Infinity, Limited Infinity, Limited blog brought to you by History News Network. Sat, 23 Sep 2023 21:15:44 +0000 Sat, 23 Sep 2023 21:15:44 +0000 Zend_Feed_Writer 2 ( Welcome to Infinity, Limited

Welcome to Infinity, Limited

Doing the history of technology is like being a kid in a candy store.  There are so many possible topics and so many ways of tackling them that the tempting opportunities seem endless.  This blog will explore that candy store and try to convey some of the thrills that those of us fortunate (or deluded) enough to be professional historians of technology experience. 

Infinity, Limited is this blog’s name.  Technology enables us to extend ourselves in ways unimaginable ever a few decades ago.  Our imaginations and expectations of what technology can do are infinite, but the reality is limited by factors ranging from the narrowly technical (materials unable to fulfill desired specifications) to the economic (the best technology is worthless if too costly) to the social (are pocket protectors really cool?).  Hence “Infinity, Limited.”

Why should you read this blog?  After all, the Internet offers millions of alternatives, often done more professionally and with more provocative titles and images.  First, the history of technologies are fascinating in themselves. Second, the history of technology offers windows into understanding larger historical issues.  Third, the history of technology is fun.  You’ll never look at your laundry the same way before.   Or the LED. 

What is technology?  I favor broad, inclusive definitions:  Melvin Kranzberg, one of the founders of the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) and Carroll Pursell in 1967 wrote, “Technology, in a sense, is nothing more than the area of interaction between ourselves, as individuals, and our environment, whether material or spiritual, natural or manmade.”[i]  Two decades later, the editors of one of the seminal books in the field defined technology as the set of “physical objects or artifacts,” “activities or processes,” and “what people know as well as what they do.”[ii]  Technology is an instrument of culture as well as individuals and always occurs within a particular social context.

Technologies are ways of extending control over nature (including people). A B-2 bomber is a complex technology; an umbrella is a simple technology. One is used to exert control militarily; the other exerts control over (or minimizes the efforts of) the weather.   But control is not the only reason we use technologies in our lives. 

When I ask my students the first day of class what technology is, the replies usually are on the lines of tools to accomplish tasks better, faster, or more efficiently.  The emphasis is on work.  When I tell them that pornography was one of the first widespread uses of new communication technologies (ranging from woodblock printing in the 16th century to the internet in the 20th century), they pause.  Their image, the popular image of technology, is serious.  Steam engines are serious.  Steamy pictures are not.  But both are part of technology.

Astronauts and their Corvettes

How do historians study technologies?  We use a combination of approaches including written and oral sources, but also we analyze the technologies themselves.  Consider the Model T and a Corvette built a century later.  The essential components and concepts – internal combustion engine, four wheels, enclosed cabin, &c. – remain the same, but much else has changed.  Perhaps the most obvious difference is the height of the car body off the ground.  Ford engineers designed the Model T for driving over low-quality roads or even no roads at all as well as easy maintenance by owners.  Implicit in the Corvette is the assumption that it will be driven only on high-quality, smooth roads and maintained by professional mechanics. 

History, the future, and Harry Truman’s one-armed economist.  President Harry Truman allegedly spoke wistfully about his desire for a one-armed economist.  When asked why, the president responded that his economic advisors would outline a proposed course of action, but then pause and say, “But on the other hand ….”  Beware anyone who states “The lessons of history are ….”  Reality is complicated and rarely can historians fully and accurately comprehend the motivations and actions of all the actors of a historical event.  We can – and should – participate in contemporary policy debates and use our expertise, but we – and the people listening to our ideas – should be careful of simplistic solutions.  If the problem was really that basic, it problem would have been solved long ago. 

History of technology and public policy.  Despite that warning, if you want to use the history of technology to think about contemporary issues, follow the economics and engineering.  Specifically, look who benefits and who loses from particular technologies or policies (such as the Net Neutrality debate).  Second, effective policies usually entail the “three engineerings” of the environment, the actual technology, and the users. 

To take an example close to home, automobile accidents killed over 53,000 Americans in 1970.  If accidents had continued at the same rate (deaths per hundred million miles traveled), over 150,000 people would have died in 2013.  Instead only 35,000 Americans died.  If a friend or family member was one of those 35,000, that “only” is justifiably painful.  Three broad factors resulted in safer roads.  First, the environment changed:  rumble strips, crash barriers, and better road design made driving safer while emergency medical services reduced the death rate from crashes.  Second, cars became safer:  airbags, crash-friendly interiors, safety glass and other alternations made cars less lethal to their occupants.  Third, users changed:  Driving while intoxicated became socially unacceptable with increased legal penalties to enforce good behavior. 

That nearly one hundred people die daily on American roads shows there is still a significant problem (and a wonderful example of how we misrepresent risk, a topic for a future blog).  That five hundred people do not die daily on those roads show how engineering the users, vehicles, and environment for driving worked. 

Who am I?  I’m an academic, which means I’m defining myself by my institution, teaching and research. I have the honor to teach at Texas A&M University since 1988.  I teach unsuspecting (and sometimes suspecting) undergraduates and graduates classes in the history of technology in America and worldwide, the history of energy of America, and 20th-21st century European history.  My latest book, FAXED. The Rise and Fall of the Fax Machine explores the history of the fax machine.  My first book, The Electrification of Russia examined the evolution of electric power, lighting, and transportation in Russia from the 1880s to the 1920s.  I’ve also written about pornography and technology, how Al Gore really did help invent the Internet, and a few other odds and ends.

I hope this blog will spark your interest in the history of technology.  Please send me suggestions for topics and approaches. 


Next posting

Why failure is normal in the history of technology

[i] Melvin Kranzberg and Carroll W. Pursell, Jr., Technology in Western Civilization (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1967), I, 11. 

[ii]   Wiebe E. Bijker, Thomas P. Hughes and Trevor Pinch, eds., “General Introduction,” in The Social Construction of Technological Systems (Cambridge:  MIT Press, 1987), 4.

Sat, 23 Sep 2023 21:15:44 +0000 0
Compromising Engineers and the Keystone XL Pipeline

Jonathan Coopersmith teaches history at Texas A & M University.

Compromise may be a career-ending concept in politics, but it is essential in engineering.  Every day engineers have to balance legitimate and conflicting interests.  What makes a great engineer is not only the ability to find the best balance but also to convince stakeholders of the wisdom of that decision. 

To illustrate this concept, look at this drawing from a 1951 issue of Railway Age (that in 1951 railroad passenger cars were a commercially significant complex technology is itself another story).  Each of the 13 images of an ideal car shows the perspective of one group involved in the decision to design a car. 

All of those perspectives are valid and important:  Finance wants a car that makes money by carrying as many passengers as possible, maintenance wants a car that can be easily serviced, construction wants a car that is easy to build, and so in.  The challenge for engineers – because they usually work in teams – is to create and manufacture a railroad car that meets the conflicting needs and desires of all the stakeholders. 

So why drag designing railroad cars in the 1950s into the contemporary debate over the proposed 1179-mile Keystone XL pipeline from Hardisty, Alberta to Steele City, Nebraska to carry oil extracted from Canadian tar sands to American refineries?  Because Keystone XL has become political theater and fundraising fodder to the detriment of the actual proposal and serious discussion about energy policy.  An object of intense political posturing over the last few years, the pipeline has become a powerful symbol pitting environmentalists against petroleum promoters.   

There are significant environmental objections to the pipeline:  It will encourage further use of oil and extracting oil from the Canadian tar sands demands a lot of energy and produces high levels of carbon dioxide relative to the amount of oil produced.  Or, an as energy economist would say, tar sands have a low energy return on energy invested compared with drilling a well in Saudi Arabia. 

The pipeline, however, will increase long-term American geopolitical security by providing a major Canadian-American conduit for oil.  If built and maintained properly, the Keystone XL pipeline will reduce the cost and increase the safety of transporting Canadian oil:  Pipelines are much safer and less expensive than railroads as any resident of Boomer, West Virginia, where 3 million gallons of oil in 109 tank cars derailed in a flaming fury earlier this month, will testify. 

As Christopher Jones demonstrated in Routes of Power, a history of American energy infrastructure, successfully building pipelines demanded political as well as financial and engineering entrepreneurship.  Keystone was not the first nor will it be the last contested pipeline. 

So what would a compromising engineer do?  Or, in this case, what would the former director of the United States Geological Survey and current editor-in-chief of Science recommend?  Marcia McNutt suggested the federal government approve the Keystone pipeline in return for the Canadian oil industry reducing its carbon emissions.  The pipeline would be built but carbon emissions would not grow or even shrink. 

Currently, the Republican majorities in the House and Senate passed a bill authorizing Keystone XL.  President Obama has just vetoed the bill.  Everyone has stood up for their principles and political base.  Now, it is time for the President and Congressional Democrats to build on Dr. McNutt’s proposal and support the pipeline -- in exchange for Republican support of a carbon tax. 

This would be a grand compromise in the best engineering tradition with major benefits for the United States, Canada and the planet.  Keystone advocates and environmentalists will both win.  The former will get a productive, safe pipeline and the latter will gain a tool to offset the carbon produced. 

At its simplest a carbon tax taxes the amount of carbon a fuel burns.   The tax encourages low-carbon or no-carbon fuels, like natural gas and renewables, over high-carbon fuels like coal. 

Economists like a carbon tax because it sends a clear price signal to the market without distorting it like tax credits or subsidies.  Furthermore, a carbon tax is easy to administer and far less intrusive, regulatory and complicated than cap-and-trade markets.   It’s a simple free market solution and far less bureaucratic than regulations. 

For environmentalists, a carbon tax will ensure that the oil sent by the pipeline will be carbon-neutral; that is, the tax will lower overall fossil fuel consumption to offset the carbon dioxide generated by producing the oil from the tar sands. 

Texas A&M economics professor James Griffin has proposed such a tax should start low and slowly but publicly increase over time.  The low initial cost means any economic disruption will be small at first.  The gradual increase tells consumers – whether utilities or individuals – that the price of their energy from coal, oil or natural gas will definitely but slowly increase, giving them the certainty to plan ahead. 

