history of technology

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, an internet-wide recognition and celebration of women in technology. (Here’s my post about women telegraphers from last year.)  

One common narrative early women in technical professions had constructed for themselves was that of downplaying the challenges (or any role at all) of gender in their careers. Nora Stanton Blatch, a fiery women’s rights activist and civil engineer, broke this mold in the early 20th century. She was a rare technical woman working to connect her profession and her suffrage activism. Trained at Cornell as part of the first classes of women accepted to its Sibley School of Engineering, she once said that she had chosen civil engineering as her major because it was the most male-dominated field she could find. Her feminism was no accident: the granddaughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and daughter of Harriet Stanton Blatch, she was raised in a milieu of struggle. Ruth Oldenziel suggests that her “rich feminist heritage enabled her to envision a narrative device in which to frame her life story.”

For a short period of time, Nora was married to the electronics engineer and radio and TV inventor Lee de Forest. As an engineering partnership, they pioneered radio broadcasting and, as a first transmission of their wireless phone in 1909, Harriet Blatch gave a speech declaring “Travel by stagecoach is out of date. Kings are out of date: communication by canalboat is out of date; an aristocracy is out of date, none more so than a male aristocracy.” But after their first child was born, Lee began to rail publicly against Nora’s insistence on continuing to work as an engineer at New York City public works departments and as a suffrage activist. They divorced soon after: Nora was now an engineer and a single mother, continuing to value both her work and family.

Nora’s feminist activism in engineering included professional societies. She was accepted into the American Society of Civil Engineers as a “junior member” in the early stages of her career, but once she turned 32, their age limit, she was booted out, despite her experience at bridge and hydraulic firms and in government, including supervising draftsmen. The ASCE was trying to stake out the rapidly professionalizing field of engineering as a high-status, high-class profession, and one way they did that was by strictly limiting membership, excluding surveyors, for instance, and certainly excluding women. Nora sued the ASCE for membership in 1916, but lost her suit; no women joined the society until 1927.  Nora died in 1971 after a long life of activism.

Further reading:

Ruth Oldenziel, Making Technology Masculine

Margaret Rossiter, Women Scientists in America


A few interesting (though short-term) jobs in the public history of science, technology and medicine:

Project Leader, Plastics Collection, Syracuse University

Syracuse University Library invites applications for the position of Plastics Collection Project Leader. This 18 month, benefits eligible position reports to the Director of Special Collections. The successful candidate will lead an ambitious effort to build the plastics history collection, which includes artifacts, printed materials, and archives, and oversee the ongoing development of the web portal plastics.syr.edu.

In 2008, Syracuse University Library took custody of a collection of thousands of artifacts, books, and archival collections documenting the history of the plastics industry. Most of these materials are housed in the library’s Special Collections Research Center (scrc.syr.edu) where interested patrons may consult them. This bold new collecting area requires a well-rounded and entrepreneurial leader to administer its continued growth.

Requirements (listed in order of priority):
Define collecting goals for library’s plastics collection.
Oversee the continued development of the web portal plastics.syr.edu.
Build relationships with industry leaders in order to attract donation of collection materials and cash gifts.
Suffuse plastics collection into Syracuse’s many academic teaching programs.
Convene plastics advisory board made up of interested plastics industry and academic parties.
Answer reference questions about the collection and arrange for patron use.

Master’s degree in the history of science, design, technology, or business (PhD preferred) OR master’s degree in library and information science or museum studies.
Work experience in academic libraries, archives, or museum.
General knowledge about the role of plastics in history and society.
Ability to work with individuals from diverse backgrounds, including academia, industry, and business.
Proven record of leadership in programming and outreach.

Salary and Benefits: 18-month, benefits-eligible position, full-time, 37.5 hours per week. Annual Salary: $50,000. Information regarding the University’s generous benefits package can be found on the Department of Human Resources website at http://humanresources.syr.edu/benefits/.

Contact: Syracuse University requires that you complete an online application. To complete an online application through the Internet, please go to http://www.sujobopps.com. Applicants should attach both a cover letter and resume with the application and include the names of three professional references.

