunified science, and a remedy for what cannot be predicted."
    This paper explores why and how early 1950s machine learning researchers concerned with questions of pattern recognition came to see a range of ‘machine learning’ practices as a superior strategy for employing digital computers to perform creative non-numerical tasks and for identifying what was important in any decision-making process, including political decision-making, scientific inquiry, and self-knowledge. While ‘machine learning’ as a term-of-art and a set of practices constituted a trading zone well into the 1990s, for those working on pattern recognition the term ‘machine learning’ begun to take on a far narrower set of meanings by 1953 in which a learning program’s capacity to perform ‘creative’ work was its ability to redefine the scope of the tasks it was assigned. This paper investigates the local research problems, epistemological commitments, institutional contexts, and transnational exchange of what early 1950s researchers called ‘machine learning’ through three cases studies of early-career researchers imagining, building, and programming digital computers to ‘learn’ from 1950 to 1953. These physicists- and engineers-turned-pattern recognition researchers saw learning programs as potential interlocutors alongside humans to help identify significant differences, resolve contextual ambiguity, and explore epistemic possibility. In doing so, these and other researchers saw machine learning as rooted in a constructivist epistemology in which the possibility of machine ‘originality’ necessarily precluded machine (and even human) objectivity. While these appeals to nominalist strategies for handling poorly-understood, extraordinary complex, or even contradictory systems were often local contingent responses for expanding the uses of digital computers in the early 1950s, these responses quickly came to define what constituted both legitimate problems of knowledge in machine learning and a conception of efficacy rooted in the capacity to make meaning from contradictory information.
    This article is a much revised and expanded version of the first chapter from my 2022 history dissertation entitled Genealogies of Machine Learning, 1950-1995 . I am looking for fresh perspectives on this work, including alternative empirical and computational approaches I might use to explore the networks of scientists, engineers, and institutions that I discuss. While I wrote this piece for a history of computing audience, I am actively examining other methods and mediums to share these ideas with a larger audience of historians of technology interested in the relationships between quantification, innovation and maintenance, and infrastructure, and how such technical practices play a role in the imagining of categories like race, gender, social problems, and political possibility. I am also interested in exploring how I might communicate the historical insights my article develops about early machine learning to a general audience interested in what contemporary AI can and can’t do, and how such debates say as much about us as they do about how AI might be regulated. Finally, I am interested in learning novel strategies media scholars have used in showing how the materiality of objects has served as a contingent but crucial component to the creation of abstractions used to imagine what Ian Hacking has called “human kinds.” I also hope that sharing my work with a working group will be an opportunity for me to begin to develop relationships with members affiliated with the Consortium who might be able to alert me to others working on complementary scholarly projects examining the links between quantification, computation, and creation, stabilization, and remaking of social categories.

  • September 19, 2023

    Please note new meeting time: third Tuesdays, 1-2:30 eastern time U.S. 
    Please join us for our first meeting of the 2023-24 academic year. Two things are on the agenda: a brief discussion of the upcoming year's schedule, and then a more substantial reflection on the idea of a canon in the history of technology. 
    We are posing two broad questions 1) whether there is a canon in history of technology, i.e., works with which we assume everyone is familiar -- perhaps Staudenmaier, Hughes's Networks of Power, etc. -- and how this has influenced work in the field; and 2) what works do people think that everyone should be familiar with now. A canon can help a field develop a unique and deep identity; a canon can also constrain work and artificially limit a field's boundaries. There may well be something to be said for a certain amount of incoherence in a discipline. 
    Here are some more specific questions we hope to take up: Are there certain books or articles that should be regarded as essential reading in the field? What characteristics, if any, do these works have in common? Do they make important theoretical or methodological contributions to the field? Do they feature people, places, or technologies that have previously been overlooked by other historians? Are they particularly well-written or widely cited? Are they prominently featured in undergraduate or graduate syllabi? We invite participants to share their answers to these questions and provide examples of “canonical” case studies from their respective subfields.

Group Conveners

  • jalexander's picture

    Jennifer Alexander

    Jennifer Alexander is an Associate Professor of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine at the University of Minnesota, with specialization in technology and religion; industrial culture; and engineering, ethics, and society.  Her publications include The Mantra of Efficiency: From Waterwheel to Social Control (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008). Her current project is a book manuscript analyzing the international religious critique of technology that developed following WWII.  She asks how religious and theological interpretations of technology have changed over time; how, over time, technologies and engineering have extended their reach into the human world over time through a developing technological orthodoxy; and how these changes have affected each other.


  • grossbLHL's picture

    Benjamin Gross

    Benjamin Gross is Vice President for Research and Scholarship at the Linda Hall Library in Kansas City, Missouri. He is responsible for managing the Library’s scholarly outreach initiatives, including its fellowship program. Before relocating to the Midwest in 2016, he was a research fellow at the Science History Institute and consulting curator of the Sarnoff Collection at the College of New Jersey. His book, The TVs of Tomorrow: How RCA’s Flat-Screen Dreams Led to the First LCDs, was published in 2018 by the University of Chicago Press.



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