Like any compromise, the politics will be challenging.  Republicans will have to accept the creation of a new tax while Democrats will have to accept that oil will continue to be a mainstay of the energy world for decades.  The only real loser will be the coal industry, which will be hardest hit.  Even then, a carbon tax will just accelerate the long-term trend of switching from coal to natural gas, wind, solar, nuclear and other more environmentally friendly and increasingly less expensive fuels. 

Trading a carbon tax for the Keystone XL pipeline is good energy policy.  Whether Democratic and Republican political leaders will seize the opportunity is another issue.  If they do, somewhere a passenger car designer will be smiling at the elegance of the compromise. 

Sat, 23 Sep 2023 21:15:44 +0000 0
Comparative History: Telling A Tale of Two Cities

Comparative history

We are constantly comparing creatures, as the popularity of top ten lists attests. Comparison allows us to observe and analyze similarities and differences. Good comparison stimulates us to think more deeply about what we take for granted and challenges our concepts of normality. One of the more subversive aspects of travel literature is that it encourages readers to realize that their society may not necessarily be the best of all possible worlds (look at the impact of Montesquieu’s 1721 Persian Letters). And more than one American has returned from a trip abroad marveling at how well public transportation can work.

Comparative history is particularly hard to do well, especially for one person. You are studying different environments with different cultures. Multiple languages may be another required skill set. It’s often easier to assemble a group of historians to each focus on, e.g., the Munich Crisis from the perspectives of the x nations involved (or not). But pity the editor who now has to corral not one but several historians into submitting manuscripts on time and on topic.

Yet for the history of technology, comparative approaches offer very tempting fruit. The history of the automobile looks very different in Europe than the United States (not to mention the variations within Europe). Why? Differences in per capita income, political economy, physical geography, and laws are necessary but not sufficient to understand why different countries followed different and similar paths with a technology.

The rise of electric lighting in the 1870s-80s in Europe and the United States, for example, is viewed by historians as a civilian enterprise. Except, however, in Russia, where the army and navy planned major roles in sponsoring research, training technicians and engineers, and serving as the major market. Was the Russian military unusually prescient or aggressive in promoting electric lighting? Or was the leading military role reflective of the weak Russian civilian market and economy? If you chose the latter, you were correct. And if you look for American or British or French electrical engineers working with their militaries on electric lighting, you can find them – but dwarfed by non-military opportunities.

Looking at the evolution of a technology across societies as well as across time can reveal far more than just looking at one country or region.One theme common in almost every comparative study I have read is the importance of transborder flows of ideas, knowledge, people, and equipment in shaping national developments. Countries, regions, cities do not create and diffuse technologies de novo but as part of a larger world in which knowledge of what others are doing or thinking of doing or claiming to be doing shapes your actions.

Telling a Tale of Two Cities

Perhaps nowhere is this more evident – and more important – in the development of nuclear weapons by the United States and the Soviet Union. Plutopia:Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters (Oxford University Press, 2013), Kate Brown has provided a fascinating and important comparative history of Ozersk, Russia, and Richmond, Washington during the Cold War and after.

The similarities between the American and Soviet efforts were greater than either side would probably like to admit – the Cold War fear of each other, the creation of huge privileged, high-security complexes, the long-term environmental consequences, and the separation of these plutonium communities from mainstream society. The differences, including different medical worldviews, were less rigid than expected.This is a book to challenge national narratives.

Below is an interview with Kate Brown by Lewis H. Seigelbaum, author of Cars for Comrades: The Life of the Soviet Automobile (Cornell, 2008), which originally appeared in the March issue of NewsNet, the newsletter of the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies (ASEES)which has generously permitted its reproduction. For the original, go here.

PLUTOPIA:  Interview

In Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters (Oxford University Press, 2013), Kate Brown draws on official records and dozens of interviews to tell the extraordinary stories of Richland, Washington and Ozersk, Russia-the first two cities in the world to produce plutonium. To contain secrets, American and Soviet leaders created plutopias—communities of nuclear families living in highly-subsidized, limited-access atomic cities. Fully employed and medically monitored, the residents of Richland and Ozersk enjoyed all the pleasures of consumer society, while nearby, migrants, prisoners, and soldiers were banned from plutopia--they lived in temporary “staging grounds” and often performed the most dangerous work at the plant.

Brown shows that the plants’ segregation of permanent and temporary workers and of nuclear and nonnuclear zones created a bubble of immunity, where dumps and accidents were glossed over and plant managers freely embezzled and polluted. In four decades, the Hanford plant near Richland and the Maiak plant near Ozersk each issued at least 200 million curies of radioactive isotopes into the surrounding environment—equaling four Chernobyls—laying waste to hundreds of square miles and contaminating rivers, fields, forests, and food supplies. Because of the decades of secrecy, downwind and downriver neighbors of the plutonium plants had difficulty proving what they suspected, that the rash of illnesses, cancers, and birth defects in their communities were caused by the plants’ radioactive emissions.

Plutopia was successful because in its zoned-off isolation it appeared to deliver the promises of the American dream and Soviet communism; in reality, it concealed disasters that remain highly unstable and threatening today. Plutopia invites readers to consider the nuclear footprint left by the arms race and the enormous price of paying for it. Professor Brown’s book was awarded the 2014 Vucinich Prize.

Kate Brown is Professor of History at UMBC. Brown’s Plutopia won the 2014 George Perkins Marsh Prize from the American Society for Environmental History, the 2014 Ellis W. Hawley Prize from the Organization of American Historians, the 2014 Heldt Prize from AWSS and the 2014 Robert G. Athearn Prize from the Western History Association. Lewis Siegelbaum is the Jack and Margaret Sweet Professor of History at Michigan State University. Recently, his research has focused on migration in Russian political space across the Imperial, Soviet, and post-Soviet periods, which resulted in Broad is My Native Land: Repertoires and Regimes of Migration in Russia’s Twentieth Century (Cornell University Press, 2014).

Lewis Siegelbaum (LS):When you wrote Plutopia what sort of an audience did you have in mind? I have the impression that you were reaching beyond “the field” and even academia in general. Was that so?

Kate Brown (KB):I designed this tandem history of the world’s first two cities to produce plutonium with largely an American audience in mind. I wanted to reach Americans and specifically Americans interested in Soviet history. I was aware that our sub field of Soviet history had compromised origins and questionable assumptions buried within it. The origins, of course, are a body of scholarship built on Cold War foundations and funding. The recent resistance of the ASEEES governing board to use Stephen Cohen’s name on scholarships that he and his wife Katrina vanden Heuvel sought to endow because of Cohen’s public statements about the conflict in eastern Ukraine shows how deeply the tradition of defending American policy runs in our professional organization.

I was also concerned that many English language histories of the USSR engage in an implicit, unspoken comparison with a rosy interpretation of US history. In these histories, discussions of civil society, civil rights, freedom, productivity, free enterprise, backwardness, dictatorship, etc. are framed against an often unspoken gold standard, which is either “the West” or the United States. These buried comparisons hold up only as long as one has no more than a glancing understanding of US history.

Placing the two superpowers’ histories together explicitly, not to compare, but to juxtapose was my antidote. Researching the two plutonium disasters side by side, I saw how closely engaged the superpowers were in a joint enterprise to produce bombs. They matched one another nearly step for step in taking shortcuts and emphasizing production over safety in a way that grossly contaminated the surrounding environment and placed workers and local residents in harm’s way. In this story, the ideology of national security trumped all others, whether of a socialist or capitalist derivation.

LSPart of the story you tell is about the terrible damage done by the secrecy that the US and Soviet governments imposed in the name of their respective national securities and the irony the institution of the closed city, which people automatically associate with the Soviet mania for secrecy, actually originated in the Hanford project. Are you asserting an equivalency here and in other respects?

KB: I didn’t go looking for equivalency or difference. I was mostly trying to trace a chronological narrative. Researching the Soviet side of the history of plutonium production, I noticed that thanks to espionage, Soviet leaders of the bomb project closely imitated the successful American Manhattan Project. They stole the plans for the reactors and bombs, and also the plans to the closed nuclear city, created first at Los Alamos. As historians like to start at origins, beginning Plutopia with the American side of the story made sense. 

As I worked through the declassified American records, I was appalled at what I found--the intricate efforts to conceal the dangers of nuclear weapons production, the deeply refined classism and racism of labor practices that allocated dirty work to people least able to complain, and the sadly submissive and compliant employees, among them most of the “top brass.” As I researched the American story, I saw a great many similarities with the nuclear security state in the Soviet Urals, which as I note above were intentional.

The nature of nuclear production, the invisibility of the materials and the administrative innovation of compartmentalization, made it easy for both Soviet and American plant managers to deny radioactive hazards to suspicious workers.

I found an essential difference, however. In August 1945, the press poured into Richland and marveled at what a fine city plutonium had built. They called it “paradise.” As reporters were not allowed in the industrial zone, Richland became the public face of nuclear production and served as a model city insuring the country that its leaders had this new very powerful weapon under control.

This show of openness did not occur in the USSR, and in terms of science that was a good thing. American leaders were very worried about leaks, not of a radioactive kind, but to the press, and so they did not commission studies to find out the impact to workers and neighbors of living year after year in a sea of low doses of radioactive isotopes. They felt they could not ask questions about public health in an open society for fear of a public relations disaster.

 In their closed society, Soviet leaders had no worries about a watchdog press. They could and did commission studies, which basically used residents along the radioactive Techa River as human subjects in a three-generation study of the effects of chronic exposures to low doses of radiation. They came up with a diagnosis, Chronic Radiation Syndrome, which so far has only been diagnosed in Russia—not because it doesn’t exist elsewhere, but because the same open-ended questions were not asked elsewhere.

LSOne of the many ironies in the book is that Richland emerges as a totally “Soviet” city in the sense that it had no “free enterprise”; and the residents of Ozersk enjoyed consumer goods virtually unavailable elsewhere in the Soviet Union. When you started doing the research for the book did ironies like this jump off the page, so to speak, or did you go looking for them? And, is there some larger point you want to convey by writing the histories of these atomic cities in tandem?

KB: I did not expect to find these ironies, not in such abundance, but researching a tandem history proved very useful. Different national cultures and histories pose very different questions and present particular kinds of sources and information. I would notice a trend in the American context— say an obsession with young people in the early Cold War who read (poisonous) comic books—and I would turn to see how party leaders in Ozersk, the plutonium city, regarded youth and their pastimes. Not surprisingly, party leaders also fixated on the behavior of their youth, and seen against the American context, Soviet leaders’ worries appeared less prudish and controlling.

