The best books on how technology has interacted with American society, culture and history

Carroll Pursell Author Of The Machine in America: A Social History of Technology
By Carroll Pursell

Who am I?

I've been teaching and writing in the field of the history of technology for over six decades, and it's not too much to say that the field and my professional career grew up together. The Society for the History of Technology began in 1958, and its journal, Technology and Culture, first appeared the following year. I've watched, and helped encourage, a broadening of the subject from a rather internal concentration on machines and engineering to a widening interest in technology as a social activity with cultural and political, as well as economic, outcomes. In my classes I always assigned not only original documents and scholarly monographs but also memoirs, literature, and films.

I wrote...

The Machine in America: A Social History of Technology

By Carroll Pursell,

Book cover of The Machine in America: A Social History of Technology

What is my book about?

My book is a history of technology in America, from the medieval axe through to the internet. It is a social history because the emphasis is on the social role of technology—the way in which it interacts with other aspects of American life—rather than on the internal logic of mechanisms themselves. My purpose is to suggest that technology is a part of our general history, therefore I trace it through the transplanting of a medieval technology from Europe to a new setting, then replacing it with an industrial technology also borrowed from Europe, reforming all this again through the agency of science, and finally having to live with what the social critic Lewis Mumford called the “Pentagon of Power.”

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America

Why did I love this book?

My admiration for this book is demonstrated by the way in which I quite shamelessly ripped off its title for my own. It has been said that America is the only nation that began perfect and hoped to improve. The engine of that improvement, from the earliest days of the Republic, had been new technologies but by the middle of the pre-Civil War period some Americans began to realize that the “improvement” they had unleashed was beginning to erode the very “perfection” that they had hoped to enshrine in the nation’s foundation. Writers, artists, and creative intellectuals in general are society’s canaries in the mine shaft, and the great names of the American Renaissance—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Washington Irving, Herman Melville, George Innes, Charles Sheeler, and their colleagues—attempted to describe, understand, and perhaps heal the destructive effects of the machine. As Marx concludes, “what was a grim possibility for Melville became certainty for Mark Twain and Henry Adams; neither was able to imagine a satisfactory resolution of the conflict figured by the machine’s incursion into the garden.”

By Leo Marx,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Machine in the Garden as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For over four decades, Leo Marx's work has focused on the relationship between technology and culture in 19th- and 20th-century America. His research helped to define-and continues to give depth to-the area of American studies concerned with the links between scientific and technological advances, and the way society and culture both determine these links. The Machine in the Garden fully examines the difference between the "pastoral" and "progressive"
ideals which characterized early 19th-century American culture, and which ultimately evolved into the basis for much of the environmental and nuclear debates of contemporary society.

This new edition is appearing in celebration…

Book cover of More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave

Why did I love this book?

It is hardly news that housework is gendered. But in this classic study Cowan, by taking housewifery seriously as work and kitchen utensils and appliances seriously as technologies, opens up the whole panorama of production and consumption in a domestic setting. The influx of new appliances, and in a more convenient form old materials (such as powdered soap) in the early decades of the 20th century worked to, in a sense, “industrialize” the home. Unlike factory workers, however, housewives were unpaid, isolated, and unspecialized. Their managerial role shrank (hired help disappeared from most homes)  and rather than being drained of meaning, like the work of factory hands, theirs became burdened with portentous implications of love, devotion, and creativity. Finally, as housework became “easy,” standards rose. At one time changing the bed might have amounted to putting the bottom sheet in the wash and the top sheet on the bottom, replaced now with a clean sheet. Now all could be washed—and why not once a week rather than fortnightly? More work indeed and now with a new urgency: what would it say about her if her husband was sent  to work with a “ring around the collar?”

By Ruth Schwartz Cowan,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked More Work for Mother as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this classic work of women's history (winner of the 1984 Dexter Prize from the Society for the History of Technology), Ruth Schwartz Cowan shows how and why modern women devote as much time to housework as did their colonial sisters. In lively and provocative prose, Cowan explains how the modern conveniences,washing machines, white flour, vacuums, commercial cotton,seemed at first to offer working-class women middle-class standards of comfort. Over time, however, it became clear that these gadgets and gizmos mainly replaced work previously conducted by men, children, and servants. Instead of living lives of leisure, middle-class women found themselves struggling…

Book cover of The Lie Detectors: The History of an American Obsession

Why did I love this book?

