SHOT Recap: Innovation, Risk, and Magic

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This past weekend, while many friends from the HSTM world were convening in Chicago for HSA/PSA, I was in Dearborn, MI attending my first meeting of the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT). Following on the heels of Leah and Evan's great conference recaps, I want to share some of my experiences and highlights from SHOT 2014.

As is always the way with larger national conferences, the program was chock full of panels that I was excited to attend. But with so many sessions running in parallel, I was forced to make some difficult choices. In his closing address, SHOT President Bruce Seely acknowledged that expanding the program to include more scholars meant that attendees often found themselves wishing that they could be in two places at the same time. I know I only heard a fraction of the exciting work presented last weekend. In the comments, I’d love to hear from my fellow SHOT attendees about their own highlights.

The conference opened with a plenary lecture from historian David E. Nye. Nye, a professor at the University of South Denmark, has written several landmark volumes in the history of technology including Electrifying America (1990) and American Technological Sublime (1994). In his lecture, Nye proposed a list of eight defining features of the history of technology. I thought Nye’s lecture was a thoughtful reflection on disciplinary identity in an area of study that is, by his own admission, fundamentally interdisciplinary. I was particularly struck by Nye’s emphasis on labor as a core element of the history of technology: “without workers there can be no technologies.” He called for more engagement between labor historians and historians of technology, as well as a recognition of the role of workers in both modification and meaning-making. You can read Nye’s lecture in full here. The plenary was followed by a reception at the “Car Court” of the lovely Henry Ford Museum. There I learned much about the history of the automobile, and saw many models of the original Ford (from A to T!)

A Ford Model T on display during Thursday evening's reception at the Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn MI.

On the first full day of the conference, I saw two panels which interrogated the “groups, networks, and systems” (as described by Nye) that shape technologies and drive innovation. The first, Technology in Use, examined the role of users in technology transfer. Joshua Walker (University of Maryland) described how Mexican peasants became masters of repair, cannibalizing some pieces of agricultural machinery to repair others after Mexican economic policy blocked the import of parts or newer models. Carrie Meyer (George Mason University) showed images of “power houses” set up by midwestern farmers in the early 20th century to maximize the utility of their gas engines for farm and domestic chores. Lastly, Aashish Velkar (University of Manchester) gave a glimpse into his fascinating project about the global diffusion of the metric system and the clash between the state and citizens during the transition to a new system of measurement. 

The second panel, Who Were the Innovators, featured four great papers that challenged traditional notions about “who drives innovation.” In these four cases, it was popular science writers, mothers, high school students, and government regulators that pushed for the development of new technologies. Gender emerged as a central theme of the panel, as the presenters showed how historically bounded definitions of femininity and masculinity become intertwined with our narratives of progress. Joy Rankin (a fellow student at Yale), provided particularly striking examples of the masculine culture of “personal computing before personal computers” among high school and college students in the early 1970s. My favorite story involved one Dartmouth student using BASIC to send a romantic message to his girlfriend at Vassar: a giant printout that read “I Miss You Girl.” He hoped that his programming prowess would impress his significant other. It must have worked, because they’re still together today!

An engaging panel on Friday morning asked: Who Were The Innovators?

During the second day of the conference, I attended three consecutive panels that dealt with some combination of gender, health, and consumer technologies. This included my own panel on Body Practices, chaired by Projit Mukharji (University of Pennsylvania). After chairing the panel on Rot at HSS, Projit flew to Dearborn so he could comment on Jessica Martucci’s (Mississippi State University) fascinating paper on placentophagy (or, eating one’s own placenta) and my own paper on ovulation detection technologies. Needless to say, it must have been a weird weekend for Projit, but I very much appreciated all his helpful comments as well as the audience’s enthusiastic discussion of embodied technologies.

Another great discussion followed the panel Health, Harm, and Hope: Technological Comprehension and Consumer Health Products. Martha Gardner (MCPHS University) showed us how hexachlorophene became America’s most famous chemical in the postwar period before being banned by the FDA in the 1970s, while Jeffrey Womack (University of Houston) spoke about the history of radium water (yes, that would be radioactive water), an energy drink for the early 20th century. Audience members debated the role of the consumer in assessing risk, especially when it comes to products that may slowly impact health over a long period of time. Can consumers be trusted to weigh quantitative evidence or to understand the hazards of accumulation? Do we always need regulators to remove potentially dangerous products from the market, or are consumers capable of deciding what amount of risk they’ll accept? In the final paper of the panel, Lara Freidenfelds (independent scholar and member of the Princeton Research Forum) spoke of the messy risk calculus of home pregnancy testing. Pregnancy detection is now happening so early that it is creating a new category of “early pregnancy” and, consequently, the concept of a very early miscarriage. Apparently, you can be just a little bit pregnant, and this technologically-enabled state has serious emotional consequences for women who use the tests.

A few other highlights:

  • Pamela O. Long, recent recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant, was also the recipient of this years’ SHOT Leonardo da Vinci Medal. Audience members were assured that the award committee had decided to recognize Long’s work long before the MacArthur folks made their announcement. Long gave a great speech reflecting on her scholarly career, and called on young scholars to embrace the study of premodern technology.

  • There were several panels reflecting on the importance of public engagement in the history of technology, including a roundtable response to Nicholas Kristof’s “indictment of academia” published last year in the New York Times. I had a few great conversations with academics who are engaged in curating exhibits in public spaces, and many emphasized how the materiality of the history of technology provides perfect opportunities for “hands-on” public engagement.

  • On Friday afternoon, I attended the panel Indistinguishable from Magic: Technology and the Occult in Machine Age America. The title was inspired by Arthur C. Clarke’s third law of prediction (“any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”,) and the papers were an fascinating look into how both spiritualists and magicians adopted modern technologies to create and study magic. Robert MacDougall (University of Western Ontario) capped off the panel with a smart paper on the Keely Motor, which touched on the challenges of writing the history of a failed technology as well as combining biography with the history of technology.

  • Although I wasn’t able to attend, there was lots of buzz about Thursday’s THATcamp, and more generally about the need to bring fresh methodological approaches to the history of technology. I think it is fair to say that there was a lot of excitement and experimentation among the new generation of scholars at the meeting, and I’m looking forward to seeing how a list of “defining features” of the discipline might look very different a decade from now.

If you’re interested in hearing more about the conversations we had in Dearborn, check out this compilation of #SHOT2014 tweets, courtesy of Finn Arne Jorgenson.


Great recap, Jenna! I am very about how historians of technology responded to your panel's paper on placentophagy. I appreciate David Nye's emphasis on labor as a central tenet of history of tech. As historians of tech turn their eyes to the digital world (a place where labor and labor practices are doubly obscured by the seeming amateriality of the internet) it's a particularly timely insight.

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