American Genesis

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Thomas P. Hughes. American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm 1870-1970. New York: Viking. 1989. Pp. xii, 529. $24.95.




Introduction: The Technological Torrent

1. A Gigantic Tidal Wave of Human Ingenuity

2. Choosing and Solving Problems

3. Brain Mill for the Military

4. No Philanthropic Asylum for Indigent Scientists

5. The System Must Be First

6. Taylorismus + Fordismus = Amerikanismus

7. The Second Discovery of America

8. Tennessee Valley and the Manhattan Engineer District

9. Counterculture and Momentum

Thomas Hughes work is not simply a history of technology; rather it chronicles the forces and resources that allowed for large scale mass changes in the technological landscape. Instead of arguing that technological progress was important to the United States, Hughes argues that it was central to the progress that was made from 1870-1970. Simply, this is the story of systems, systemic planning and the ways in which America negotiated the rapid changes in the modern world. Writing at the same time, business historian Alfred P. Chandler explained the growth of large corporations and Hughes makes a parallel argument, that the growth of what would later be called the military industrial complex was not a unique confluence of events, rather it was the result of a change from individual effort to large scale industries. This was seen as the “inventing developing, and organizing large technological systems- production, communication and military.” (p.3) Hughes is a believer in American exceptionalism and he claims that his is a work of traditional American history, that technology progress in the century after 1870 became the American genesis.

This work is organized in three main parts, the invention of the system, the spread of systems, and technological culture writ large. He begins with Thomas Edison and his ilk in the early twentieth century when entrepreneurs and inventors were much more scientifically rigorous and methodical than their myths would have us believe. Hughes reminds us that these were ‘factories’ chasing patents and success, men like Bell, Tesla, Elmer Sperry, Orville Wright, and Lee de Forest came to symbolize an inventive spirit and process often relying on assistants, recent university graduates and others. The use of metaphors often characterized this work and that was helpful in obtaining funding for various projects. The primary gain was for the nascent corporate world and to meet urban demand, particularly for things like electric motors, automobiles, ships, wireless, etc.

After the turn of the twentieth century, military invention reigned supreme and Hughes is careful to point out a shift in thinking towards modern warfare, “new weapons and communication systems were major modes of military competition, the essence of advanced strategy and tactics.” (p.97) Communication systems figured prominently as RCA and others began to seek control and ownerships of patents. It was also during the early twentieth century that industrial laboratories take off at companies like DuPont with the invention of nylon, for example. Hughes titles this chapter “No Philanthropic Asylum” meaning the rise of the industrial laboratory displacing individual heroic efforts. More subtly, he is suggesting that the public came to see these companies and labs as the new sources of invention or ‘better living.’ Invention even in a corporate setting must be structured and the system becomes preeminent, thanks in part to Henry Ford and efficiency experts like Frederick Winslow Taylor, Samuel Insull and others who helped ‘rationalize’ the workplace. Many may not be aware that Ford worked with Lenin and the Soviet economy during the 1920s for what we would call technology transfer. While the Soviets were not able to ensure high quality control, major infrastructure work was completed with the help of American consultants.

In his chapter the “Second Discovery of America”, Hughes outlines on the central tenets of his work. “The first discovery had been that of the virgin land, natures nation; the second was of technology’s nation, American as artifact.” (p.295) This is where cultural change and reaction come in to play as architects and artist reacted to the new industrial landscape, both literally and figuratively. Progressives like social critic Lewis Mumford articulated a future vision that would, “permit the utilization of small units of production by large units of administration.” (p.302) Hughes creates the link between Bauhaus, Precisionists, and others schools of design reinventing the arts and industrial design. All of this social change did create a backlash that some groups tried to exploit. As the Depression began, grand designs like the TVA raised new political and social questions about governments role in technology and progress. It was World War II that shifted attention away from the TVA and to the Manhattan Project, which Hughes describes as, “an industrial development-and-production undertaking dependent on scientific laboratories and scientists for essential technical data and theoretical understanding of various processes.’ (383) In other words, for Hughes this competes the cycle, inventors and scientists having come full circle from individual heroics to large scale systems and back to individual heroics, this time with a single purpose. This last section details the development of the atomic bomb from a political standpoint, focusing instead on the Atomic Energy Commission and nuclear Navy.

Lastly, and much to his credit, Hughes maps reactions to an ever increasing hegemonic movement against technology and labels this the ‘counterculture’. While most were enthusiastic, others saw ‘technocracy’ as an overwhelming force and wondered if, “Americans could develop a new consciousness that placed humanistic values he values of a technological culture.” (p.445) He has softened his stance to see our modern information age not as counter-productive but as a return to the single inventor startup company, thus Steve Jobs might be the Thomas Edison of the modern era. In the end, Hughes reminds us that the American genesis is really the embodiment of the entrepreneurial spirit and that technical progress and prowess was one way in which Americans continue to define progress.