Adler demonstrates that the lie detector is a rather simple machine, "a banal assemblage of medical technologies" (as he calls it) to measure blood pressure and perspiration, that has been widely used in America since its appearance between the wars. It was purported to sort out lies from the truth but the science behind it ranged from junk to speculative, and its evidence has never been accepted in courts of law.  It has not been used anywhere else in the world, and Adler concludes that it “belonged to [the]…American strain of the Enlightenment project to replace personal discretion with science.” As he shows however, personal discretion, in practice, lay at the very heart of its use and popularity. It was no doubt more humane than the “third degree” so commonly used by police to obtain confessions, but it was a machine that manufactured something less than the Truth.

By Ken Alder,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Lie Detectors as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The story of the lie detector takes us straight into the dark recesses of the American soul. It also leads us on a noir journey through some of the most storied episodes in American history. That is because the device we take for granted as an indicator of guilt or innocence actually tells us more about our beliefs than about our deeds. The machine does not measure deception so much as feelings of guilt or shame. As Ken Alder reveals in his fascinating and disturbing account, the history of the lie detector exposes fundamental truths about our culture: why we…

Alexander's Bridge

By Willa Sibert Cather,

Book cover of Alexander's Bridge

Why did I love this book?

As the eminent American author Willa Cather herself admitted, Alexander’s Bridge “is not the story of a bridge and how it was built, but of a man who built bridges.” And significantly, an American man. Early in the novel we are introduced to an English acquaintance of Bartley Alexander who liked him “because he was an engineer.  He had preconceived ideas about everything, and his idea about Americans was that they should be engineers or mechanics.” This can be read therefore as a judgment on American masculinity—this was Cather’s first novel in 1912 and in light of her later writings, was uncharacteristic in having a male protagonist. Alexander’s professional success as a bridge engineer was not matched by his personal life. He could span rivers but not the gulf between his marriage in Boston and his affair with an Irish actress in London. Because of insufficient resources his greatest bridge, under construction in Canada, collapses and so did his personal life. He died on the doomed bridge but his life, as he had lived it, was already over. The American masculinity that made a good engineer did not automatically make a good man. The engineering profession is still the most gendered of them all, and I appreciate the way in which this novel explores this situation.

By Willa Sibert Cather,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Alexander's Bridge as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book was converted from its physical edition to the digital format by a community of volunteers. You may find it for free on the web. Purchase of the Kindle edition includes wireless delivery.

Player Piano

By Kurt Vonnegut,

Book cover of Player Piano

Why did I love this book?

Player Piano, Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, was not, he said, “a book about what is, but a book about what could be.” Further, “it is mostly about managers and engineers” and more precisely, about automation and what American society could become if machines took over work, and labor, as we have known it, was made redundant. His imagined city of Illium was socially and physically split between the managers and engineers of its industrial plant and the former workers had been displaced by automation and now led meaningless lives of busy work provided by the government. The engineer Paul Proteus becomes disaffected and joins in a revolution being plotted against the new order. They succeed, but soon realize that the people of Illium were “already eager to recreate the same old nightmare.” The logic of the machine continued its sway.

I like that you have to watch Vonnegut carefully. At one point in the story a cat is frightened by the robots in the factory and is electrocuted trying to escape. Subsequently the visiting Shah of Bratpuhr, being shown around by Paul, refers to him as a Takaru. As a student in one of my classes pointed out, if you read this backwards he was warning Paul that “You are a cat.”

By Kurt Vonnegut,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Player Piano as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Player Piano is the debut novel from one of history's most innovative authors, published on Vonnegut's 100th birthday.

In Player Piano, the first of Vonnegut's wildly funny and deadly serious novels, automata have dramatically reduced the need for America's work force. Ten years after the introduction of these robot labourers, the only people still working are the engineers and their managers, who live in Ilium; everyone else lives in Homestead, an impoverished part of town characterised by purposelessness and mass produced houses.

Paul Proteus is the manager of Ilium Works. While grateful to be held in high regard, Paul begins…

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