I noticed among residents in the US and USSR a fierce defense of their deadly plutonium plants, even after they learned just how much they had contaminated their homes and environments. Writing a national history, I might have chalked this posture to the political conservatism of the interior American West, or the narrow-mindedness of the Russian provinces, but taken together I started to grasp a rising tide of entitlement that came to working class plant operators who were paid and treated like their professional class bosses in plutopia. The sense of confidence, pride and autonomy, more than good housing and shops, proved addictive and kept people devoted and loyal to their dangerous jobs, deceptive managers, and increasingly poisonous landscapes.

 I also found in writing a tandem history that I could corroborate information across national boundaries. When, for example, people in eastern Washington first told me that radioactive effluence had made them sick with vague complaints, I did not believe them. There was no science to back up their charges. But when people in the southern Urals listed to me the same set of symptoms, I had to reconsider. Reading the Russian medical literature, I found a body of scholarship that tracked changes in blood cells that corresponded with an assault of radioactive isotopes on various organs of the body to produce a whole bouquet of debilitating symptoms long before a body succumbed to cancer (which was largely the only radiation-related medical outcome that American doctors admitted). With that information, I took seriously the testimony of farmers near the Hanford plant.

What do I want to convey in this tandem history? My larger point is that by staying in boundaries, within carefully compartmentalized national histories, it is easy to miss very big stories that are right there, in plain site. Likewise, framing Soviet history as hermetic and isolated leads to the impression that the Soviet past was especially backward, brutal, despotic, or criminal. Widen the scope, and, unfortunately, you find that Soviet history does not stand alone.

Sat, 23 Sep 2023 21:15:44 +0000 0
Another Casualty of Bin Laden's Attack on America Was the Space Program

Jan. 19, 2006, marked when I really, really hated Osama bin Laden. Like every other American, the tragedy of 9/11 made me want to destroy al-Qaida, but I viewed the group mediated through the lens of the news. When NASA launched New Horizons to Pluto, however, I began to hate bin Laden for what he made us do — and chose not to do.

By itself, New Horizons is an incredible technological achievement. But it is much more, a stunning statement of long-term confidence in the future, a demonstration that American engineers, scientists and managers working together could plan, build, launch, maintain and operate a spacecraft for nearly a decade before it reached Pluto, the recently dethroned planet and last major object in our solar system to be visited by an American spacecraft.

The contrast with human spaceflight could not be starker. In January 2004, President George W. Bush unveiled his Vision for Space Exploration with the goal of returning astronauts to the moon in 2015 and sending them to Mars later. Skeptics looked at the budget plans and warned that the Bush administration was significantly underfunding this “Apollo on steroids,” to use NASA Administrator Michael Griffin’s phrase. Sadly, they were right.

The consequences of the rise of Muslim terrorist groups, the American reaction to 9/11 and President Bush’s global war on terrorism extend far beyond the war in Iraq and expanded state surveillance worldwide. The trillions of dollars consumed by the war (and the refusal to raise taxes to pay for it) have profoundly reshaped the federal government with space exploration a prominent loser.

Bin Laden is dead, but so is Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration. Sending people to Mars remains on the horizon roughly 20 years away, a position that has not budged in the last three decades.

While the rhetoric from Congress and the White House remains positive, the concomitant funding is not. The mismatch between resources and rhetoric is not new: As James R. Morrison told the first Augustine commission on space in 1990, the United States “talks leadership, but plans, organizes, and funds for mediocrity.”

Ask any space enthusiast about the next steps in space exploration and exploitation and you will feel like a kid in a candy store: So many exciting choices! Sadly, NASA’s short-term and long-term financial futures ensure that most of those tantalizing sweets will not be tasted. Barring a major shift in the political environment, NASA’s budget will not increase to a level anywhere near the levels needed to accomplish its goals. Worse, NASA is again becoming a political football as some Republicans actively seek to shrink NASA’s work in earth sciences.

Ideology is further adversely affecting space exploration via the return of sequestration. Just as the Department of Defense is warning about the dire effects if sequestration continues, so too is NASA concerned about the continuing impact of this financial straitjacket. And if the Republican Congress and Democratic president cannot agree, the chaos of another government shutdown will do more short-term damage.

The tea party-inspired sequestration budget cuts sit on a larger financial challenge. Growing federal spending on entitlements (Social Security and Medicare) is squeezing discretionary spending (e.g., NASA and the FBI), and the country’s antiquated tax and tax credit structure is increasingly inadequate to a 21st century economy.

Finding the resources to reach the planets will require refocusing on domestic politics and shifting the American political environment. Reforming the American tax system, ending sequestration and increasing discretionary spending are not as exciting as planning missions to Mars, but they are necessary for the latter. Like spaceflight, numerous proposals exist, such as a technology-neutral carbon tax, the Tobin tax on securities trading, removal of loopholes and subsidies from the tax system, and restructuring of government programs using behavioral economics, to name but a few.

But until the cost of reaching and operating in Earth orbit and beyond drastically declines, the American government will remain the largest player in space. A significant part of the new space market is based on the government as market and project funder. And if Congress and the White House, reading or ignoring the public will, do not provide funding for NASA, then the space candy store will remain out of reach. 

Advocating for space exploration and exploitation means restoring financial stability to the government. Successful advocacy will involve not just the promise of space but also dedication of time and effort to ensuring sufficient public and private investment to fulfilling that promise. 

How principal investigator Alan Stern worked to persuade NASA, the White House and Congress to approve New Horizons was also a significant political accomplishment. To ensure there will be future new horizons, the space community must first, like Voltaire’s Candide, tend its larger garden on Earth.  

Update 9-21-15

This piece appeared in the August 15 Space News and is reprinted with permission.  What I did not but should have stated in the original piece is that the second Iraq war will cost American taxpayers between two and three trillion dollars including interest and other long-term costs.  That's the direct financial cost.  In contrast, estimates for a human mission to Mars (estimates that NASA prefers to avoid making because it makes a nice target as president George H.W. Bush discovered in 1989 when he proposed his Space Exploration Initiative to go to Mars), are in the $200 billion range.  That is, NASA could have launched 10-15 separate massive programs to send people to Mars for the cost of president George W. Bush's Iraq war.  The casualties of that war extend far beyond the killed and wounded.  

Sat, 23 Sep 2023 21:15:44 +0000 0
Why Do Some Scholars Win Prizes (and Others Don't)? This is Jonathan Coopersmith's history of technology blog. He teaches history at Texas A & M University. An Associate Professor of History at Texas A&M University, Jonathan Coopersmith’s latest book is FAXED: The Rise and Fall of the Fax Machine (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015).

Soccer and baseball for our kids always meant a trophy at season’s end.  I marveled at how the coaches always managed to highlight the positive.  The prizes in academia and industry are a bit scarcer, the accompanying words a bit more voluminous and multi-syllabic, but the intent remains the same:  to recognize those whose efforts contributed significantly to the field. 

 Looking at the awards a professional society offers can provide interesting research openings into the evolution of that field.  The types of awards show what the society (or particular donors) considered sufficiently important to devote resources to finding money, receiving authorization by the society, and then finding members to serve on the prize committees. 


Like most of life, awards and honors have hierarchies.  The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) gives 80 awards and honors.[1] Most are specific technical, educational, student, service or publication awards, but six fall under the AIAA’s “premier” awards.   Reflecting the AIAA’s birth in aviation, the two oldest awards (Daniel Guggenheim, 1929, and Reed Aeronautics, 1934) both honor contributions in aeronautics.  The Goddard Astronautics award (1948) extended that recognition to space.  The Distinguished Service award (1968) reflected the reality that societies like to and need to honor their most active members. 

 The addition of International Cooperation (1988) demonstrated the AIAA’s increasing attention to move beyond the United States, an effort echoed by many other societies.  Perhaps most interestingly, the AIAA Foundation Award for Excellence (1998) is unique in honoring mostly groups (such as the X51A Waverider Team in 2014) instead of individuals.  Considering engineering projects involve large numbers of people, this is a more accurate award than an individual honor. 

 Some awards, especially those for lifetime achievement, may lag behind the person’s contributions by decades.  A general award, like the Institution of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) Medal of Honor for “an exceptional contribution or an extraordinary career in an IEEE field of interest,” usually reflect larger recognition of a person (or negotiations among the judges about what is most important). 

 The narrower the scope of the award, the smaller the interested audience is – and the more illuminating of that area.  The IEEE Energy Systems Award recognizes “a significant contribution in the broad field of energy systems, specifically as related to the application of engineering sciences and systems engineering to the production, storage, distribution, and conservation of energy.“  To research contemporary energy history, I would view the three decades of winners as a starting point to investigate the priorities of this intersection of aerospace and energy.

 Number illuminate, but they rarely self-explain.  In 1928, the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, a predecessor to the IEEE, introduced the Benjamin Lamme award for “meritorious achievement in the development of electrical apparatus or machinery,” which Lamme funded in his will. From 1991 to 2002, four Americans, four Europeans and three Japanese received the medal.  Before 1990, only American received the medal.  Did the criteria or prize committee membership shift after 1990?  Did the geography of innovative engineering expand? 

 The IEEE last presented the Lamme in 2002 and officially discontinued the award in 2008, when four IEEE societies (Industry Applications, Industrial Electronics, Power Electronics, and Power & Energy) established the Medal in Power Engineering for “generation, transmission, distribution, application, and utilization of electric power for the betterment of society.”[2]  What caused the six-year gap leading to the demise of the Lamme?  How challenging was the creation of the broader power engineering award? 

 In 2010, Toyota sponsored a medal for Environmental and Safety Technologies “for outstanding accomplishments in the application of technology in the fields of interest of IEEE that improve the environment and/or public safety”[3] Of five awards, four went to automobile-based accomplishments in safety and electric vehicles.  Does that reflect the importance of the automobile to electrical engineering or the bias of the award’s sponsor? The recipients were very international:  four Americans, three Japanese, three Germans, and one Singaporean.[4]  Does that reflect the field, the non-US sponsor, or a committee or IEEE attempt to be truly international?

