history of technology

Robert C. Post, Who Own’s America’s Past? The Smithsonian and the Problem of History.  Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.

Bob Post’s new book is a hybrid account—it covers both the history of cultural history at the Smithsonian and Post’s own career as a curator.  He traces the usual story of how Joseph Henry didn’t want to start a museum and so on, but the book really shines in its telling of the genesis of the Museum of History and Technology and its transformation into the National Museum of American History (and the National Air and Space Museum.)   I loved the deep dives into exhibit practice and the stories of particular exhibits and their context within the changing currents of the historical profession and those of SI’s internal politics. (Speaking of internal politics, one affective response I had to the book was an appreciation of how difficult—impossible!—it is to work under the political pressures of a national museum.)  Post devotes an entire chapter to the Enola Gay incident, but he also gives time to a host of other exhibits in all areas of the museum over the past 50 years—Field to Factory and America on the Move, certainly, but also smaller exhibits on banking, printing, and clockwork, with an emphasis on the consequences of the shift from collections-based to experience-based exhibits and on the outsized role of donors.  He also traces the way our fledgling discipline of the history of technology was nurtured by and in turn helped shape a new national museum that put technology in the spotlight (also see this T & C article).

Read the footnotes—that’s where Post puts his most trenchant observations of SI personalities and his notes on such important topics as diversity in curatorial hiring.  This book is for the general reader, but those embedded in history museum practice will appreciate the insider perspective and the opportunity to hear about our distinguished colleagues when they were brash young curators.

As perhaps you’ve noticed, I am now a contributor to The Atlantic Technology channel.  I’ve recently written about typewriter nostalgia, shorthand, and Ivan Illich’s Tools for Conviviality.  Do subscribe to the channel; there’s a continuous stream of historically inflected work there, as well as historiography of technology disguised as current tech news analysis.

Last week was the 54th annual SHOT  conference, which was co-located in Cleveland with the History of Science Society and the Society for the Social Studies of Science. I had a lovely time, and wrote up reports on three excellent papers for the Atlantic.

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, which “aims to raise the profile of women in science, technology, engineering and math by encouraging people around the world to talk about the women whose work they admire.”

Prolific inventor Beulah Louise Henry (1887-1973), a self-taught synesthete engineer from North Carolina, received 49 patents but is credited with over 100 inventions.  Her inventions were at first improvements on household technologies–her first patent was for a vacuum-sealed ice cream freezer, in 1912–but she soon became an entrepreneur and consultant.

By the mid-1920s she was living in New York and running a company to manufacture umbrellas and parasols of her own design, including an umbrella with swappable snap-on covers.  She invented business machine improvements for typewriters (aligning feeds for automatic typewriters, for instance) and cash registers, consulting for companies such as Mergenthaler Linotype.  Henry was also involved in sewing machine innovations.  She also consulted and made unique products for doll and toy companies.

Henry was a savvy inventor and businesswoman; the press dubbed her “Lady Edison.” Like Edison, she surrounded herself with a handpicked team to do research and development on her products, and help translate her designs into manufactured products.  It seems like she had an unusually excellent sense of spatial reasoning and became skilled in directing how her products should be machined.  She is one of only a few women in the early 20th C to become a professional inventor who was both recognized for her work and was able to profit from it.

Autumn Stanley quotes Henry as saying that all one needs for inventing “is time, space and freedom.” (Mothers and Daughters of Invention, 422.)  Here’s wishing those to the women inventors of the future.


I posted last year on Nora Stanton Blatch, and in 2009 about women telegraphers.

Remember this conference?

This great event about the Public History of Science and Technology will be happening September 11-14 at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, SC.  The program is up and registration will soon follow. I’ll be talking about cabinets of curiosity and contemporary museum practice on the 13th, and the program is filled with great colleagues.  Hope to see you there.

Call for Papers:

The Public History of Science and Technology

University of South Carolina

Columbia, SC

September 11-14, 2011

What role does history play in the general public’s understanding of science and technology? History is often the tool for hooking audiences and making science relevant to daily life.  From anecdotal introductions to sidebars in science textbooks, history plays an important, but often unexamined role, in explaining science to broad audiences.  Most people first encounter the history of science and technology in their K-12 science classes – their only formal science training – even if it is incidental and unrecognized.  They continue to encounter the history of science and technology through a variety of informal venues: museums, libraries, television documentaries, and popular science writing.

