history of technology

I had a lovely time in Pittsburgh last weekend with a crowd of historians of technology.  Here, the highlights of the conference from a Suzanne perspective.  140 character highlights can be found by searching the #shot09 hashtag (which was mostly me).   (more…)

I’ve been having a busy fall; you can see some of the results on the museum’s blog and some will be announced later.  I’ll be making the rounds of some fall conferences, so here’s the details:

10/15 (this Thursday):  I’ll be poking my head in at the Michigan Museums Association conference in Ann Arbor before heading on the road to Pittsburgh

10/15 to 10/17 In Pittsburgh for the Society for the History of Technology conference .  My session is bright and early on Friday morning.


8.30-10 AM

3.   Web 2.0 and the History of Technology

Chair: Sheldon Hochheiser (IEEE History Center)

Commentator: Thomas J. Misa (Charles Babbage Institute)

Organizers: Michael N. Geselowitz (IEEE History Center) and Thomas J. Misa (Charles Babbage Institute)

Stephanie H. Crowe (Charles Babbage Institute): Experimenting with Web 2.0 at the Charles Babbage Institute

Suzanne Fischer (The Henry Ford): The History Museum as Communication Platform

Michael N. Geselowitz (IEEE History Center): The IEEE Global History Network

10/21 I’ll be attending TEDx Detroit, along with my THF colleague Eric Reasons.

11/5 to 11/7 In St Louis for the Association of Moving Image Archivists conference.  Yes, I’m clearly not a moving image archivist, but I’m excited to have been asked to speak on an awesome panel about open media and to bring lessons from public history to moving image archives colleagues.

Saturday, November 7

10:45 AM – 11:45 AM
The Problem of Open Media

Jack Brighton – Illinois Public Media

Peter Kaufman – Intelligent Television, Inc.
Rick Prelinger – Prelinger Library & Archives
Suzanne M. Fischer- The Henry Ford
Karl Fogel – QuestionCopyright.org

The term ‘Open Media’ has gained currency with the explosion of online archives. Some media collections are open for people to download, share, mashup, and reuse. Others seek to prevent their works from being copied. To the extent that there is an “open media community,” it envisions a large and active public media commons, providing global access to historical, cultural, and other materials relevant, and in many cases vital, to the public interest. Meanwhile, copyright and intellectual property laws add layers of confusion and conflicting interests, while new technologies make controlling and monetizing media problematic for all concerned. How might we solve the problem of open media? This session will address some of the obstacles and opportunities, and suggest new business models that allow content to breathe freely while still paying the rent. We’ll also discuss the role of the archivist as key to an open media future.

Today is Ada Lovelace Day,  “an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology.”  Thousands of folks all over the webs are celebrating women technologists.  Ada Lovelace, of course, was the world’s first programmer, working with Babbage and his analytical engine.  (Here’s Kate Beaton’s version of the story.)  

To observe Ada Lovelace Day, I’m going to talk a bit about women in telegraphy.   Women were involved in the 19th century’s most important communication technology at almost every level, but were most widespread as operators.  Thomas Jepsen, who wrote the best (okay, only, so far) book on women in telegraphy, My Sisters Telegraphic:  Women in the Telegraph Office 1846-1950, which I highly recommend, also maintains a great resource page for telegraph history.  Jepsen has lots of links to autobiographies and oral histories of women telegraphers, particularly out West (their stories are maybe not exactly as shown in The Hazards of Helen.)

Clara M. Brinkerhoff of New York was a telegraph inventor.  This former music teacher teamed up with telegraph operator George Cummings in the 1880s to improve the design of periphery contact points for telegraph keys; they were jointly awarded a patent for it in 1882, and their design won a number of awards.  They also formed a business together, Cumming and Brinkerhoff, located at 219 E. 18th St in New York, which sold their “Cumming Periphery Contact Disk Electrodes” and other telegraph equipment, and published catalogues of telegraphic and electrical equipment suppliers.  A letter is also still extant in the Edison Papers in which Cumming and Brinkerhoff thank Edison for his help in getting their products exhibited in Paris and send word of their various awards, including one from the Franklin Institute, to his attention.  (Clara appears to share the name of a famous soprano and composer of the time.)  As you can see, information about this woman telegraph inventor is rather scarce.  If you know anything more about her, please share it.