 Curious about women who received IEEE awards?  The Women Awards Recipients lists the 42 women (one received two awards).[5]  The existence of this webpage itself is intriguing, probably indicating an institutional interest in showcasing female engineers.  A simple breakdown of the timing of the awards is even more intriguing:  What happened after 2011 to drastically increase the number of female awardees?  Did a generation of female engineers finally reach the stage of their careers where their accomplishments made them eligible?  Did the IEEE try to encourage its prize committees to consider women more seriously?

 Period            Number of female recipients

1991-2000            4

2001-10              13

2011-16              26

 Left unmentioned is the assumption that the list is complete, which implies that no woman received an IEEE award before 1991.  Also unmentioned are the number of men who received awards in those periods and the number of female and male IEEE members. 


What do its nine prizes tell us about the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT)?   SHOT’s highest award is the Leonardo da Vinci medal (1962) for lifetime accomplishments instead of a specific work.  Two prizes are dedicated to building the field:  the Robinson prize (1980) honors the best paper presented at a SHOT conference by a first-timer and the Ferguson prize (2007) honors “original reference works that support future scholarship,” which rarely receive mention otherwise.  Museums and exhibitions are the focus of the Dibner award (1987).

 Five awards focus on published research:

-       Usher prize (1961): “best scholarly work” published in SHOT’s journal Technology & Culture

-       Finn IEEE History prize (1988): “best article” in the history of electrotechnology

-       Edelstein prize (1989): “outstanding scholarly work in the history of technology”

-       Levinson (1991): a publication that “examines technology within the framework of social or intellectual history”

-       Hacker prize (1999):  “exceptional scholarship that reaches beyond the academy toward a broad audience.”[6] 

In addition, the SHOT Special Interest Group in Computers, Information, and Society (SIGCIS) has its Computer History Museum (2009) and Michael Mahoney (2015) awards for “outstanding” book and article in the history of computing and information technology respectively.[7]  Honoring original research clearly is SHOT’s priority.  Four of the seven research prizes are very broad in nature.  The specific prizes for electrotechnology and computing reflect an organized community effort to endow an award and not an institutional bias toward one sector of research over overs. 

The Hacker prize is the most interesting because its focus is books that an educated layperson could easily read and appreciate.  Consider that an effort to reward authors who reach beyond the academic community into a more public intellectual discourse.  Reflecting an interest in technology that reaches beyond academic, several awards went to authors whose primary identification is not as a historian of technology, such as Eric Schlosser and Susanne Freidberg. 

 Certainly, the Hacker awards provide a stimulating list of recommended books on the history of technology for the casual reader as well as the professional historian.  In this case, reading indeed is its own reward. 

Sally Hacker recipients


W. Bernard Carlson, Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age (Princeton University Press, 2013)


Eric Schlosser, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety (The Penguin Press, 2013)


Regina Blaszczyk, The Color Revolution (MIT Press, 2012)


Molly Berger, Hotel Dreams: Luxury, Technology, and Urban Ambition in America, 1829–1929 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011)


James R. Fleming, Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control (Columbia University Press, 2010)


Susanne Freidberg, Fresh: A Perishable History (Harvard University Press, 2009)


David Nye, Technology Matters: Questions to Live With (MIT, 2006)


W. Bernard Carlson, Technology in World History (Oxford University Press, 2005)


Mark Katz, Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music (University of California Press, 2004)


Brian Hayes, Infrastructure: A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape (W.W. Norton, 2005)


David Herlihy, Bicycle: The History (Yale University Press, 2004)


Rebecca Solnit, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (Viking, 2003)


Philip Ball, Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color (Farrar Strauss and Giroux 2002)


Bella Bathurst, The Lighthouse Stevensons: The Extraordinary Story of the Building of the Scottish Lighthouses by the Ancestors of Robert Louis Stevenson (Harper Collins, 1999)


David A. Mindell, War, Technology, and Experience Aboard the USS Monitor (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000)


Susan J. Douglas, Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination (Times Books 1999)


Michael Riordan and Lillian Hoddeson, Crystal Fire: The Birth of the Information Age (Norton 1997)



[3]; (downloaded September 3, 2009). 





Sat, 23 Sep 2023 21:15:44 +0000 0
Why I Miss Old Fashioned Library Cards

This is Jonathan Coopersmith's history of technology blog. He teaches history at Texas A & M University. An Associate Professor of History at Texas A&M University, Jonathan Coopersmith’s latest book is FAXED: The Rise and Fall of the Fax Machine (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015).

The explosion of information technology in recent decades has both aided and harmed the privacy of individuals.  Mention databases on people and the NSA and Edward Snowden immediately come to mind.  Library checkout systems rarely raise an eyebrow – until the Japan Library Association accused the Kobe Shimbun of violating the privacy of novelist Haruki Murakami by publishing the names of the library books he read as a teenager (including the three-volume collected works of Joseph Kessel, showing Murakami is an exceptional reader as well as writer).  

The newspaper responded by calling Murakami a public figure and thus worthy of legitimate reporting.  Beyond the question of whether the coverage was justified stands the equally interesting question of how the newspaper found out.  

By moving to computerized systems and sensors that read an identification card magnetically or visually, librarians have greatly simplified and sped up the process of checking out a book.  Today when I check a book out of my university, the librarians tell me the due date.  Our public library actually prints a flimsy tape with the name of the book and when it is due.  When I first arrived at Texas A&M last century, the librarian stamped the due date on a slip glued to the inside back cover.  That slip gave me a connection to earlier readers and a sense of the book’s popularity – was I the first reader in a month, a year, a decade?  Or possibly even the first person ever to check the book out? 

In the 1970s when I was an undergraduate at Princeton University, our identification cards were hard plastic with raised letters and numbers just like the credit cards of that era.  Checking a book out meant physically placing your card in a machine under the checkout slip and another slip that the library retained.  Not only could I see when the book was last checked out, I could see who used it, creating a tie to past readers.  Nor was Princeton unique.  Many libraries, as the image above illustrates, used the even less expensive expedient of writing. 

At one point I checked out physicist Gerald Feinberg’s 1968 The Prometheus Project: Mankind’s Search for Long-Range Goals, which argued that to survive near-term threats such as nuclear war, humanity needed to create major technological challenges that would take decades to accomplish cooperatively.  I found Feinberg’s premise challenging, but I was even more interested in a previous reader, Gerald O’Neill.

A physics professor at Princeton, O’Neill proposed building large space habitats at the L5 Lagrangian libration point, where the gravitational attraction of the Earth and moon balance each other.  His 1977 The High Frontier.  Human Colonies in Space generated a tremendous amount of popular, technical, and scientific interest though its realization remains, like many large technological projects, firmly in the future.

Seeing O’Neill’s card on The Prometheus Project showed me that the physicist had read a book advocating a major technological challenge to assure the survival and growth of the human species.  The High Frontier proposed exactly that.  How strongly Feinberg influenced O’Neill is unknown.  But the fact that the physicist read his fellow physicist’s book before proposing space colonies indicates some influence. 

For me, finding O’Neill had read Feinberg gave me an insight into O’Neill’s proposal and the subsequent years of promoting space colonization.  More prosaically, the Princeton slips with names of previous readers and the Texas A&M’s slips with the earlier due dates linked me with those fellow readers. 

Was looking at the back of the book to see who had previously checked it out an invasion of their privacy?  The Kobe Shimbun had discovered Murakami’s reading when the old books with their library slips were being discarded.  That was not intrusive hacking but something closer to dumpster diving.

That information about readers still exists but is now hidden within the library, its access confined to those who operate the check-out system.  The system is more efficient but I miss seeing how many readers preceded me.  My reading is a bit more isolated as a result, the literary equivalent of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone.  But my reading choices are no longer public knowledge.


Image from

Sat, 23 Sep 2023 21:15:44 +0000 0
What if politicians acted like engineers? Recent events have given the pro-life movement an unprecedented opportunity to drastically slash the number of abortions in Texas. Unfortunately, by letting politicians focus on the self-destructive goal of defunding Planned Parenthood instead of thinking like engineers, pro-life activists risk continued frustration and more abortions.

What does engineering have to do with abortion? A lot - potentially. To achieve their objectives, engineers have to deal with the world as it exists, not as we wish it to be. Good engineers develop backup plans when their first plans encounter difficulty. Great engineers understand the political and social environment they operate in and mobilize stakeholders to achieve their goals.

Abortion results from unintended pregnancy. The simplest and most effective way to eliminate abortion by preventing pregnancy is abstinence. In reality, however, people have sex. The backup plan is birth control - more specifically, effective birth control. As we will see, this is one area where America notoriously fails.

The exciting news for the pro-life movement comes from Colorado, where the Colorado Family Planning Initiative provided long-acting reversible contraceptives to low-income patients from 2009 to 2011. The results were dramatic: Between 2009 and 2013, abortion rates for women 20-24 fell 18 percent, and birth rates declined 9 percent. For women 15-19, the rates dropped even more - by 42 percent and 40 percent, respectively.

The implications of this study are huge. Compared with Europeans, Americans have the same rate of sexual activity, but much higher rates of pregnancy. In 2011, the pregnancy rate per 1000 women ages 15-19 was 57 in the United States compared with 25 in France and an astonishing 8 in Switzerland.Furthermore, the proportion of high-risk births dropped 24 percent while the caseload of new infants in the Women, Infants and Children supplemental nutrition program dropped 29 percent between 2010 and 2013, saving taxpayers money. In short, providing long-term contraceptives sharply reduced the number of abortions, pregnancies and high-risk births.

Since human biology does not shift with the continents, that difference is social, cultural and technological. Specifically, Americans use less effective forms of contraception and use them less effectively than their European counterparts.

From an engineering perspective, the least effective forms of birth control rely on people. The biggest challenge of condoms is using them. While more effective, the pill demands taking a pill daily, a surprisingly difficult task - roughly half of people taking medicine do not follow their prescribed regimes. One tool for reducing unwanted pregnancies has proven to be the cellphone with its ability to provide daily reminders to take the pill.

In contrast to the attention needed to use a condom or the pill, long-acting reversible contraceptives last several months with no action needed. The intrauterine device can be easily implanted and removed with no or minimal side effects. As with most technologies, the new generation is vastly improved and safer.

