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A Social History of American Technology

Second Edition

Ruth Schwartz Cowan and Matthew H. Hersch

Publication Date - March 2017

ISBN: 9780195387261

384 pages
6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches

Retail Price to Students: $74.99

The number one survey of American technology, from the tools used by the earliest native inhabitants to today's technological systems


A Social History of American Technology, Second Edition, tells the story of American technology from the tools used by its earliest inhabitants to the technological systems--cars and computers, aircraft and antibiotics--that we are familiar with today. Ruth Schwartz Cowan and Matthew H. Hersch demonstrate how technological change has always been closely related to social and economic development, and examine the important mutual relationships between social history and technological change. They explain how the unique characteristics of American cultures and American geography have affected the technologies that have been invented, manufactured, and used throughout the years--and also the reverse: how those technologies have affected the daily lives, the unique cultures, and the environments of all Americans.

New to this Edition

  • An updated discussion of the automobile, including fuel efficiency, electric vehicles, the decline of the Big Four auto companies, and climate change
  • An extended examination of aerospace technology, including satellites, space shuttles, GPS, and precision-guided weapons
  • An expanded examination of wireless telegraphy, radio, and television and other electronic media
  • New material on information technologies, from mainframe computers to personal computers, the internet, social media and smartphones
  • A new examination of twentieth-century food and drug technologies, in terms of their unintended consequences, reframed as examples of technoscience
  • A new chapter on biotechnology, explaining the science of genetic modification and exploring genetically modified bacteria as drug factories and genetically modified plants as food products

About the Author(s)

Ruth Schwartz Cowan is Janice and Julian Bers Professor Emerita of History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania.

Matthew H. Hersch is Assistant Professor of History of Science at Harvard University.

Previous Publication Date(s)

January 1996

Table of Contents

    Each chapter ends with Notes and Suggestions for Further Reading.

    Introduction: The Origins of American Technology
    A Social History of American Technology

    1. The Land, the Natives, and the Settlers
    The Land and the Native Inhabitants
    The European Settlers
    The Colonial Economy
    Colonial Economic Policy and Technological Change
    Conclusion: Quickening the Pace of Technological Change

    2. Agricultural and Craft Work in the Colonies
    Colonial Farming
    The Myth of Self-Sufficiency
    Artisanal Work in the Colonies
    The Apprenticeship System and Labor Scarcity
    Printers and Print Shops
    Iron Foundries and Iron Workers
    Historical Significance of the Colonial Crafts
    Conclusion: Reasons for the Slow Pace of Technological Change

    3. From Farm to Factory
    Oliver Evans (1755-1819)
    Eli Whitney (1765-1825)
    Samuel Slater (1768-1835)
    Conclusion: The Unique Character of American

    4. Transportation Revolutions
    Transportation Difficulties
    Toll Roads and Entrepreneurs
    Canal Building and State Financing
    Steamboats: Steam Power and State Power
    Railroads: Completing a National Transportation
    Introduction: Industrial Society

    5. Technological Systems and Industrial Society
    Industrialization, Dependency, and Technological Systems
    The Telegraph System
    The Railroad System
    The Petroleum System
    The Telephone System
    The Electric System
    The Character of Industrialized Society
    Conclusion: Industrialization and Technological Systems

    6. Everyday Labor in the Mechanical Age
    Farmers and Unexpected Outcomes
    Skilled and Deskilled Workers
    Unskilled Workers
    Housewives and House Servants
    Conclusion: Was Industrialization Good or Bad for Workers?

    7. Inventors, Entrepreneurs, and Engineers
    The Patent System: The Public History of Invention
    Inventors: Changes between 1820 and 1920
    Entrepreneurs: Innovation and Diffusion
    Engineers: Changes between 1820 and 1920
    Introduction: New Frontiers, New Fears
    20th-Century Technology: Blessing or Curse?

    8. Automobiles and Automobility
    Who Invented the Automobile?
    Henry Ford and the Mass-Produced Automobile
    Alfred P. Sloan and the Mass-Marketed American
    Automobility and the Road System before 1945
    Automobility and the Road System, 1945-1970
    The Unexpected Consequences of Automobility
    Conclusion: The Paradox of Automobility

    9. Taxpayers, Generals, and Aerospace
    The Early Days of Aircraft and the Aircraft Industry
    World War II: A Turning Point
    The Military-Industrial-Academic Complex
    Civilian Spin-offs of the Aviation Revolution
    From Air Flight to Spaceflight
    Precision-Guided Weapons and Modern War
    Conclusion: Costs and Benefits of Military Sponsorship

    10. Electronic Communication and Social Control
    Wireless Telegraphy
    Wireless Telephony
    Government Regulation of Wireless Communication
    Wireless Broadcasting: Radio
    Conclusion: Centralization and Electronic

    11. Electronic Brains and Global Villages
    The Origins of the Computer
    The Digital Electronic Computer
    Real-Time Computing and SAGE
    Electronic Components: The Transistor and the Integrated Circuit
    IBM and the Maturation of the Computer Industry
    The Rise of the Personal Computer
    From ARPANET to Internet
    Reinventing the Telephone: The Smartphone and Social Networking
    Conclusion: The Ultimate Failure of Efforts to Control
    Electronic Communication

    12. Foods, Drugs, and Unintended
    Science, Technology, and TechnoScience
    Hybrid Corn
    The Birth Control Pill

    13. TechnoScience and the Biotech Industry
    Recombinant DNA
    The Biotech Industry Begins
    The First Controversy: Public Rights, Private Interests, and Safety
    The Flavr Saver Tomato
    Monsanto and the Continuing GMO Controversy
    Coda: Thinking About Technology
    Ideas that Americans Have Associated with Technology
    Conclusion: How Thinking Historically Helps
    Us Think About Technology