Are you excited for Superstruct? The massively multiplayer online game about building the future will be up in a few weeks (Oct 6) though the story is up now. The game, to be played in familiar internet spaces, is, according to organizer Institute for the Future, based on scenarios of the near future in 2019: “By playing the game, you’ll help us chronicle the world of 2019–and imagine how we might solve the problems we’ll face. Because this is about more than just envisioning the future. It’s about making the future, inventing new ways to organize the human race and augment our collective human potential.” This is a super imaginative and fun way to think about the history and future of technology and human societies. Here’s a nice article about it.

The AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums is urging museum professionals to play Superstruct. They even provide some dire museum-based stories to think about:

It’s 2019. Your museum is informed that an international group currently touring your building was exposed to the latest deadly strain of Respiratory Distress Syndrome. You are instructed to lock down the museum and shelter staff and visitors in place while authorities determine whether anyone is infected. Are you prepared to deal with this?

Other snapshots from 2019: Is your museum ready to help your community cope with an influx of refugees fleeing climate change, food shortages and political upheaval? How will your operations change in the face of soaring energy prices or collapse of the food production and distribution system? Your museum depends on its website to deliver information and attract visitors, but your content has been corrupted repeatedly in the past few months by hackers attempting to undermine your credibility. How do you adapt?

According to the CFM, “AAM will work with IFTF to summarize and report on your solutions, and use them as the basis of further planning and discussion with you and with the field.” At hanging together, Gunter imagines another dire museum scenario.

Keep this on your radar, folks! I’ll try to report on (and create) museum and history stories on Superstruct as the game progresses.

The Charles Babbage Institute at the U of M has a great exhibit up now, Gendered Bits: Identities, Artifacts and Practices in Computing, put up in conjunction with their recent conference on gender, history and computing.  (See some pictures) The exhibit is superawesome and will be up till July 23rd at Andersen Hall on the West Bank of the U in Minneapolis.  Run, don’t walk! You only have a few days left to check it out!

Also in news from CBI, they’ve posted full scans of the full run of the early internet journal Connexions: The interoperability report. They are definitely worth a visit to see internet pioneers debating IP, learning about internetworking around the world, and groaning at poems by Vint Cerf about ARPANET. (I personally scanned the whole thing last summer, so please drop over and read some of this great stuff.)   And on the CBI blog, Steph has been writing a series about a day in the life of an archivist.  There are many reasons to use and support this vital resource for the history of computing.

Museums, conferences, St Paul, séances, battles of the French and Indian War?  You had to be there.

John Scalzi tours the Creation Museum.

See the WorldCat servers in person!

Missed MCN? (I did!)  Here’s tons of notes and slides from a session run by Nik Honeysett on Museum Directors and IT Professionals.”

Missed TCART?  (I did!).  Stephanie gives a report.

Manchester is to London as Minneapolis is to St Paul?  Find out at TC Sidewalks. 

Ben Franklin’s ghost pays spooky visits to spiritualists at Old is the New New.

St Clair’s defeat on the Wabash, 1791.

I’ve found just a few other reports of SHOT, one from Ecorover, who went on the Harper’s Ferry tour with Roe Smith (awesome), and one from Dictatorship of the Air, a Soviet historian whose paper was misconstrued by the audience.  I’m puzzled that I can’t find any other posts on the meeting–are there so few history of technology bloggers?  Did none of them go to SHOT this year?  Did they tag their posts ‘puppies’  so that I couldn’t find them?

Anyway, now that I have another SHOT post I can tell you another story.  I shared a cab to the airport with a random guy who, when he found out I was a historian of medicine, asked me what was the grossest thing I’ve learned about, and I gave a whole disquisition about the history and earlier ubiquity of intestinal worms.  I had no idea I knew that much about worms, but it seemed to be sufficiently gross.  I’m adding this one to my stable of cocktail party speeches about syphilis and teratology.