Many Texas politicians are trying to ensure Planned Parenthood does not receive any federal or state money to provide any services to Texas women. These efforts (which should raise broader questions about the state's power in deciding what qualified groups receive state contracts) will probably increase, not reduce, the number of abortions in Texas by reducing poor women's access to preventive care.

To actually reduce abortions means providing access to effective contraceptives. Thinking like engineers to attack the real problem of unplanned pregnancies instead of trying to gain political points by attacking Planned Parenthood will reduce abortions.

In an age of angry, "no compromise" politics, providing long-acting contraceptives may seem morally inadequate because it does not ban abortions. But if Texas follows the Colorado experiment and provides long-acting contraceptives, then the number of abortions should fall significantly. It's not a full loaf, but it is a half- or third-loaf that pro-choice as well as pro-life advocates can accept. That acceptance and the resulting drop in abortions are two reasons to act.

Engineers seek real solutions to real problems. Shouldn't we demand the same from our elected representatives?

Since this piece appeared in the February 12 Houston Chronicle, an engineer who earns a living creating new technologies has argued that good engineers start by imagining the world as they want it to be and then figure out how to get from the world as it is.  I responded that engineers have to start with understanding the world as it actually is, not as we want it to be, and then try to move toward that better world. And many companies would be thrilled to offer or operate a new product today that is 20-30% better than existing technologies as opposed to a theoretical perfect product somewhere down the distant future (the fabled "unobtainium" of many a story).

Yet technology, as Joe Corn has demonstrated in his edited Imaging Tomorrow:  History, Technology, and the American Future, technology is rarely (if ever) a silver bullet that can completely resolve a social issue.  But good technology appropriately introduced and implemented can help.  

This article first appeared in the Houston Chronicle and is reprinted with the paper's permission (  

Sat, 23 Sep 2023 21:15:44 +0000 0
Technology and Politics: Neither good, nor bad, nor neutral The Economist concluded its “Technology and Politics” special report on March 26 with “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral,”[1] said the late Melvin Kranzberg, one of the most influential historians of machinery. The same is true for the internet and the use of data in politics: it is neither a blessing, nor is it evil, yet it has an effect. But which effect? And what, if anything, needs to be done about it?”[2]

As a historian of technology, I was, of course, thrilled to see one of the field’s founders cited.  But I was also slightly irritated to find Mel described as a historian of machinery, the equivalent to describing an Economist correspondent as someone who writes for a living.  While both descriptions are accurate, they significantly understate the reality. 

Mel, one of the founders of the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT), of course would have been amused and used the occasion to show how the history of technology encompassed not just machinery but a much broader set of practices and activities that affect every aspect of our lives.  Indeed, the “Technology and Politics” article takes his “Big Tent” perspective to show how the technologies of digital information are changing politics and governing on multiple levels.  Like any technology, the real benefits come not from the actual hardware and software but the “wetware” – how individuals and institutions organize and operate them. 

One key conclusion is the importance of creating a framework of regulations, assumptions, and restrictions to strengthen democratic norms and not authoritarian regimes.   Governments, especially authoritarian regimes, are increasingly effective in their abilities to collect, analyze, communicate, contaminate, and control digital data. 

Often, those out of power or lower in the power structure are the first to employ new technologies to change the status quo.  They have less invested in the existing information infrastructure.  Communications technologies enable them to organize collective action locally and at a distance.

The excitement about the role played by digital media in the 2009-10 Iranian Green Movement and the 2011 Arab Spring has ample precedents in the antiestablishment roles of cellphones played in the 1992 Thai Black May protests, fax machines in the 1989 Tiananmen Square in China and the heated 1990-92 political debates in Saudi Arabia, and photocopiers and printing presses in the 1980s rise of Solidarity in Communist Poland.  More recently, the gory Daesh online videos and Donald Trump’s command of Twitter demonstrate how smart use of new media can shape public perceptions and debate. 

The telephone as well as the fax machine were heralded as revolutionary in their time for enabling people to organize and communicate far more effectively and inexpensively than previously.  Those of a certain age may remember the telephone tree, where each person contacted agreed to call others, quickly spreading the message.  Tweeting is much faster and easier. 

But governments quickly found digital data easier to track and analyze.  Indeed, intercepting a fax or electronic message provided an exact copy of the original without the potential of incorrectly transcribing a phone conversation.  Surveillance can occur in real time. 

Possibly more ominous than surveillance are the state attempts to reshape reality, not just by censorship but by drowning out dissenting opinions, promoting skewed perspectives, and attacking opponents.  Unlike Communist propaganda of the Cold War, the tools and techniques are far more nimble, reflecting both technological advances and, more importantly, more thoughtful application of them. 

China’s Great Firewall provides an effective model for internet censorship, with its monitors proving savvier and more selective in what they censor.[3] Gary King and his Harvard colleagues have estimated that bloggers working for the Chinese government generate approximately 450 million messages annually to distract and divert the public from what the state considers dangerous topics.[4]  Similarly, in a variation of Gresham’s law, the Russian government and its fellow travelers have effectively deployed disinformation, spambots, and trolls to overwhelm good information with bad data in its propaganda offensive against Ukraine and the West.    

These efforts (sadly not marked ‘fake’), decrease the value of social media multiple ways including the time needed to discard those messages, the decrease of trust, the increase of skepticism, and the creation of alternate realities.  None of this is new – “Astroturf” campaigns in the 1990s appeared spontaneously generated but in reality were manipulated by PR firms working for clients.  The German government subsidized some French newspapers in the 1930s to encourage public dissatisfaction with the French government and society.

By deft editing of the Ems telegram, German chancellor Otto von Bismarck manipulated French public opinion to push France into the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, which ended disastrously for France.  And who could better British science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke in envisioning a state subverting a foe by broadcasting sex, scandal, and violence in his 1960 “I remember Babylon”? 

Digital data, like its analog counterparts, needs an ethical framework to ensure people, organizations, and governments use data ethically.  The Economist urged greater discussion about data ownership, access, transparency, and the range of possible private-public relationships.  And that requires the active involvement of citizens. 

Ultimately, technologies limit and enable, but people make the decisions and rules.  As Mel Kranzberg’s fourth law stated, “Although technology might be a prime element in many public issues, nontechnical factors take precedence in technology-policy decisions.” 







Sat, 23 Sep 2023 21:15:44 +0000 0
Does Technology Make Us Dumber or Smarter? Yes. The (“academic rigor, journalistic flair”) asked me to write the column below.  The (forever the Manchester Guardian to those of us above a certain age) reprinted it.  To my excitement, most of the comments were thoughtful and free of the flaming and trolling so common today. 

After I wrote this column, I read Zachary Pascal’s column, “Let’s Shape AI Before AI Shapes Us,” in the June 2015 IEEE Spectrum (yes, I am behind on my reading, but that’s another issue).  Pascal, a professor of practice at Arizona State University in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, argued eloquently that  the increasing development and diffusion of Artificial Intelligence (AI) should be accompanied by public discussion about how we as a society can embrace the precautionary principle, engineer equity and diversity into AI, and help the inevitable losers.   It’s a thoughtful article, one I wish I had written, and certainly one I wish I had read before writing this column. 


Does Technology Make Us Dumber or Smarter?  Yes.

The smartphone in your hand enables you to record a video, edit it and send it around the world. With your phone, you can navigate in cities, buy a car, track your vital signs and accomplish thousands of other tasks. And so?

Each of those activities used to demand learning specific skills and acquiring the necessary resources to do them. Making a film? First, get a movie camera and the supporting technologies (film, lights, editing equipment). Second, learn how to use them and hire a crew. Third, shoot the movie. Fourth, develop and edit the film. Fifth, make copies and distribute them.

Now all of those tasks are solved by technology. We need no longer learn the intricate details when the smartphone programmers have taken care of so much. But filmmakers are now freer to focus on their craft, and it is easier than ever to become a filmmaker. Historically, technology has made us individually dumber and individually smarter – and collectively smarter. Technology has made us able to do more while understanding less about what we are doing, and has increased our dependence on others.

These are not recent trends, but part of the history of technology since the first humans began to farm. In recent decades, three major changes have accelerated the process, starting with the increasing pace of humans specializing in particular skills. In addition, we outsource more skills to technological tools, like a movie-making app on a smartphone, that relieve us of the challenge of learning large amounts of technical knowledge. And many more people have access to technology than in the past, allowing them to use these tools much more readily.

Specialized knowledge

Specialization enables us to become very good at some activities, but that investment in learning – for example, how to be an ER nurse or computer coder – comes at the expense of other skills like how to grow your own food or build your own shelter.

As Adam Smith noted in his 1776 “Wealth of Nations,” specialization enables people to become more efficient and productive at one set of tasks, but with a trade-off of increased dependence on others for additional needs. In theory, everyone benefits.

Specialization has moral and pragmatic consequences. Skilled workers are more likely to be employed and earn more than their unskilled counterparts. One reason the United States won World War II was that draft boards kept some trained workers, engineers and scientists working on the home front instead of sending them to fight. A skilled machine tool operator or oil-rig roustabout contributed more to winning the war by staying at home and sticking to a specialized role than by heading to the front with a rifle. It also meant other men (and some women) donned uniforms and had a much greater chance of dying.

Making machines for the rest of us

Incorporating human skills into a machine – called “blackboxing” because it makes the operations invisible to the user – allows more people to, for example, take a blood pressure measurement without investing the time, resources and effort into learning the skills previously needed to use a blood pressure cuff. Putting the expertise in the machine lowers the barriers to entry for doing something because the person does not need to know as much. For example, contrast learning to drive a car with a manual versus an automatic transmission.

Mass production of blackboxed technologies enables their widespread use. Smartphones and automated blood pressure monitors would be far less effective if only thousands instead of tens of millions of people could use them. Less happily, producing tens of millions of automatic rifles like AK-47s means individuals can kill far more people far more easily compared with more primitive weapons like knives.

More practically, we depend on others to do what we cannot do at all or as well. City dwellers in particular depend on vast, mostly invisible structures to provide their powerremove their waste and ensure food and tens of thousands of other items are available.

Overreliance on technology is dangerous

A major downside of increased dependence on technologies is the increased consequences if those technologies break or disappear. Lewis Dartnell’s “The Knowledge” offers a delightful (and frightening) exploration of how survivors of a humanity-devastating apocaplyse could salvage and maintain 21st-century technologies.

