Historical Perspectives On Contemporary Issues

Jonson Miller — Engineering Manhood

Engineering Manhood

Closed-captioning available on Youtube.

In this podcast episode, we talk with Jonson Miller, author of Engineering Manhood: Race and the Antebellum Virginia Military Institute

In the early nineteenth century, a large proportion of the white population in western Virginia owned neither land nor slaves. As a result, they were politically disenfranchised and economically disadvantaged compared to the "planters" of eastern Virginia. Established in 1839, the Virginia Military Institute played a pivotal role in the project of raising the educational, professional, and political status of the white men of western Virginia, providing them with military training and engineering expertise as part of a larger project of making "white manhood" into something inherently virtuous. 

Professor Miller explores the larger context for the development of VMI within the Antebellum South, noting the ways in which women and black men were excluded from the school's equalizing project. He describes how VMI's commitment to a circumscribed form of egalitarianism and expansion of opportunity went hand in hand with its full-throated defense of white supremacy and slavery. We end with a discussion of how the profession of engineering has continued to exclude black men and women from its ranks, and VMI's current reckoning with race and racism. 

Jonson Miller was a 2014-2015 Research Fellow at the Consortium for History of Science, Technology and Medicine. 

To cite this content, please use footnote:

Jonson Miller, interview, Perspectives, Consortium for History of Science, Technology and Medicine, November 5, 2020, https://www.chstm.org/video/108. 


Jonson MillerJonson Miller is Teaching Professor of History at Drexel University.

Insights from the Collections

The Consortium's collections provide many opportunities to learn more about the history of engineering, military technology, and the politics of race and gender. 

Our cross-institutional search tool allows researchers to investigate materials across multiple institutions from a single interface. With more than 4.4 million catalog records of rare books and manuscripts, the Consortium’s search hub offers scholars and the public the ability to identify and locate relevant materials.

Search the Consortium search hub.

Some archival materials related to this topic include:

Frederick O. Barnum III Collection of RCA Victor Company Negatives, Hagley Museum and Library

Sperry Gyroscope Company Division Records, Hagley Museum and Library

Eugene Shalcross Ferguson Papers, Hagley Museum and Library

See also recent work from our fellows:

Jongmin Lee, Rayon: Poinsoned History of Empowerment

Joseph Malherek, From Bauhaus to Maxwell House: Continental Design and Social Science as Technologies of Consumer Engineering in Twentieth-Century America