Application deadline: Position will remain open until filled. Syracuse University is an Equal Opportunity Employer.

Curator, Koch Institute Public Gallery, MIT Museum

The MIT Museum and the MIT Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research seek to appoint a Curator, for a period of 15 months in the first instance, starting on or about January 15, 2010. The Curator of the Koch Institute Public Gallery will have direct responsibility for developing and delivering the first exhibitions that will be installed in the Koch Institute Public Gallery to coincide with the formal opening of the Koch Institute in 2011.

The new Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research will formally open in March 2011. The Institute will bring together cancer biologists and biological engineers in a pioneering “third revolution” initiative devoted to path-breaking research and training. A Public Gallery on the ground floor of the Koch Institute, in Kendall Square, Cambridge, will provide a suite of exhibitions about cancer-related and other bio-medical science and engineering at MIT. The Koch Institute is collaborating with the MIT Museum in the development, maintenance and renewal of these exhibitions as part of a larger Life Sciences and Technology Initiative at MIT.

The MIT Museum bridges between MIT and the wider community through galleries, exhibitions, educational and general visitor programs and the annual Cambridge Science Festival. The Museum holds major collections reflecting MIT’s accomplishments in research and innovation; and it continues to collect in key areas of current science and engineering.

The Curator will have direct responsibility to the MIT Museum Director for:

Exhibition-related research, including (but not confined to): Library and archive research on the history of MIT life sciences and technology; Interviews with key Koch Institute faculty, staff and students.

Development of detailed proposals for exhibition content, including: Research on candidate scientific, engineering and other elements; Research on the educational needs of key target audiences; Identification of appropriate objects, images, videos and other multi-media elements.

Drafting text (including exhibit labels).

Working with the Museum exhibition team and external consultants (exhibition designers, fabricators, etc.) to ensure the successful implementation of exhibit ideas and plans.

Supervising the installation of exhibits in the gallery, to ensure successful delivery on time and budget.

The Curator of the Koch Institute Public Gallery will report to the Director of the Museum, and work closely with Museum, Koch Institute and other MIT staff.

This is a 15-month term position that may be renewable, depending on the availability of funding. Applicants must apply online through MIT’s Human Resources Dept. at http://hrweb.mit.edu/, position #mit-00006745. Please note that the review and hiring process will proceed without delay, and the successful candidate will be expected to assume the position immediately.
Job Requirements

The successful candidate will bring: A close acquaintance with the recent history and contemporary practice of the life sciences and technology, and preferably in cancer research; Previous experience (a minimum of 2 years) of working in informal science education and public outreach, preferably in a museum environment; Ability to work in a multi-disciplinary team of content specialists, exhibition management specialists, designers, fabricators, etc; Academic training (preferably at the doctoral level) in an appropriate subject area (life sciences and technology, and/or the history of the life sciences and technology, and/or science communication).

At SHOT several weeks ago, we had a meeting of the TEMSIG group, the technology museums special interest group.*  A small braintrust of public historians of technology (Allison March, Erik Nystrom, David Unger and I) had an exciting conversation.

We realized that most of us, and the many people interested in, broadly, the material culture of technology don’t often go to SHOT or are not particularly involved in that Society, but we do generally make the rounds of other conferences and associations, such as NCPH, AAM and Museums and the Web, where we talk about our work among people in intersecting, but not exactly the same fields.  We are museum people, scholars, public historians and digital historians and have no particular disciplinary homes–so how can we connect, coordinate and collaborate?

We quickly realized that working only within SHOT was probably not useful for us, and we don’t have any interest in forming a new professional association**–so what’s next?  We’re thinking about an informal coordinating committee with one basic aim being to improve communication with some further goals relating to collections (cooperative loans and exhibits), and an interest in nurturing and developing better tools for digitizing material culture (and the mat cult of technology in particular).

What’s next?  Well, who’s in?  Also, we need to develop a catchy name and a basic timeline of plans and goals.  What do you think?


*I have no idea what the E stands for.  Engineering?  Or is it just for euphony?

**The way that professional organizations are broken is one of my personal hobby horses.

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.

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