Just one example of many is that the U.S. Naval Academy just resumed training officers to navigate by sextants. Historically the only way to determine a ship’s location at sea, this technique is being taught again both as a backup in case cyberattackers interfere with GPS signals and to give navigators a better feel of what their computers are doing.

How do people survive and prosper in this world of increasing dependence and change? It’s impossible to be truly self-reliant, but it is possible to learn more about the technologies we use, to learn basic skills of repairing and fixing them (hint: always check the connections and read the manual) and to find people who know more about particular topics. In this way the Internet’s vast wealth of information can not only increase our dependence but also decrease it (of course, skepticism about online information is never a bad idea). Thinking about what happens if something goes wrong can be a useful exercise in planning or a descent into obsessive worrying.

Individually, we depend more on our technologies than ever before – but we can do more than ever before. Collectively, technology has made us smarter, more capable and more productive. What technology has not done is make us wiser.

Sat, 23 Sep 2023 21:15:44 +0000 0
The real star of the 1968 conventions: Now you really are there Watching the roving television coverage of the national political conventions and the concomitant demonstrations outside, I’m struck by the invisibility of the cameras and microphones (and now smartphones) that make it possible for us to feel that “you are there.”  As Marcel LaFollette shows in her recent blog from the Smithsonian Archives, this ability to take the viewer to the political action, staged or spontaneous, really began only in 1968. 

The ability of television reporters to report from anywhere on the convention floor produced a very different perspective of the conventions.  Instead of focusing on the speaker at the podium, grand overviews, and interviews conducted in prepared rooms, now viewers could go wherever the reporter went.  The result was a more intimate, action-oriented convention that was harder for the convention organizers to control.  

Science Service, Up Close: Technology and Political Conventions

by Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette on July 19, 2016 

In a Presidential election year, political news coverage can sometimes seem almost too instantaneous and continuous. Thanks to smartphones with cameras and microphones, journalists and citizens can relay images and sound from almost anywhere inside campaign activities. There was a time, however, when live broadcasting from political conventions and rallies was novel.

Starting in 1948, U.S. networks began televising the party conventions, and by 1968, innovations in communications and battery technologies allowed live reports from the convention floor. Journalists could roam around an event, interviewing interesting people, gathering information, and encouraging a sense of vicarious participation among television viewers.

For its pathbreaking television coverage of the August 1968 national political conventions in the United States, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) outfitted four of its top commentators (John ChancellorFrank McGeeEdwin Newman, and Sander Vanocur) with special backpacks.

In these photographs from the Science Service biographical files, Edwin Newman (1919-2010) modeled the “compact belt-borne” microphone system that he and his NBC colleagues would be wearing while covering the party conventions in Chicago and Miami Beach. Newman had become a mainstay of the network’s political coverage, building on his decades of experience as a print reporter and European correspondent for NBC News and his intelligence and irrepressible sense of humor.

The new microphone system, developed by Cutler-Hammer's Airborne Instruments Laboratory, provided wireless, portable, battery-operated, two-way communication between a reporter and a network director in the booth.

The accompanying press release noted that the unit’s weight was “only” 3-1/4 pounds and that the “over-sized tie clip” was the “transmitter on-off switch” but it did not mention Newman’s characteristically wry addition: what appears to be a candidate campaign button on his lapel is an image of the journalist’s own face.

Related Resources

Collecting political history, from the Iowa Caucus to the national conventions, O Say Can You See? blog, National Museum of American History

Hooray for Politics!, National Museum of American History

Vote: The Machinery of Democracy, National Museum of American History

Sat, 23 Sep 2023 21:15:44 +0000 0
Coal Comfort: Is Hillary Clinton being “Al Gored”?

Coal company town in Jenkins, Kentucky, in 1935. (Library of Congress)

In 2000, Al Gore, the Vice President and Democratic nominee for president, stated that he had helped invent the Internet.  In truth, he actually had by directing resources toward it, promoting the concept of the information superhighway, and pushing the Defense Department to declassify part of its ARPANET.  He did not claim to write code or invent the concept.  

Politically, however, Republicans jumped on him, accusing him of lying and being Al Gore who could not tell the truth.  Instead of justly claiming the Internet as a successful example of government support of technological innovation, Gore weakly responded that he was only joking.  What should have been a moment of triumph instead became a symbol of Gore the untrustworthy.

Is something similar happening with Hillary Clinton? In March in Ohio, she declared "Because we're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business, right?"

Slam dunk, right?  The former Secretary of State and Democratic presidential nominee is obviously part of President Obama’s “war on coal.”  Except that sentence was only part of a talk that completely reverses her meaning.  Her entire statement reads

 Instead of dividing people the way Donald Trump does, let's reunite around policies that will bring jobs and opportunities to all these underserved poor communities.

So, for example, I'm the only candidate which has a policy about how to bring economic opportunity using clean renewable energy as the key into coal country.  Because we're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business, right?

And we're going to make it clear that we don't want to forget those people. Those people labored in those mines for generations, losing their health, often losing their lives to turn on our lights and power our factories.  Now we've got to move away from coal and all the other fossil fuels, but I don't want to move away from the people who did the best they could to produce the energy that we relied on.

 We expect taking a sentence out of context for political gain from Clinton opponents like Brietbart.  But shouldn’t we expect more fact-checking and context from “mainstream media” like the Washington Post?  

The simple story is how overworked – or lazy – reporters took the easy way of repeating what others wrote instead of taking the time to read Clinton’s entire talk and how the Internet magnified that one sentence into an attack on Clinton as uncaring.  Completely ignored was the reality that she was actually being proactive and trying to help mining communities deal with inevitable change.

The larger and more important story, however, is that the number of coal miners has declined for decades.  The recent bankruptcies of several major coal companies occurred because they greatly increased their debt just before coal prices dropped due to the increased production of natural gas and decreasing demand from China.  In the United States, almost 800,000 men worked as coal miners in 1920.  By 1955, that dropped to 260,000 miners, 130,000 in 1990, and approximately 75,000 today. 

Nor are all miners equally productive.  Benefitting from strip mining, the 6000 miners in Wyoming produce more coal than the 60,000 underground miners in the Appalachian states.

America is not the only country losing coal mining jobs.  In Great Britain, coal fueled the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries.   Nearly 1.2 million miners worked in 1920, 49,000 in 1990 – and the last British coal mine closed in 2015. 

Expect those trends to continue.  The Department of Energy expects Western coal production to either remain steady at about 600 million tons annually through 2040 or drop to 400 million tons.  In contrast, Appalachian coal is predicted to drop from 300 to 200 million tons. 

Appalachia will continue to lose coal jobs.  If you read her speech, Hillary Clinton understood that and tried to proactively respond by proposing a $30 billion plan to revitalize coal communities.

If coal miners want a person to blame for decreasing coal use, George Mitchell is their villain.  Building on government research, he pioneered the commercial development of fracking oil and gas and transformed American energy.  Compared with coal, which now annually kills an estimated 8000 Americans (a sharp drop from over 24,000 in 2004 due to stricter air pollution laws), natural gas is not only environmentally cleaner but also cheaper.  As a result, this year will mark the first time natural gas generates more electricity than coal.     

Like other single industry areas, closing a coal mine can devastate a region.  Like British coal miners, Eastern coal miners have a very strong attachment to their communities.  Unfortunately, the mountains that give Appalachia its coal and its alluring beauty also make it economically uncompetitive with other parts of the United States. 

Would Clinton’s proposed plan help Appalachia?  Possibly.  But if the accuracy of her media coverage does not improve, she may never get that chance.  

Sat, 23 Sep 2023 21:15:44 +0000 0
"It Can't Happen Here, Can It?" Will Trump and Climate Deniers Purge American Science and Technology? Paul Edwards is a professor in the School of Information and the Department of History at the University of Michigan (and the author of the excellent A Vast Machine:  Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming).  He wrote this disturbing column for  The Trump transition team’s very specific and comprehensive questionnaire to the Department of Energy about its climate change researchers justifiably raised fears of a purge of climate scientist and scientists. 


Edwards’ accurate but awkward phrase, “ideology-driven science,” denotes not a state promoting one field of research over another (e.g., solid-fuel over liquid-fuel rockets) but the active suppression of research and researchers for political reasons.  Sadly, the examples include totalitarian and democratic governments with engineers and scientists far more likely to only lose their livelihoods and not their lives in the latter.  Beyond the personal costs of careers destroyed or damaged looms the larger, more intangible consequences to that country of a research area stunted, driven underground, or halted.   It can be the national equivalent of shooting yourself in the foot or worse.  

Trump questionnaire recalls dark history of ideology-driven science

Paul N. Edwards

President-elect Trump has called global warming “bullshit” and a “Chinese hoax.” He has promised to withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate treaty and to “bring back coal,” the world’s dirtiest, most carbon-intensive fuel. The incoming administration has paraded a roster of climate change deniers for top jobs. On Dec. 13, Trump named former Texas Governor Rick Perry, another climate change denier, to lead the Department of Energy (DoE), an agency Perry said he would eliminate altogether during his 2011 presidential campaign.

Just days earlier, the Trump transition team presented the DoE with a 74-point questionnaire that has raised alarm among employees because the questions appear to target people whose work is related to climate change.

For me, as a historian of science and technology, the questionnaire – bluntly characterized by one DoE official as a “hit list”  – is starkly reminiscent of the worst excesses of ideology-driven science, seen everywhere from the U.S. Red Scare of the 1950s to the Soviet and Nazi regimes of the 1930s.

The questionnaire asks for a list of “all DoE employees or contractors” who attended the annual Conferences of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – a binding treaty commitment of the U.S., signed by George H. W. Bush in 1992. Another question seeks the names of all employees involved in meetings of the Interagency Working Group on the Social Cost of Carbon, responsible for technical guidance quantifying the economic benefits of avoided climate change.

It also targets the scientific staff of DoE’s national laboratories. It requests lists of all professional societies scientists belong to, all their publications, all websites they maintain or contribute to, and “all other positions… paid and unpaid,” which they may hold. These requests, too, are likely aimed at climate scientists, since most of the national labs conduct research related to climate change, including climate modeling, data analysis and data storage.

