(same as HISTORY 292)


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Fall 2002

Prof. D. deB. Beaver
Bronfman 117; ext. 2239
Office Hours: call or drop in

Aims and Methods

     The purpose of this seminar is to acquire an understanding of the nature, development, role, and significance of technology as a dynamic element in human society.  In other words, we will be studying the social history of technology, a vast subject area, both in time, and in conceptual approaches.  To geve us a path through this area, we will use a few "texts" to provide focus, continuity, and a point of departure for looking at the subject in different ways.

     For example, at a very basic level, one can approach the history of technology either as a study in the humanities, illuminating human nature, or as one in the social sciences, yielding causal relations and predictive power.  In fact, we will want to try the social sciences viewpoint in considering technology assessment, but, at the same time, our focus on the "unexpected" consequences of technology will involve us in a study of human nature.

     In recent years historians of technology have stressed ideology, complexity, and system as important factors in the development of technology and in the characterization of its nature.  They have also broadened their concerns to provide context from the point of view of the environment, of "consumers," and of women.  These and similar factors are significant for understanding and reconstructing the technological past.  They are also important for analysing and evaluating what are taken to be the salient features of the interrelationships of technology and society.


Course Requirements

Class discussion (30% of final grade)
evaluation based on attendance, plus frequency and quality of participation.
Paper (6-10pp) (20%)
Term Project (30%)
Comprehensive final examination (20%)

Term Project

The purpose of the term project is to study specific areas of personal interest, and to apply newly acquired knowledge critically where appropriate, while following a method and narrative discipline relatively unusual for an academic exercise. Conventional history of technology is rather linear straightforward narrative, chronological, and causally relatively simple. Such histories oversimplify the complex interrelations of humans and technologies, which form a rich and interwoven historical tapestry. It is extraordinarily difficult to try to write history unconventionally, but the attempt to do so is well worth the effort it takes to acquire a novel comparative perspective.
To that end, we begin by viewing James Burke's videotape series CONNECTIONS. Each of the ten one-hour episodes about technology and culture is to be viewed (group watching, when possible, is strongly recommended); we discuss them briefly in class, approximately one episode each week.
For the term project, each student [or group of students] is to prepare an additional episode. To the extent felt possible, the narrative should indicate visual and audio context [scenes, pictures, models, music]. A shooting script is acceptable, as would be a filmed episode or even a dramatic Power Point presentation. Most people feel more comfortable with the conventional format of a term paper.
Students present their new episodes in class, beginning the week before Thanksgiving week to ensure everyone has a chance to perform. Presentations are limited to 15 minutes [the equivalent of about 6 double spaced typed pages], so that a 10 minute question and discussion period may follow each one.
Students should clear topics and provide a rough outline (~1pp) by Thursday, October 17, the first class after Fall Reading Period. Final written drafts or scripts/tapes of the episodes are due by 5:00 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 6, the last day of fall semester classes.

Critical Paper

George Basalla's The Evolution of Technology presents an unusual and provocative theory of technology: an evolutionary model for understanding technology's history and development. Students are to read Basalla's book and write a critical evaluation of it. Papers (6-10 pp) should be handed in by Thursday, Oct. 31.
Because students will have already become familiar with the different approaches and interpretive stances of Mumford, Gimpel, Cardwell, Pacey, and White, the evaluation should ideally also be comparative.


Lewis Mumford Technics and Human Development (THD)
  -Volume I of the Myth and the Machine, takes us by an interpretive (some say controversial) from prehistory to the middle ages.
Jean Gimpel Medieval Machine (MM)
  -A broad and useful introduction to the revolution in medieval technology.
DSL Cardwell Turning Points in Western Technology (TPWT)
Arnold Pacey The Maze of Ingenuity
  -These two texts begin with medieval technology, and bring the historical account to the twentieth century. Cardwell gives some of the internal history that is not Mumford's purpose to recount; his book is a more conventional historiography, yet still interpretive. Pacey's work covers similar ground, but from a complementary viewpoint.
James Burke Connections
  -Connections, a lively, clectic and journalistic work, has much more detail than its parallel TV series or its successor, Connections 2. Connections should be read at the rate of one chapter per week. Although the material usually will not match the current reading, either chronologically or topically, we will briefly discuss its salient features (themes, interpretations, historiography) each Thursday.
George Basalla The Evolution of Technology (ET)
  Develops an evolutionary model of technology's growth and change, from nature-facts to artifacts. Innovation-mutation, selection pressures.

Additional articles supplement the texts and are available as a course packet from Ms. Kate Fletcher, Bronfman 189, at cost.  (100 pp; $3.00):
  • L. White, jr., The Life of the Silent Majority  (LSM)
  • L. White, jr., Technology in the Middle Ages  (TMA)
  • L. White, jr., Technology Assessment from the Stance of a Medieval Historian (TA)
  • L. White, jr., The Act of Invention  (AI)
  • L. White, jr., Historical Roots of Ecological Crisis (HRE)
  • L. Mumford, The Pentagon of Power (POP)
  • M. R. Smith, Technological Diterminism (TD)
  • L. Marx, Postmodern Pessimissm (PP)

Class Meetings
Classes will be in seminar format, consisting of discussion of the salient viewpoints, arguments, weaknesses, metaphysics, etc. presented in the assigned reading, plus any other critical, analytical, or contextual remarks thought relevant.


Brief Bibliography

M. Kranzberg and C. Pursell, eds. Technology in Western Civilization  (2 vols.)  (this and the next two texts are classics for the study of the history of technology)
C. Singer, A.R. Hall, E. J. Holmyard, T. I. Williams, eds. A History of Technology  (7 vols.)  an excellent reference work.
M. Daumas, ed. A History of Technology and Invention (3 vols.)
A. Wolf A History of Science, Technology and Philosophy in the: 16th and 17th Century (2 vols) 18th Century (2 vols)
D. S. L. Cardwell The Norton History of Technology [1994]  Survey; parallels Pacey and Cardwell TWPT
L. Mumford Technics and Civilization
L. White, Jr. Medieval Technology and Social Change,  Dynamo and Virgin Reconsidered,  Medieval Religion and Technology
D. Boorstin, The Americans: The Democratic Experience (social history of technology in American life)
R.S. Cowan A Social History of Technology
A. Pacey The Culture of Technology
L. Winner Autonomous Technology, The Whale and the Reactor

SHOT  (Society for the History of Technology) publishes a journal, Technology and Culture, that contains many excellent articles covering a variety of topics.   One issue each year contains a bibliographical update.

The list above may prove useful in forming ideas about how to start your Connections episode, and what events you might like to include in it.  As you move to refine and expand the structure and character of your episode, you will find there are many fine and interesting books on more specific topics, such as on industry (electrical, chemical, automotive, computer), on engineering, on categories (power, communications, transport, military, textiles, metallurgy, materials, domestic technologies), etc.

If you start early enough, you may be able to identify useful articles you would like to have, which, if not held at Williams, could be ordered on inter-library loan.  If you haven't ordered such articles before Fall Reading Period, however, you can't count on their arriving in time for your presentation.

Under the Resources section of the History of Science website are helpful materials for the history of technology, including some useful links to sources and other reputable links.  There are many other potentially useful Internet sites which may help you, but beware the time sink factor.