Computers, iPods, cell phones, Blackberries . . . Radio, movies, television, videos . . . cars, planes, space shuttles . . . washing machines, dish washers, robotic vacuum cleaners . . . laser surgery, heart transplants, artificial limbs…A-Bombs and H-Bombs…Americans today live surrounded by, and dependent on, technology. Our world would amaze, delight, and perhaps trouble, the inventors and scientists of the nineteenth century. But their world would surely have had the same effect upon their eighteenth-century ancestors. In this issue, HISTORY NOW examines the technology that catapulted America into modernity. From the cotton gin to the phonograph, American inventiveness has been a hallmark of our nation. And, as the essays in this issue demonstrate, science and technology both arise from and reshape their social, economic and political contexts. History and technology thus do not exist in separate spheres; they are closely linked in the narrative of our past.
In his overview essay, “Technology in the 1800s,” Brent D. Glass shows us the historical context in which American technology flourished. Westward expansion, warfare, population growth and government encouragement through such institutions as the patent office all contributed to the remarkable number of useful inventions and their practical application. Glass also explains how these inventions transformed agricultural and industrial production, created a national market, and altered Americans’ sense of time and space through improved transportation and communication. In his examination of the earliest phases of American industrialization, “Women and the Early Industrial Revolution in the United States,” Thomas Dublin reminds us of the impact of technology on gender roles and gender ideology. The rise of textile mills in the Northeast not only sparked an industrial revolution in the United States; it also created and legitimated a role for women in the American labor force. In his essay, “Transcontinental Railroads: Compressing Time and Space,” Richard White closely examines the impact of the railroads on American economic, political and social life. The railroads that linked the nation after the civil war spurred the growth of a national market, but, as White explains, they also changed American ideas of nature and American use of natural resources. The benefits of the rail system were not shared equally by all citizens, however, and although rail locations and rail rates created fortunes they also destroyed dreams of success. In “Image and Artifact: Photography in Nineteenth Century America,” Martha Sandweiss demonstrates how photography, as much as the railroad or the telegraph, also changed the concept of space and time. She points out that historians and history teachers can use photographs as more than illustrations; they are important artifacts for those of us who seek to reconstruct the past. In “Edison’s Laboratory,” Paul Israel takes a close look at the contributions of the man who brought the nation many of its most impressive and useful technological innovations. Israel analyzes the setting in which Edison’s genius flourished, pointing out the importance of the Menlo Park laboratory as a model for research in the following century. Finally, in “Advances in Medical Technology,” Bert Hansen explores the close relationship between scientific innovations and popular readiness for the breakthroughs that these innovations produce. Major changes in medical technology made little impression on the American public until popular fear of rabies –and the promise of protection from the disease—riveted the attention of Americans and the American press. Almost overnight, the longstanding assumption that older doctors and older medicines were superior to new ones vanished, replaced by a belief that change and innovation born in the laboratory were the hallmarks of medicine.
In this issue, HISTORY NOW has collaborated with the National Museum of American History to bring readers an interactive timeline of images of nineteenth century inventions. Four of your colleagues in elementary and secondary education share with you their lesson plans designed around the technology theme, and as always, our Archivist Mary-Jo Kline provides you with rich resources, both online and in print, to assist you in designing your own classroom lessons. We hope this issue demonstrates the critical importance of science and technology in reconstructing and explaining our national past.
This is our last issue for 2006. We will begin 2007 with an issue devoted to defining moments in six American cities, including the rise of jazz in New Orleans and the birth of a new nation in Philadelphia.
Editor, History Now
Carol Berkin is Professor of History at Baruch College and The Graduate Center, City University of New York. She is the author of several books including Jonathan Sewall: Odyssey of an American Conservative, First Generations: Women in Colonial America, A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution, and Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America's Independence.