Technology and American Frontiers: an exploration of resources

(An Interdisciplinary Studies course, intended primarily for University Scholars, to be offered in Winter 1999)

Hugh A. Blackmer, Science Librarian
in collaboration with other faculty
and John Blackburn of the Media Center and University Computing


I started thinking about this course while preparing to move the science collection from Leyburn to its new home in the Science Library. W&L has a wonderful array of technological history materials, most of which are very rarely used. In addition to extensive book holdings in practical sciences (mining, railroads, hydrology, electricity, etc.), we have long runs of such 19th century journals as American Journal of Science (which is now primarily a geology journal, but was formerly much more general and practical-science in its coverage) and Journal of the Franklin Institute, as well as Science and Scientific American (when they were aimed more at general audiences than is now the case). These materials are some of the resources which the course aspires to explore (others are electronic in nature, and are more fully described below).

Frontiers are perennially fascinating: in the American context, the expanding frontier of settlement is the most obvious (and the most frequently studied) example, but it's not difficult to envision other (sometimes metaphorical) frontiers, and then to realize that Americans are --and have always seen themselves as-- surrounded by spatial and temporal and intellectual (and spiritual and aesthetic and...) frontiers. Indeed, American preoccupation with progress is largely about the procession of frontiers. John Blackburn pointed out to me that technology and frontier are two of "the biggest ideas in American cultural history" (democracy being a third).

Technology transforms: as people adopt new machines and techniques and processes, their relationships (to one another and to their surroundings) change. In less than a generation traditional methods and ways can be supplanted and then forgotten. New technologies ease and enable and enlighten, but they may also displace people and force social and cultural adaptations.

No single discipline is primarily responsible for the study of social and cultural consequences of technological evolution, though historians and anthropologists have extensive literatures in these areas. American Studies offers interesting perspectives, but the field has not generally explored scientific and technical subjects. The sciences seem remarkably incurious about the social and cultural effects of discoveries and inventions.

Catalog listing:

Technology deals with materials, processes, energy transformations, mechanisms, the taming of physical forces and the domestication of biological systems. As people adopt new machines and techniques, their relationships to one another and to their surroundings change. This course focuses upon American technological frontiers and examines the technical background and social and cultural implications of a broad range of evolving technologies. A cross-disciplinary seminar with a media lab component, the course will include selected readings, library exploration, and class and World Wide Web presentations. 3 credits.

The course is intended to explore

Students will choose one or more of the following: Students will use W&L library resources as the primary basis for exploring the effects and consequences of technological change in the time period, area, person or industry selected. They will present their findings in the form of web pages detailing the exploration process and discoveries.

Classes will be structured as 2-hour seminars once a week, with an additional scheduled 'guided project' hour in the Media Center instructional lab.

Seminar meetings could be organized around specific technology (viz: basic tools, prime movers, energy, textiles, information, steam, rail, the American System of manufacturing, efficiency, precision, etc.), or by materials and energy (viz: wood, wind, water, iron/steel, steam, ceramics, coal, oil, electricity, etc.), or by persons (mechanicians, inventors, popularizers) or processes (settlement, diffusion of innovations, urbanization, etc.) --or by judicious selection of combinations of these topics, building upon examples which are especially well represented in W&L library holdings.

The multimedia lab portion develops the skills necessary to build and refine the web pages upon which students will display individual projects. The model of ongoing hypertext projects of the University of Virginia's American Studies program gives an idea of the sort of framework we have in mind.

The main objective for students in the course will be completion of individual projects which display findings to a broad (potentially global) audience. The course will also provide students with extensive experience with a broad spectrum of library resources (traditional paper as well as electronic), and will serve the instructors as a development platform for multimedia teaching tools and strategies, which may have broader significance for pedagogy at W&L and beyond.

Reading for the course would include

A group of 50-odd titles from Annie (selected from 300-odd found by a keyword search for 'technology american') are examples of works that might serve as springboards for specific projects, and are included to suggest something the breadth of materials and approaches contemplated for the course.

It seems that one could begin almost anywhere, on almost any shelf in the library, and follow trails of references and felicitous serendipities. The thing is to begin, and to build an edifice out of interest and engagement.

What cannot you do if you will get yourself about it.
(John Fitch, quoted in Hindle 1981:28)

Among journal resources which reflect aspects of 19th century American technology: Transactions of the American Philosophical Society [1796-], Journal of the Franklin Institute [1829-], American Journal of Science [1820-], Scientific American [1895-], Harpers [1850-], The Forum [1886-], The Century [1881-], Atlantic Monthly [1857-], Popular Science Monthly [1872-]. Railway Age [1915-] covers the industry in detail. Technology and Culture (organ of the Society for the History of Technology) is the premier scholarly journal in the field, and includes annual bibliographic summaries.

A running log of thoughts on and expansions of the above can be found at