The University of South Carolina will host a conference September 11-14 to address the interaction of history, science, and the public.  This conference seeks to examine: What role does the history of science play in the public’s understanding of science and technology? What is the role of museums, libraries, television documentaries, and popular writing in educating audiences about science?  How can historians of science and technology best interact with science policy makers? What can university history departments and public history programs do to teach future science popularizers and educators?

The conference will open on Sunday afternoon with a reception and exhibit opening at McKissick Museum.   The conference will continue on Monday and Tuesday with traditional paper panels and roundtable discussions.  On Wednesday, there will be two half-day workshops.  The first, led by Ann Johnson, will focus on histories of emerging technologies, particularly in policy contexts.  The second, led by Allison Marsh, will focus on museums, material culture, and training public historians.

Potential themes to address include:

·History of Science and public policy

·History of scientific education and scientific literacy

·Library collections and the history of science

·Technologies of conservation of museum artifacts

·Opportunities for digital technologies in public history

·Journalism and writing in the history of science for the “general,” non-academic audience

·The role of federal government agencies in supporting the history of science

·The value of internships in training scholars to use material culture in their research

·How does the history of medicine affect current decisions about care?

·The place of history in discussions about emerging technologies in the context of both policy and public understanding

Keynote speakers include:

  Robert Bud, The Science Museum, London
  Sharon Babaian, Canada Science and Technology Museum
  Peter Liebhold, National Museum of American History
  Zuoyue Wang, California State University, Pomona

Deadline for Proposals: April 15, 2011

Accepted presenters will be notified by May 10, 2011

Conference organizers will accept both individual paper proposals and panel proposals. Alternative formats, such as roundtable discussions or object-based interactive discussions, are encouraged. Proposals should be no more than one page long and should be accompanied by a one page CV.  Email proposals as a single pdf document to Allison Marsh, marsha@mailbox.sc.edu. Please list “PHoST Proposal” in the subject line.

Limited travel support is available for graduate students, junior, and independent scholars. If seeking travel funds, please include in your proposal a budget and justification for your transportation costs.  Students must include a brief letter of support from their advisors confirming their status as graduate students and indicating how the conference will enhance their studies.

Conference papers will be considered for possible publication as an edited volume.

Conference Organizers: Ann Johnson (annj@sc.edu) and Allison Marsh

We would also like to draw your attention to the Atlanta Conference on Science and Innovation Policy, September 15-17, 2011 at Georgia Tech’s Global Learning Center. Atlanta is only a 3-4 hour drive or short flight from Columbia.  For more information about the Atlanta conference, see their website at http://www.atlantaconference.org.

At the inventive, playful and democratic new history galleries at the Oakland Museum, which I had the pleasure to visit last month, there is a section about objects.  What does it mean for an object to be in a museum?  What sounds do different objects make?  How do you tell objects apart?  Visitors can also explore what it means to BE a museum object–there’s a photo opp where visitors can stand in a case with oversized tags reading things like “most beautiful thing in the museum” or “ancient artifact.”  I want to talk about that “ancient artifact” tag.  It’s a common joke, but it gets to a history museum phenomenon I’m struggling to understand.

Contemporary collecting of everyday objects for a history institution is an interesting beast.  Often we use recent objects to provide an emotional hook for visitors into the stories and contexts of unfamiliar objects of the past (a 1990s cellphone for an exhibit of telephones from the 1880s on, for instance).  But it’s more complicated.  People of a certain age, usually under 50, when seeing a childhood toy or object they used in their lifetime, are totally derailed from any interpretive context or social interaction and say this:  “Oh no, I’m so old!  My stuff is in a museum!”

Despite any assurances that this means not that the visitor is “old,” but that their stories are important, it’s very difficult for visitors to get over this experience of seeing their recent past as “history.”  This phenomenon might be less pronounced in a local or community history museum; letting aside the reverence value an object gains simply from becoming part of a museum collection, I suspect that the severity is greater at my current museum, where iconic, sainted objects of national importance share the floor with the Speak n Spell.*

Certainly there’s nothing wrong with reminding visitors of their mortality, or of making room for and supporting visitors’ varied emotional reactions to museum artifacts and experiences, but I’m worried that this “I’m old” reaction is harmful to visitors and museums.  In a relentlessly neophilic age, history museums contextualize novelties and remind visitors of historical continuities almost erased by the American culture’s collective short attention span.  If visitors leave with the idea that their lives are museum pieces, rather than that museums reflect their lives, are we doing them a disservice?  If they leave feeling that their stories are outdated and over, rather than important and historically valuable, are we doing good public history?

Has anyone done research on this phenomenon?  I welcome any references or leads!

*Which always features in my tours.

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