A new blog on the history of computing and IT:  my pal Stephanie at the Charles Babbage Institute at the University of Minnesota Libraries has started a blog for the CBI, featuring news about their collections and activities.  I’ve been working for the CBI on a project, and can attest to the fact that they have terrific collections and are all very friendly to boot.

Blogging about blogging:

William Turkel had an interesting post on originality in the blogosphere.  He suggests that the value bloggers place on ‘substantive’ posts over links posts is misleading, and that, with so much material out there, other folks’ links can be an important clue to what’s interesting/useful, and this unprecedented access to other peoples’ work can be extremely productive. “Sure the collective is doomed to repeat things, but how else could it memorize them?”

Jessamyn talks about the distributed nature of conversation on the blogosphere and the importance of becoming part of those conversations through commenting and whatever else.

I think an easy mistake for first-time bloggers to make is to assume that their blog is going to become some conversational destination without realizing that they need to go out and converse as well as bring people in to do it. The conversation that we all talk about cluing in to doesn’t happen in any one place, it happens in a lot of places all at once.

I’ve recently been commenting only on kidlit blogs, so as someone who runs a history blog, this is a good reminder to participate more in history/museum conversations.

PH metablogging:

I’m just about done with my long-awaited State of the Public History Blogosphere post, so look for that relatively soon.

Also, PH has been around for one year, as of September.  Happy birthday to me!

I made it back to the Cities in one piece after a pleasant (though rainy) weekend in DC.  Some highlights of the meeting/trip:

  • My friend’s apartment was around the corner from the place Fighting Bob LaFollette lived when he was a senator, in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood.
  • The TEMSIG (technology museum group) lunch meeting was a great opportunity to meet new folks and talk public history.  We’ll be launching a blog or listserv or some other communication network soon, so folks interested in the material culture of technology should watch this space for updates.
  • Smithsonian report:  I went to the Freer to see lovely art from the early Islamic world, and tried to go to the National Archives exhibits, but was thwarted by the huge line of tourists snaking around the corner.  I tragically did not have enough time to go to the National Museum of the American Indian, and, also tragically, the American History museum is closed this year.
  • I heard some excellent papers, including one from Kara Swanson on breast milk banks.
  • I went up to Walter Reed to visit the National Museum of Health and Medicine, which was instructive and about which I’ll have a lot to say here presently.
  • At the NMHM I saw the amputated leg of the Civil War general Daniel Sickles, which he visited at the museum yearly on the anniversary of his amputation.  This reminded me of the recent story on the interwebs about the woman visiting her own heart at the Wellcome; I believe I can find a number of other examples for an interesting research project.
  • With my friend who was in town for the papermakers’ conference, I met the terrific artist/physician Eric Avery, who was in town for yet another conference (bioethics, IIRC).  He’s a printmaker and also does really challenging art/medicine interventions, such as setting up an HIV clinic in the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard.
  • My own paper went well, and though one presenter had to drop out of my session, there were surprising resonances between my paper and that of Anne Schoenfeld of Pratt, who spoke about Make magazine, especially around movements to and from expertise and the gendering of public images of technologies; these connections were well commented on by Jennifer Alexander.  I was able to use my visit to the NMHM in my talk; they had a vial of Neosalvarsan, a syringe, and some needles on display in an arsenic exhibit, neatly proving my point about the needle symbolizing scientific medicine.  Thanks to all for the perceptive comments, and to Mary and Rhea for coming as well.

I’ll be at SHOT this weekend (the annual conference of the Society for the History of Technology) in DC.  I’ve never been to SHOT except when the meeting was co-located with HSS, so I’m excited to go to a new meeting and meet new folks.  A friend is in town for a different conference, and I’m staying with another friend, so I may be a bit scarce.  I will definitely be at the following, though:  TEMSIG meeting Friday noon, grad student breakfast at 7:30 on Saturday (who scheduled that?), and my paper at 9 am on Sunday.  I’ll also be visible around the conference as the short person wearing red.  I’d be delighted to meet friends from the history blogosphere.

About my paper:  It’s in session 53, and is called “Seeing and Selling the Syringe”–it’s about IV injection becoming the visual symbol of scientific medicine in progressive era America.  It is also a special sneak preview of 606 Will Save You!, otherwise known as Chapter 4 of my dissertation.

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