Sunday, February 24, 2008

Engines of Change

Engine and boiler from John Stevens' Little Juliana steamboat, 1804. Hindle and Lubar use steamboatery as an example of how inventions were often co-developed by several different independent people, who then competed to claim credit.

Title: Engines of Change: The American Industrial Revolution, 1790-1860 (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1986)

Authors: Brooke Hindle and Steven Lubar. Hindle, who died in 2001, was apparently a guiding light of the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT), and an early adopter of the method of studying science, technology, and material culture in historical context. His first books included The Pursuit of Science in Revolutionary America (1956) and David Rittenhouse (1964), but apparently his most famous book is Emulation and Invention (1981), which was particularly focused on describing early American inventions in verbal terms for a verbally-oriented audience (that would be us, historians). Hindle worked at NYU and the Smithsonian, which published this exhibit companion volume. Lubar, Hindle's co-author, is a professor at Brown in the Department of American Civilization, with interests in material culture, museums, public culture, and the history of technology. Some other interesting books he's written or edited: History from Things: Essays on Material Culture, ed. with W. David Kingery (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993); InfoCulture: The Smithsonian Book of Information Age Inventions (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993). Here's his blog about museums.

The painting "Men of Progress," 1863, by Christian Schussele, depicted famous inventors, with Samuel Morse at the center and Benjamin Franklin looking on benevolently from above.

My Review: Hindle and Lubar describe the history of early American invention as being powered by three factors: an abundance of natural resources (wood, iron); an abundance of labor (including slaves); and a cultural climate which favored invention. The "special American conditions," in this story, meant that fewer people rejected or protested against technological advancement, because more people were flexible non-specialists who participated in many different types of production; also, people could see how technology would widen economic gaps, because of the example provided by the European Industrial Revolution, and were able to adjust their speed of technological development to ameliorate its social effects.

Chapters include interesting ones on machine shops, communitarian experiments (the Shakers, New Harmony), and the rise of railroading. There are many good pictures, as you might expect from a book which came from a museum exhibit.

I found the book to be overly invested in a story of American exceptionalism that celebrated the inventiveness of classes of men such as machinists and inventors, without examining the later results of this technological development or questioning the rightness of all of this invention—there's a definite feeling of positivist progressivism about the narrative.

Reviews of Others: In the Journal of American History, John Staudenmeier lauded the exhibit and the book for having respect for technological achievements of the past, rather than making fun of bygoners' missteps (is that really so endemic an attitude?) But he says that extending the exhibit's scope beyond the 1860s would bring some of the more negative consequences of technological development to light, a move which he says the exhibit attempts to make, but is often thwarted by the sheer impressiveness (or "sensuality") of the machinery. In the Winterthur Portfolio, John Skemer wrote that the book avoided the "one-man, one-invention" schema of history, but criticized it for portraying the America of this time period as focused exclusively on technological advancement, citing works which have found that there were other, more flexible, cottage-type modes of production co-existing with this Whiggish drive for industrial advancement.

The Hall rifle, invented by John Hall, was the first American rifle with fully interchangeable parts. The government ordered 1,000 of them in 1819 and it took Hall four years to complete the order. Things got a lot better in the mass-produced gun business later on. Hindle and Lubar hold that the invention of fully interchangeable parts was one of the most significant American contributions to the world economy in the nineteenth century.


Steven Lubar said...

A pretty good review. I think that you missed Hindle's point in Emulation and Invention--he's more interested in pictures than words. But you're right about the progressivism of Engines of Change, though I'd argue it's not consistent. Can you figure out who wrote which chapters?

And I'm curious -- does blogging your oral exams reading help? Is it common at UT?

--Steve Lubar

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