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Author: John H. Frederick
Title: A Social History of American Technology (Ruth Schwartz Cowan)
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
August 2000

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Source: A Social History of American Technology (Ruth Schwartz Cowan)
John H. Frederick

vol. 3, no. 2, August 2000
Article Type: Book Review

A Social History of American Technology

Cowan, Ruth Schwartz. A Social History of American Technology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

A Social History of American Technology is a solid, straightforward introduction to the societal impact of technology on American history. The book is clearly organized, easily read, the organization is well founded. The book is divided into three main sections: the colonial period, industrialization and our own foray into the technological behemoth of the twentieth century, now at its denouement.

Professor Cowan begins with a Cartesian exploration of taxonomy, mirrored by the investigations of her eighteenth century predecessors, how to classify man? She picks on one aspect that the enlightened few rejected, man as the maker of things. The author takes pains to be explicit in not only what technology has influenced, but what it is, or should be. She makes a striking point that "we," present day homo fabers, (apes who make tools) are still inexorably linked to our ancestors. They used pointed sticks to write, we in turn, use ball-point pens, they used an atlatl, (a notched stick used to provide more thrust and torque to a thrown spear), we use an atom bomb.

The purpose of the social history of technology is to integrate the history of technology with the rest of human history. Cowan's purpose in writing this book is to provide another perspective to go along with the "biographical, economic, [and] intellectual . . . ," because for the entirety of our existence as a nation it has been our technology that has set us apart from other nations. She states that

We who have been born and raised in the twentieth century should be particularly interested in understanding our history from this perspective because we are in a unique position to comprehend how profoundly technological change . . . has affected our way of life. We are also in a unique position . . . to understand how profoundly our way of life has affected our technology.

It is important they we as a nation and individually recognize, understand and come to terms with our technological largesse. That said, man and technology do not have a simple, reciprocal relationship. Man has developed technologies that he cannot completely control, nor is he likely to in the foreseeable future.

Each chapter contains a "suggestions for future readings" list which is quite helpful. In those sections there however are notable omissions. The two that immediately spring to mind are The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism and the Cant of Conquest by Francis Jennings and David Hackett Fischer's Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America. In "American Ideas about Technology" perhaps Paul E. Johnson's A Shopkeeper's Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester N.Y., 1815-1837 could be added. In the suggested readings list concerning "Biotechnology," Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene is a must.

In reading the chapter on "The Land, the Natives and the Settlers," the author's stance on the "implanted civilization" rings a distant, though familiar bell. John Murrin, in his essay "Beneficiaries of Catastrophe: The English Colonies in America," wherein he uses a stronger sentiment than "subdued." In reference to initial Indian-Settler relations, Murrin states that "most American colonies were founded by terrorists." It was most likely the result of the "technological superiority" of the immigrant's use of musketry that gave them some initial advantage against native inhabitants.

The strength of Professor Cowan's book that raises it above the merely interesting is that there is no discernable moral judgement leveled against technology or man's use of it. She introduces people who are technological movers and shakers, albeit not well-known. As Oliver Evans, important in the use of steam engines in transportation, confided to one of his sons He that studies and writes on the improvement of the arts and sciences labours to benefit generations yet unborn, but it is not probable that his contemporaries will pay any attention to him

Cowan captures the breath of American technology down to the most recent advances in biological technologies. Her strength is in revealing to the reader a unique perspective on how technology has shaped, and will continue to shape man's destiny. The weaknesses of this exploration are broad generalizations that can sometimes engender more questions than they answer.

The overall importance of this work may be in its use as an introductory undergraduate text. It could be used either as a supplement to a survey of American history or as a primary text for an entry level course on history of technology. Its organization and general clarity naturally lend it to those uses. .

John H. Frederick

South Louisiana Community College