Scott Abeel, Spring 2011

American Genesis is a sweeping history of technology in the twentieth century. As it is written, it can be classified as a popular history, written with the general reading public in mind. Subsequently, the argument against technological determinism that he presents is not a strongly followed theme throughout the work. Indeed it seems that it is a weak thread that is presented in the beginning and conclusion of the work. Instead he argues that the evolution of the technology his book chronicles “…was and is, socially constructed”(5) in response to the human need for order, which turns from the reductionist theory of technological determinism. However, this reader interpreted that the argument as presented still represented technological determinism, but determinism “light”. In other words the technology and attendant systems that are created in turn initiates our social values and conception of culture, but we still exercise free will in how the technology and system is used. The chapter “Counterculture and Momentum” bears this idea out.

One significant problem with American Genesis, is the reliance on secondary sources. For example the passage “Whitney and General Electric Research Laboratory” much of the interpretation is based on George Wise’s book Willis R. Whitney: General Electric and the Origins of U.S. Industrial Research. Unfortunately, this does a great disservice to the work.

Hughes’ work seems more of a biography of the personalities involved in invention and system building. Also, he does describe the particular inventions and systems that these men created and the evolution of these inventions and systems into American everyday life, e.g. electrical utilities and the national grid. Hughes pays exceptional attention to the Manhattan Project and the Atomic Energy Commission: “the culmination of modern technological-system building”(440). This approach makes this work a very good read for a popular history on American technology.

Dan Curry, Spring 2014

In his book American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm, Thomas Hughes argues that large scale industrial systems in the areas of the military, production and communication formed a technological society in the United States “with currents that run more deeply than those commonly associated with politics and economics” (p. 3). He asserts that these massive systems “have a characteristic analogous to the inertia of motion in the physical world… [derived from the numerous persons who] develop specialized skills and acquire specialized knowledge appropriate for the system of which they are a part” (p. 460). Hughes believes that only “overpowering changes in the environment” such as a rise in gas prices, changes in the market and well-publicized technological catastrophes can bring an end to these powerful entities (p. 462).

The perspective that Hughes presents is significant in that any study of national politics, society and culture during this time period needs to take the influence of modern technological systems into account. He also focuses on the often overlooked impact of business leaders on major events such as Henry Ford’s support of industrial development in the Soviet Union. But, he seems to be arguing that the events he describes are a significant break from the past. Although these modern systems are technologically based, he doesn’t convincingly show that they are any more complex and influential than older non-technological systems (ie: slavery) which had their own inertia and influence on society based on the large number of individuals invested in the system. Also, he seems to underestimate the power of government which at various times modified the systems he discussed through the breaking up of monopolies and trusts. Despite these criticisms, American Genesis is a significant contribution to the historiography of 20th Century America.

Anne Ladyem McDivitt, Spring 2015

Thomas Hughes in American Genesis explains that "inventors, industrial scientists, engineers, and system builders have been the makers of modern America," with a particular focus on order, system, and control. (4) The third section, which focuses on the US government's involvement in technological advances, was particularly helpful in understanding the importance of these systems in American history. Two technological projects, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Manhattan Project, were both government-sponsered programs that had an incredible impact on modern America in very different ways. American Genesis is a history of systems, demonstrating the growth from these individual creators to large, government works.

Hughes's work is accessible in ways that many works of historians are not, especially with his focus on the people as the creators of technology. He discusses individual inventors, such as Thomas Edison, American factories working with Germans and Russians and their perception of the United States's technology, and lastly, the government's policies on technology. It is worth noting that Hughes stays away from making this work solely a technological determinism work, explaining that technology was central to the history of the United States, but it was due to a technological momentum that grew in this period to create a technological society. Much like many social and cultural histories, Hughes argues that technology in the United States is also socially constructed. (5)

===Andrew Salamone Spring 2016

Thomas Hughes explored the impact advancements in technology had on the economics, politics, and society in the United States between 1870 and 1970. He argued that individual inventors such as Thomas Edison, the Wright brothers, Tesla, and Sperry drove the scope and pace of technological advancement at least until World War I. These inventors focused more on inventing processes and machines that would revolutionize tasks and society, striving for breakthroughs or improvement to nascent systems, rather than incremental improvements in well-established technologies. . . Newspapers and other popular literature portrayed these independent inventors as the embodiment of America’s pioneering spirit, and society looked upon them as “inventive geniuses.” As individuals, these men began to cultivate relationships with the U.S. military, particularly the Navy, as it sought to harness emerging technologies to improve its ability to wage war. The military, however, shied away from the revolutionary approach these men followed, instead advocating an evolutionary approach geared towards improving existing systems.

Hughes contended that after World War I, national industrial laboratories bankrolled by large corporations began to replace the individual inventors. These institutions favored an evolutionary approach and incremental improvements to existing systems. This approach was in line with the philosophy of many Progressive politicians who believed that science and technology could be used to raise the standard of living in the United States. As a result, not only did inventing and technological advancement become the purview of corporations, but it increasingly came under the control of national and state government, a trend that greatly accelerated after the Great Depression through rural electrification schemes such as the Tennessee Valley Administration. Hughes argued that government coopting of technology culminated in the Manhattan Project and control over the nuclear power industry. He concluded by contending that the “Atomic Age” and the government effort to expand control over information and services stimulated a counter-reaction within a segment of the American public as people worried that the “technological society posed a threat to individual freedom and emotional and spiritual life.”

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