History of Technology
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October 18, 2022
James Esposito, Ohio State University
"Canaries, Camouflets, and Carbon Monoxide: 'Proto Man' and Oxygen Breathing Apparatus in Britain’s Tunneling War 1915-1918"
An age-old technique of siege warfare, undermining saw wide use on the Western Front during World War I. Playing out as an intense “cat and mouse” game of detection, British and German tunnelers attempted to surreptitiously bomb each other in perfectly timed underground blasts known as camouflets. The omnipresent threat of being buried alive and poisoned by carbon monoxide redefined survival beneath the trenches, calling upon the services of the “Proto Man.” Donning oxygen artificial breathing apparatus and carrying a canary, the “Proto Man” was essential to survival in this extreme environment, a savior to many trapped underground. Britain’s success in the tunneling war came in large part due to the highly militarized mine rescuer “Proto Man” represented. British physiologist JS Haldane and mining expert Henry Briggs sought to improve the performance of these indispensable personnel, seeking to enhance both the technical qualities of the Proto breathing apparatus and the respiratory performance of individuals doing the heavy work of war. Although rescuers owed their lives to the canary, the birds died in droves. These fragile animals formed an invaluable facet of the “Proto Man” assemblage and were deemed incapable of replacement by any inanimate methods of gas detection. This article argues attempts at augmenting “Proto Man” were specifically focused on the fields of equipment engineering and laboratory study of respiratory performance, the only aspects of this posthuman assemblage deemed capable of improvement. What resulted was a strange hybrid of human, machine, and avian life exhibiting the limits of Edwardian science and the deep reliance of humans on animal sensing.
September 20, 2022
Andrew Meade McGee, National Air and Space Museum, “The Electronic Origins of the Neoliberal Order: Computers, Digital Technologies, and the Re-Shaping of State-Market Relations, 1968-1988."
POSTPONED - TBA
May 17, 2022
Thomas Zeller, University of Maryland, College Park
"Consuming Landscapes: What We See When We Drive and Why It Matters"
April 19, 2022
Evan Hepler-Smith, Duke University
"Chemical ciphers: war and peace"
ABSTRACT: This chapter, drawn from my book manuscript of the above title, examines information technologies as infrastructure for chemical research in Germany, the US, and the UK during and after World War 2. Chemistry's print-based information infrastructure (handbooks, abstract journals, indexes, nomenclature schemes) enabled war-oriented chemical research projects of novel scale and scope. These projects, wartime pressures, and (in Germany) Nazi persecutions stressed that vital infrastructure to the breaking point. This ws a problem for academic and industrial chemists who saw German, American, and British reference works as a vital basis for their research. While postwar IT entrepreneurs eager to sell machine methods took a keen interest, this was not about replacing print with electronic information systems. Rather, "literature chemists" (a nascent interdisciplinary profession) put machines to work supporting the restoration and rationalization of print compilation, further entrenching print-based conventions for identifying and classifying chemical substances in terms of molecular structure. Building on Bill Rankin's insights regarding the Cold War development-economics context for the emergence of "infrastructure" as a category of economic analysis, this chapter scrutinizes decisions to expend considerable resources in rescuing some of chemistry's canonical printed information resources (and not others). This chapter traces this story through the wartime crash searches for antimalarials, herbicides, insecticies, and nerve gases, and the postwar consolidation of these projects through the articulation of a category of "biologically-active chemical substances." I would also be interested in feedback on the way I am approaching information history in this project as a whole.
March 15, 2022
Liat Spiro, College of the Holy Cross
"Patentability and Experience: Work, Class, and Risk in the Political Economy of Intellectual Property in Imperial Germany"
February 15, 2022
Claire Mayo, University of Tennessee
"Nineteenth Century Envirotechnical Regimes and the Great Flood of 1910: How Competing Ideas of Water Management Structured the Disaster"
January 18, 2022
Luis Felipe Eguiarte Souza, University of Minnesota
"Julian Huxley: 'If I were a dictator', Technocracy in his popular writing and science fiction"
December 21, 2021
Joint meeting with the Engineering Studies Working Group
Ryan Hearty, Johns Hopkins University
"Monitoring Water Quality in US Rivers in the 1950 and 1960s: information, communication, and applied sciences"
Kristoffer Whitney, Rochester Institute of Technology, Commentor
November 16, 2021
Madeline Williams, Harvard University
"Technological Ableism and Typewriters in United States History, 1843-1892"
October 19, 2021
Sam Schirvar, University of Pennsylvania
"The Politics of Stress: Human Factors Engineering, Occupational Health, and Air Traffic Control, 1968-1981"
Many conditions in the 1970s United States seemed to indicate that it was an opportune time to address stress as a workplace hazard. Both the federal government and the public demanded research on workplace stress. The decade saw the closest alliances between technical experts and workers in US history as striking coal miners finally won protection from black lung disease and newly created federal agencies went on to regulate numerous workplace hazards. Why then were workers in the United States unable to win significant protections against workplace stress? To answer this question, this paper explores encounters between stress researchers and workers, focusing on human factors specialists and air traffic controllers. Human factors specialists promised to manage worker stress to reduce the risk of disastrous failures in systems like nuclear power plants and airports. They made air traffic controllers, widely seen as the most stressful occupation, their exemplar subjects. At the same time, air traffic controllers placed occupational stress at the center of their grievances leading up to and during the 1981 Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike. Both efforts failed. This paper uses the professional literature of occupational health and human factors, government reports, and the PATCO archives to show how the epistemic and political struggles of stress researchers and workers were intertwined. I argue that the power to define stress remained with the workers, and making stress an occupational hazard relied on them winning political struggles in the workplace.
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.
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.