On Dec. 13, a DoE spokesperson told the Washington Post the agency will not provide individual names to the transition team, saying “We are going to respect the professional and scientific integrity and independence of our employees at our labs and across our department.”

Energy’s interest in climate

Why does the Department of Energy conduct research on climate change? A better question might be: How could any Department of Energy fail to address climate change?

Established in the 1940s under the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the US national labs’ original assignment was simple: Design, build and test nuclear weapons and atomic energy. Since nuclear bombs create deadly fallout and reactor accidents can release radiation into the air, weather forecasting and climate knowledge were integral to that mission. Therefore, some labs immediately began building internal expertise in “nuclear meteorology.”

When high-flying supersonic transport aircraft were proposed in the late 1960s, the labs used climate models to analyze how their exhaust gases might affect the stratosphere. In the 1970s, the labs applied weather and climate simulations developed for nuclear weapons work to analyze urban smog and the global effects of volcanic eruptions. Later, the labs investigated whether nuclear war might cause dangerous climatic effects, such as catastrophic ozone depletion or “nuclear winter.”

The incoming Trump administration asked for names of researchers at the Department of Energy’s national labs as well as employees who attended international climate change conferences, raising concern that personnel will be targeted for work on climate change. Sandia National LaboratoriesCC BY-NC-ND

The newly formed Department of Energy took over the labs in 1977. Its broadened mission included research on all forms of energy production, efficiency, pollution and waste. In the late 1970s, for example, Pacific Northwest Lab sampled aerosol pollution with research aircraft, using instruments of its own design.

By the 1980s, when man-made climate change became a major scientific concern, the labs were ready for the challenge. For example, Oak Ridge National Laboratory has run the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center since 1982, one of many DoE efforts that contribute crucially to human knowledge about global climate change.

An ideologically driven purge?

The Trump questionnaire harks back to the McCarthyist “red scare” of the early 1950s, when congressional committees and the FBI hounded eminent scientists accused of communist leanings.

A principal target of suspicion then was J. Robert Oppenheimer, the theoretical physicist who led the Los Alamos atomic bomb project, but later opposed nuclear proliferation. Oppenheimer chaired the General Advisory Committee to the AEC, direct ancestor to the DoE – and saw his security clearance unjustly revoked following humiliating hearings by that same AEC in 1954.

Many other physicists were also “repeatedly subjected to illegal surveillance by the FBI, paraded in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, charged time and again… with being the ‘weakest links’ in national security, and widely considered to be more inherently susceptible to communist propaganda than any other group of scientists or academics,” according to a history by author David Kaiser, on suspicions of atomic scientists in the early days of the Cold War.

Another Red Scare target was John Mauchly, a chief designer of the first American electronic digital computers and a founder of the computer company UNIVAC. Mauchly was investigated by the FBI and denied a security clearance for several years.

A much broader ideology-based attack on learning occurred in 1930s Germany, when the Nazis purged universities of Jewish and left-leaning scholars. Many German Jewish scientists emigrated to the United States. Ironically, the work of those immigrants in this country led to a massive increase in patent filings in their primary fields of science.

The Soviet Union had one of the worst histories of purging scientists whose work was considered ideologically impure. In the 1930s, the agrobiologist Trofim Lysenko rejected Mendelian genetics, including the very existence of genes and DNA. He propounded, instead, the erroneous theory that an organism could pass on to its descendants characteristics acquired during its lifetime. Under this theory, Stalin and other Communist Party leaders believed, people who studiously practiced communist ideology could pass on their “improved” traits to their sons and daughters. They condemned mainstream genetics as metaphysical, reactionary and idealist.

Soviet ideologues also distorted quantum mechanics, cybernetics, sociology, statistics, psychology and physiology, often by violent means. From the 1930s well into the 1980s, tens of thousands of Soviet scientists and engineers were harassed, arrested, sent to the gulags, executed or assassinated when their conclusions did not align with official communist beliefs.

Climate science in the U.S. has already been targeted by government administrators. The George W. Bush administration of the 2000s literally rewrote scientific reports to weaken their findings on global warming.

In 2007 testimony, former officials of the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) admitted to extensive editing of documents from the EPA and many other agencies “to exaggerate or emphasize scientific uncertainties or to deemphasize or diminish the importance of the human role in global warming.” And when scientists’ views conflicted with the administration’s official line that global warming science remained uncertain, the CEQ often denied them permission to speak with reporters.

Worries over dismissal or intimidation

The highly targeted nature of the Trump questionnaire – especially the requested lists of individual scientists and leaders – suggests preparations for another ideologically driven purge.

On the day it was revealed by Bloomberg, Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) sent Trump a letter warning him that “an illegal modern-day political witch hunt” would create “a profoundly chilling impact on our dedicated federal workforce.” Thus far, it appears the Trump administration has not responded to media queries on the questionnaire.

Soviet-style government-sponsored violence seems highly improbable (though for years, some high-profile climate scientists have suffered death threats). Instead, the incoming administration might indulge in large-scale summary dismissals, program cancellations and moving entire portfolios, not only at the DoE but also at NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Meanwhile, private and corporate-sponsored intimidation campaigns against individual climate scientists – underway since the 1990s, and often backed by the fossil fuel industry – will surely gain momentum and scope. An administration that directly attacks science and scientists will amplify them enormously.

It’s worth noting that despite considerable differences on regulatory policy, every president from Nixon and Carter in the 1970s to Bush and Obama in the 2000s supported the scientific work needed to discover, understand and mitigate climate change.

Basic research on energy, pollution and climate change – much of it carried out at DoE laboratories – is essential to clear-eyed policy, which must be based on solid knowledge of the true costs and benefits of all forms of energy.

The Department of Energy’s response

The Trump questionnaire violates American political norms by targeting individual civil service employees, many of whom have worked for the agency for decades through multiple changes of administration.

It strongly suggests that even if incoming administrators do not target individuals for retribution, these appointees will attempt to delete climate change from the roster of energy-related scientific issues.

A representative from the Department of Energy said it will not provide individual names to the Trump transition team ‘to respect the professional and scientific integrity and independence of our employees at our labs and across our department.’ nostri-imago/flickrCC BY-NC

The best way to resist this will be to contest the basic premise. Since virtually every energy-related issue has implications for climate change, and vice versa, attempting to separate climate change from energy policy would be completely illogical and counterproductive. To oppose that separation, all DoE researchers – not just climate scientists, but all scientists, lab technicians, staff, everyone involved in any way with research – should insist that their work requires them to consider the causes and consequences of climate change.

An all-hang-together strategy such as this would be brave and risky. Not everyone would join in. Many would fear for their livelihoods and hope to hang on by keeping their heads down. A handful might even sympathize with the incoming administration’s position. In the end, such a strategy might cost even more employees their jobs.

But it would send the vital message that it isn’t just a few scientists, not some tiny cabal, but a vast majority of all scientists who understand that man-made climate change is real, well-understood and exceedingly consequential for human societies. It is among the most urgent political issues facing our nation and the world.

Nightfall for climate science?

In Isaac Asimov’s 1941 short story “Nightfall,” scientists huddle in an astronomical observatory on Lagash, a planet with six suns. For many centuries, one or more of those suns has always been up. The current inhabitants of Lagash, bathed in perpetual daylight, have never seen stars or experienced darkness. As the story opens, the university director addresses a hostile reporter: “You have led a vast newspaper campaign against the efforts of myself and my colleagues to organize the world against the menace which it is now too late to avert.”

The “menace” in question is nightfall, which comes to Lagash just once every 2,049 years. That moment is now upon them. Only one sun remains above the horizon, its last light rapidly fading due to a total eclipse – predicted by the scientists, but ridiculed as unfounded in the press.

In the gathering darkness, a mob bent on ruin marches on the observatory. The scientists do not expect to survive. They hope only to preserve enough knowledge and data that “the next cycle will start off with the truth, and when the next eclipse comes, mankind will at last be ready for it.”

A dark time is coming to American climate science. Trump’s mob of climate change deniers has begun its march on our present-day observatories. Like the scientists in “Nightfall,” we must do our utmost to ensure that after the coming eclipse, “the next cycle will start off with the truth.”

Sat, 23 Sep 2023 21:15:44 +0000 0
Obama's Legacy in Science, Technology, and Innovation

This is Jonathan Coopersmith's history of technology blog. He teaches history at Texas A & M University. An Associate Professor of History at Texas A&M University, Jonathan Coopersmith’s latest book is FAXED: The Rise and Fall of the Fax Machine (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015).

As the old aphorism says, it’s difficult to make predictions, especially about the future. Assessing the legacy of Barack Obama will be easier in a few decades when we can see the long-term consequences of his presidential decisions and initiatives.

An immediate analysis of his science and technology policies, however, reveals significant accomplishments in the promotion of science and technology, education, space exploitation, clean energy, climate change and the environment. While major endeavors like the Precision Medicine Initiative and Paris climate agreement received the headlines, they were part of a larger, mostly successful goal to “restore science to its rightful place and wield technology’s wonders” in forming and implementing government policy.

The administration’s shortcomings around science – some of which reflected Republican political pressures – included limited funding overall and travel restrictions for government workers, both of which reduced the effectiveness of positive science and tech policies.

Psyched about science

In office Obama was fundamentally an optimist about the potential of science and technology to improve society and safely expand the economy. His most significant (and low profile) near-term initiatives elevated and institutionalized the foundations of scientific research – exploration, data-based experimentation and policy, openness, transparency, and access to information – into routine government activities. These steps should accelerate the commercialization and diffusion of research.

Many changes were small but improved the efficiency of programs. For example, modifications made based on the outcomes of behavioral science experiments increased military employees’ participation in the Thrift Saving Plan while cutting program costs.

One visible sign of the importance the Obama administration placed on making sure research results made it out of labs and into practice was the expansion of the phrase “science and technology” (S&T) to “science, technology and innovation” (ST&I) by president Obama. The creation of the new positions of federal Chief Technology OfficerChief Information Security Officer, and Chief Data Officer was another indication of this integration.

