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Course Syllabus
History of American Technology
Fall 1996


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Number: 51.4650-01
Location: Sage 4101

  • Class:
    • Tuesdays 11:00 a.m to 12:20 p.m.
    • plus roughly one extra hour per week TBA
  • Office:
    • Tuesdays and Thursdays 12:30-1:00 p.m.
    • Thursdays 2:00-4:00 p.m.
    • and by appointment


P. Thomas Carroll ([obsolete email address deleted])
[obsolete office address and office phone deleted]
[obsolete address of faculty home page deleted]

  • One course in American history
  • or 51.212 (History of Science and Technology) [now 51.250]
  • or AP standing in American history
  • or permission of instructor

N.B. This course carries social science credit only (4 credit hours).
This course also qualifies for credit as an advanced-placement (AP) American history course.
To track down Carroll, or for grades and other course information, contact Patti Mugrace [contact information deleted].
Advanced technology is today a hallmark of American culture. Most Americans know this, but few realize that the United States has been famous for its distinctive technology for at least a century and a half. By surveying some of the major American technological developments, and by reading what some leading scholars of the history of American technology have written about them, this course will explore the interactions between technology and culture in the American setting. We will concentrate on ideas and forces at work in American history rather than on names, places, and dates. Some part of each class may deal with the nuts-and-bolts aspect of particular mechanical inventions, but the main thrust of the course and the central purpose of class discussions will be the wider context of technology, not how things work. How has technology evolved? Why has it changed? With what consequences? What meanings do we ascribe to the material aspects of our culture? Can we control the evolution of technology at all? Should we? If so, when and how and by whom? The course will give each student an opportunity to develop proficiency in oral expression and expository prose, and to conduct limited original research.
Course texts (available in Rensselaer Bookstore; each will be used extensively):

Edward H. Carr, What Is History? (New York: Random House, Vintage Paperback V391, 1967).

Brooke Hindle and Steven Lubar, Engines of Change: The American Industrial Revolution, 1790-1860 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1986).

Thomas P. Hughes, American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm, 1870-1970 (New York: Penguin Books, 1989).

Carroll W. Pursell, The Machine in America: A Social History of Technology (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995). Referred to as "Pursell textbook" in schedule below.

Carroll W. Pursell, Jr., ed., Technology in America: A History of Individuals and Ideas (Cambridge, Mass., and London: MIT Press, 1981). Referred to as "Pursell anthology" in schedule below.

Randall E. Stross, ed., Technology and Society in Twentieth Century America: An Anthology (Chicago: Dorsey Press, 1989).

William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, 3rd ed., with index (New York: Macmillan, 1986).

Assignments and grade. The grade in this course will derive from seven different indicators of your performance: two short surprise quizzes on the readings; a four-page typed essay; a simple research project; a midterm; a final; and class participation (which will include special preparation for one discussion class, performance as an editor of a classmate's draft essay and draft research report, and weekly ungraded written reflections).

Unless the class as a whole is not at all average, grading will be adjusted to a normal curve with a mean of Bminus. Collaboration with classmates is downright encouraged except where explicitly prohibited; there is to be no collaboration in the taking of quizzes or in the drafting of essays, research reports, exams, and weekly reflections. Essays "recycled" from-or jointly submitted to-other courses are not acceptable for the essay assignment, even if they are your own work, without the advance permission of the instructor, and your research project must be your own work only, conducted solely for this course. Cheating on any part of the course will constitute grounds for failure of the whole course. In particular, to avoid the charge of plagiarism, place all phrasing not your own, however trivial, within quotation marks, and cite a source for all passages or ideas not your own; failure to do so constitutes one form of cheating. Consult the Rensselaer Handbook for further information about academic dishonesty. Weighting of the various components of the grade will be as follows:

05% Quiz (higher score)
10% Quiz (lower score)
20% Four-page essay
10% Research project
15% Midterm examination
20% Final examination
20% Class participation
The quizzes will be given in class on unannounced dates. They will be simple tests of your diligence in keeping up with and comprehending the assigned reading. The essay, a four-page typed, double-spaced (ca. 1,000 words) discussion of a topic assigned by the instructor, will serve as an exercise in analytical prose and critical historical interpretation. One of three possible due dates will be assigned to you randomly. The research project will be a simple, structured exercise in finding and interpreting primary historical materials; full instructions will be handed out early in the semester, and the research reports are due in not later than 03 December. The midterm and final will be tests of your ability to integrate the materials of the course into your own critical historical interpretation. They will be in-class, open-notes, closed-book exams. (If a majority of the class wishes it, the final will be handed out in advance, and a take-home option may be added for it.) At the instructor's option, students with exemplary scores near the end of the semester may be exempted from the final examination. The best preparation for the exams is full and responsible participation in class discussions, which provides an opportunity to subject your ideas to public scrutiny. This is such an important element of history that class participation is factored materially into the grade. Indeed, the success of the course depends critically upon each student attending class religiously, completing the readings before class, and participating actively in the discussions. I do not require class attendance, but if you choose to skip class without cause, you risk missing a quiz and you lessen the cumulative total of your opportunities to earn a good class participation grade.

Students are required to submit a page of reflections on the current week's readings at the beginning of weeks 1 through 12 (see Schedule below), and they are encouraged to write an anonymous one-paragraph evaluation of the week's work at the end of each Thursday class. A handout of pointers about how to write a weekly reflection will be distributed shortly after the semester begins. The number of one-page reflections submitted will be factored into the class participation grade, but their content will not be graded; they provide writing practice for the student, encourage the taking of notes that will be useful for the exams, and allow the instructor to monitor progress in the course. As time permits, the instructor will write comments on the submitted reflections each week.

The instructor will be the discussion leader of last resort, but once during the semester, each student will help the instructor direct the weekly discussion by being a discussion assistant. In most weeks, during the Thursday class, the instructor will launch the discussion period with brief opening remarks, will interject provocative questions, will provide supplementary explanation now and then, will occasionally attempt to draw out analysis from others, and will summarize at the end of the session. The student assistants will take the most active role, however, both as discussion leaders and as agents provocateurs, asking the bulk of the questions, correcting classmates, and challenging the interpretations of the readings, of the students, and even of the instructor. A handout of pointers about how to be an effective discussion assistant will be distributed shortly after the semester begins. You will pick your week for this assignment on 29 August.

Essays and research reports will not go straight from student to instructor. Instead, each student will be paired with a classmate who will serve as her or his editor, and the editor will get the submission first. It will be the editor's job to supply the student with constructive marginal comments concerning the style and the content of the submission. This procedure both gives students experience at editorial criticism and makes it possible for the instructor to make this course more writing-intensive. Editors may also review other submissions, though this is optional. Guidance will be provided to editors in class, there will be a handout of relevant writing tips, and the assigned text by Strunk and White gives pithy, timely advice, for which you will be held responsible in your written work. A sign-up sheet for editorial pairings will be available on 03 September. Write your name at the end of each draft you edit for your partner, and staple the edited draft of your own work to the back of your polished essay, or research report, when you submit it for grading.

If you are unhappy about your grade on any component of this course, please let the instructor know so that mistakes and misunderstandings can be minimized. The Rensselaer Handbook explains grade appeals that go beyond negotiations between the instructor and the student.


We will add roughly one additional hour of class per week, though these hours may be bunched into multi-week chunks rather than spread out evenly over the semester.

Readings from sources other than the texts will be on reserve in Folsom Library.

0. August 27 and 29--Definitions and objectives; truth versus good judgment.


  • "Prologue: The Strange Death of Silas Deane," in James West Davidson and Mark Hamilton Lytle, After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection, 2nd ed. (New York: Knopf, 1986), xv-xxxv.
  • Carr, chapters 1 and 4.
1. September 3 and 5--Technology in the American "wilderness".


  • Pursell anthology, chapter 2 (Hindle on the wooden age).
  • Pursell textbook, preface and introduction.
  • Hindle and Lubar, chapters 1 and 2.
2. September 10 and 12--Early engineers, "improvements", and technology transfer.


  • Pursell anthology, chapter 3 (Meier on Jefferson).
  • Pursell anthology, chapter 4 (Stapleton on Latrobe).
  • Pursell textbook, chapters 1, 2, and 3.
  • Hindle and Lubar, chapters 3, 4, 5, and 6.
3. September 17 and 19--Industrialization and the American System of Manufacturing.


