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.

Summary

Contents:

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. 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, 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 1920’s 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.


Commentary

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.

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