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Technology in America: A Brief History.

Technology in America: A Brief History. By Alan I. Marcus and Howard P. Segal. (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999. Pp. viii, 400. $43.00.)

Delving into the history of technology as a graduate student in the early 1990s, this reviewer was amazed to discover that, with one exception, the most recent textbook was nearly 30 years old. While Melvin Kranzberg and Carroll Pursell's Technology in Western Civilization (1967) contained a great deal of useful information, it lacked an American focus and was also out of print. Alan I. Marcus and Howard P. Segal proved the one exception and met a long-existing need when they published a groundbreaking textbook on the history of American technology in 1989. Now in its second edition, Technology in America remains as pertinent today as it was then, though it now shares the field with at least two other useful surveys.

Eschewing the more conventional preindustrial-to-postindustrial characterization, the authors instead organize the work on two levels: the first consists of a standard American history periodization and the second is a progression of cultural notions and social themes for each. Hence, the first of the three parts examines technology (before 1830) in the context of mercantilism, community organization, and the rise of the individual; the second (1830-1920) in terms of uniformity, efficiency, and systems; and the third (1920s to the present) in light of technology alternately as a social solution and a social question. The unorthodox structure reflects the authors' conviction that the greatest insights come from study of the impact of American society and culture on technology, not on technology's impact on America. Although this choice certainly reflects their own views, it also explicitly recognizes the centrality of social and cultural context to the field.

Within this framework fall descriptions of raw materials as diverse as wood and plastics, processes as different as iron smelting and microchip fabrication, and individuals as far removed in time as Eli Whitney and Bill Gates. Varied degrees of detail in the descriptions rightly render a text more useful as a survey, though the lists of suggested readings do point the way for those wanting more. The attention to cultural context creates many points of attachment for U.S. history teachers using the work as ancillary reading, while the standalone nature of the three segments lends it nicely to similar assignment in the classic American history period courses. Of course, it would be excellent as an anchor for a survey class in the history of technology.

The focus on ideas yields many insights, which will come as a surprise to the average reader. Yet, some conclusions seem forced: explaining the popularity of early photography in terms of the measurement of the subject's character ignores the more obvious fact that people simply cherished a means by which they could accurately capture and keep the image of a loved one. Similarly, some readers will doubtless bristle at the authors' categorization of the pre-mid-post industrial framework as trivial and irrelevant. Arranging the history of American technology around such a concept surely has as much relevance as does the list of social movements and cultural concerns the authors choose to use in its stead. But, these are quarrels naturally arising from the attempt to impose order on a subject as far-reaching as the history of technology in that most technological of places, the United States. That the material lends itself to more than one interpretive structure seems a pedestrian observation in light of the existence of other works that do the same thing differently. Students and teachers both may rejoice that they now have a choice when it comes to selecting a textbook on this vital topic. Technology in America remains one of those choices, and a good one.

Thomas A. Kinney

Case Western Reserve University
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Kinney, Thomas A.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2001
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