  • Pursell anthology, chapter 5 (Smith on Whitney).
  • Pursell textbook, chapter 4.
  • Hindle and Lubar, chapter 13.
  • David A. Hounshell, From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984), introduction and chapter 1.
4. September 24 and 26--Republican technology and the factory town.


  • John F. Kasson, Civilizing the Machine: Technology and Republican Values in America, 1776-1900 (New York: Penguin Books, 1977), chapter 1. Read chapter 2 also if you have the time.
  • Hindle and Lubar, chapters 11, 12, and 14.
5. October 1 and 3--Machines to sew, machines to reap: the diffusion of "machinofacture."


  • Nathan Rosenberg, Technology and American Economic Growth (New York: Harper & Row, 1972; reprinted White Plains, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, Inc., 1977), chapter 4.
  • Hindle and Lubar, chapter 15.
  • Robert L. Heilbroner, "Do Machines Make History?" Technology and Culture 8 (1967) 335345.
  • Pursell textbook, chapters 5, 7, and 8.
6. October 8 and 10--Improvements revisited: the new urban technology.


  • P. Thomas Carroll, "American Science Transformed," American Scientist 74 (1986) 466-485.
  • Pursell textbook, chapter 6.
  • Sam B. Warner, Jr., Streetcar Suburbs: The Process of Growth in Boston, 18701900 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press and MIT Press, 1962; reprinted New York: Athenaeum, 1973), chapter 2.
  • Carl W. Condit, American Building (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), chapters 9 and 10.
  • Stross, chapter 1 (Boorstin on consumer palaces, etc.).
October 15--No class. How did technology factor into Columbus's life?

October 17--Midterm examination (in class, open notes, closed book).

October 19--Optional tour of historical sites in Troy and environs. Details to be announced in class.

7. October 22 and 24--Invention, research, inventor-entrepreneurs: the age of heroic invention.


  • Hughes, introduction, plus chapters 1 and 2.

NOTE: Group 1 essays go to editors.

8. October 29 and 31--The corporation as inventor.


  • Hughes, chapter 4.
  • Pursell anthology, chapter 12 (Jenkins on Eastman).
  • Stross, chapter 4 (Noble on patents, corporation as inventor).

NOTE: Revised Group 1 essays due. Coin tosses for Group 1: TH

NOTE: Group 2 essays go to editors.

9. November 5 and 7--War, technological momentum, systems, giantism, and progress.


  • Hughes, chapters 3 and 5.
  • Pursell textbook, chapter 9.
  • Pursell anthology, chapter 14 (Hays on Pinchot).
  • Pursell anthology, chapter 15 (Cooper on Taylor).
  • Pursell anthology, chapter 16 (Flink on Ford).
NOTE: Revised Group 2 essays due. Coin tosses for Group 2: HT

NOTE: Group 3 essays go to editors.

10. November 12 and 14--Modern workers at work, at home, on the road. I: Gender and consumerism.


  • Pursell textbook, chapters 10 and 11.
  • Stross, chapter 13 (Cowan on more work for mother).
  • Stross, chapter 8 (Flink on the car culture).
  • Stross, chapter 9 (Jackson on the crabgrass frontier).
  • Stross, chapter 14 (Postman on TV and U.S.A. Today).
NOTE: Revised Group 3 essays due. Coin tosses for Group 3: HH

11. November 19 and 21--Modern workers at work, at home, on the road. II: The Second World War and the postwar prosperity.


  • Pursell textbook, chapter 12.
  • Stross, chapter 3 (Braverman on labor and monopoly capital).
  • Stross, chapter 10 (Rhodes on the making of the atom bomb).
  • Stross, chapter 11 (Boyer on atomic culture).
  • Stross, chapter 12 (McDougall on the space age).

November 26 and 28: Thanksgiving week. No classes. Observe the cultural significance of the technologies of cooking and eating used at the Thanksgiving dinner.

12. December 3 and 5--Technological alternatives and the control of technology.


  • Hughes, chapter 9.
  • Pursell textbook, chapter 13.

December 17--Final examination (in class, open notes, closed book), 2:00-5:00 p.m., Sage 4101.