Obama strongly supported science, technology, engineering and math – STEM – education. Hosting science fairs at the White House garnered lots of media attention. But other initiatives within the administration’s Educate to Innovate campaign will prove more consequential in improving K-12 education in America. For instance, the 100Kin10 effort aims to train 100,000 new science teachers by 2021, STEM for All encourages active learning for the increasingly diverse student population, and SkillCommons creates open-source online software for education.

Environmentally, Obama focused on slowing global warming by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, promoting renewable energy and increasing the efficiency of energy use domestically and internationally. The incoming Trump administration with its climate deniers may try to reverse many of Obama’s policies, but the last eight years have significantly reshaped the structure of energy production and consumption worldwide. In 2015, new electricity capacity from renewables exceeded new capacity from fossil fuels for the first time.

In space, the Obama administration strongly promoted commercialization, directing NASA to pay private firms to launch supplies and, in 2018, astronauts to the International Space Station. This should reduce the high cost of reaching earth orbit and thus the exploration and exploitation of space.

While attracting fewer headlines, initiatives on space weather and the asteroids and comets that might strike our planet may end up preserving civilization. In 1859, an extremely powerful solar storm disrupted Earth’s magnetic field. A similar “Carrington event” today would destroy satellites and much of the world’s electric power transmission grid. Worst-case scenarios (always good for pushing people to act) predict tens of millions of people dying because of the loss of electric power for years. A large asteroid striking Earth could devastate a large area, kill millions, and spark a new ice age.

Guarding against these rare but inevitable natural events will not excite voters, but demonstrates preventive stewardship. These initiatives coordinated government efforts across multiple departments to predict a dangerous event, provide warning, and equip satellites and terrestrial infrastructure to minimize harm and maximize resiliency.

On the other hand, restricted travel

One major negative effect on science from the Obama administration was its crippling of federal employees attending conferences.

In 2010, the General Services Administration, which supports federal agencies, held a lavish conference in Las Vegas. Congressional Republicans and Democrats attacked this very visible misuse of taxpayer dollars. In response, the Obama administration overreacted by sharply restricting federal spending on conferences and creating an elaborate, expensive bureaucratic process for government employees to get permission to attend a conference, workshop or other professional meetings. Reflecting these restrictions, the number of defense scientists attending the Defense Security and Scanning conference of the International Society for Optics and Photonics dropped from 648 in 2012 to 206 in 2013, for example.

Serendipitous face to face interactions are a crucial part of scientific gatherings. CTBTOCC BY

The sharply curtailed government presence frustrated scientific societies and researchers, both federal employees and those in academia and the private sector. Despite the increasing ease of electronic communications, professional meetings remain one of the most productive ways for people to learn, exchange and debate ideas.

By decreasing opportunities for researchers to meet in person, the Obama administration hurt the creativity and productivity of the entire ST&I community, not just federal workers. This was an entirely self-inflicted wound.

No real progress on cybersecurity

Cybersecurity remains a weak area for the Obama administration. The White House released a policy review in 2009, voluntary guidelines for critical infrastructure in 2013 and its cybersecurity report last month.

But while Obama was in office, new cyber issues kept emerging. The theft of millions of records from the Office of Personnel Management by China, the manipulation of the presidential election by Russia, issues of privacy and surveillanceeconomic cyberespionage and the growing range of cybercrimes all illustrate the axiom, “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.”

In fairness, cybersecurity was a fairly low priority throughout the country. There were seemingly few consequences to firms that fail to maintain adequate defenses. The burden of identity theft, for example, falls on the individual. The revelations of American cyberspying by Edward Snowden and the deployment of the American-Israeli computer Stuxnet virus to destroy Iranian uranium centrifuges put the Obama administration on the defensive. Congressional and business skepticism, some partisan but mostly motivated by disagreement about what to do, resulted in little legislative action.

And never enough funding

Perhaps the most important shortcoming of the Obama administration’s science and technology agenda was its inability to increase S&T funding.

Partly this reflects the demographic trend of an aging U.S. population focused more on its retirement and medical costs than investing in research and development for the future. As more people retire and live longer, entitlements – like Social Security and Medicare – increasingly crowd out the discretionary part of the federal budget.

Coupled with budget battles with Congressional Republicans, including a costly government shutdown in 2013 and sequestration, the result has been near-stagnant ST&I budgets. That’s in contrast to the long-term increases proposed by the president in 2009 to expand public and private spending on research and development from 2.8 to 3.0 percent of GDP.

Consequently, many opportunities went unfunded or underfunded. Success rates for grants from the National Institutes of HealthNational Science Foundation and NASA all decreased. Indeed, President Obama in 2010 and again in 2016 called for sending astronauts to Mars but did not try to convince Congress to fund that undertaking, the latest of a series of presidents to do so.

Science’s rightful place?

Unsurprisingly, the Obama administration’s rhetoric outpaced its resources and restrictions. Nonetheless, the 44th president left a strong legacy of supporting ST&I not just for the goals of discovery and economic growth but to strengthen democracy and improve the processes of government.

If its campaign tweets, transition staff, and cabinet appointments are any indication, the incoming Trump administration will provide a very strong contrast. With top officials at odds with the data-based, open scientific approach on many issues, science, technology, and innovation may take a beating.

This article originally appeared in 

Sat, 23 Sep 2023 21:15:44 +0000 0
Academic opposition to Trump's Muslim ban Getting academics to work together is often, as the old joke goes, like herding cats.  So what did it take to get scores of scientific and academic organizations to act together?  The answer is President Trump’s January 27 blanket banning, now temporarily stayed by court order, certain groups of Muslims from entering the United States.  The objections are both abstract and personal.  From the perspective of the former, travel restrictions on people (who were already vetted by the U.S. government) harm the flow of information and ideas, hurting the economy as well as the advancement of science and technology.  Less abstractly, the order affected nearly 24,000 students, including 273 at my institution, Texas A&M. 

In ascending order are a statement from the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT), a superbly historical contribution from the American Historical Association (AHA), and a letter from 180 scientific organizations and institutions focusing on how this ban will harm the United States. 

Statement by the Officers and Executive Council of the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) regarding immigration policy changes in the US

Feb 7, 2017 

The Society for the History of Technology is committed to academic freedom, freedom of expression, and fostering diversity with regard to age, gender, race, ethnicity, nation of origin, physical abilities, sexual orientation, religion, training, and employment. To this end, SHOT affirmatively embraces all who wish to join, participate, and have a voice in our Society. 

The United States Executive Order of January 27, 2017, “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into The United States” challenges these core values.  The Society for the History of Technology registers its principled opposition to any blanket travel ban that targets entire countries, covering not only millions of their inhabitants but also numerous others living around the world who happen to have been born in the designated countries. Such bans are impossible to implement in a way that respects basic principles of justice and human rights, and they are profoundly at odds with the reality of our globalized world.

Knowledge creation in the history of technology—as in most intellectual domains—fundamentally depends on international mobility for research and the diffusion and exchange of ideas.  The present travel ban issued by the United States will have a significant and detrimental impact on the ability of SHOT members, students, and colleagues to conduct their research and professional obligations.  Just as worrying are long-term unintended consequences that include diminished international cooperation, loss of trust in the possibility of an open and tolerant global society, and erosion of the many social and economic benefits that flow from the production and exchange of knowledge.

The Officers and Executive Council of the Society for the History of Technology agree with the statement issued by the American Historical Association and urge members to read it at:

The Local Organizing Committee for the SHOT Annual Meeting in Philadelphia in October this year has organized a Round Table on the conference theme Technology, Democracy and Participation.  We urge members to propose similarly pertinent topics to the Program Committee.

With regard to the forthcoming annual meeting the Officers and Executive Council agree that

1.     Registered participants who are denied a visa or entry (even with a visa) to the United States for the meeting will have their registration fees refunded.

2.     If a speaker accepted by the Program Committee is unable to attend the meeting due to their entry to the US being impeded by federal regulations, we undertake to do our best to make alternative arrangements for the speaker to present her or his paper via skype or a similar communications system.

3.     While some participants who can travel freely may be reluctant to attend the meeting if current immigration policies remain in force, we strongly encourage everyone who can to come to Philadelphia.  This will help affirm our determination to remain an international organization in this changed reality and to limit the damage to our Society and its core values. 

 4.   As a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization SHOT does not take partisan stands on policy issues.

AHA Condemns Executive Order Restricting Entry to the United StatesJanuary 30, 2017  

The American Historical Association strongly condemns the executive order issued by President Donald J. Trump on January 27 purportedly “protecting the nation from foreign terrorist entry into the United States.” Historians look first to evidence: deaths from terrorism in the United States in the last fifteen years have come at the hands of native-born citizens and people from countries other than the seven singled out for exclusion in the order. Attention to evidence raises the question as to whether the order actually speaks to the dangers of foreign terrorism.

It is more clear that the order will have a significant and detrimental impact on thousands of innocent people, whether inhabitants of refugee camps across the world who have waited months or even years for interviews scheduled in the coming month (now canceled), travelers en route to the United States with valid visas or other documentation, or other categories of residents of the United States, including many of our students and colleagues.

The AHA urges the policy community to learn from our nation’s history. Formulating or analyzing policy by historical analogy admittedly can be dangerous; context matters. But the past does provide warnings, especially given advantages of hindsight. What we have seen before can help us understand possible implications of the executive order. The most striking example of American refusal to admit refugees was during the 1930s, when Jews and others fled Nazi Germany. A combination of hostility toward a particular religious group combined with suspicions of disloyalty and potential subversion by supposed radicals anxious to undermine our democracy contributed to exclusionist administrative procedures that slammed shut the doors on millions of refugees. Many were subsequently systematically murdered as part of the German “final solution to the Jewish question.” Ironically, President Trump issued his executive order on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Conversely, when refugees have found their way to our shores, the United States has benefited from their talents and energy. Our own discipline has been enriched by individuals fleeing their homelands. The distinguished historian of Germany Hajo Holborn arrived in 1934 from Germany. Gerda Lerner, a major force in the rise of women’s history, fled Austria in 1939. Civil War historian Gabor Boritt found refuge in the United States after participating in the 1956 uprising in Hungary. More recently, immigration scholar Maria Cristina Garcia fled Fidel Castro’s Cuba with her parents in 1961. The list is long and could be replicated in nearly every discipline.

We have good reason to fear that the executive order will harm historians and historical research both in the United States and abroad. The AHA represents teachers and researchers who study and teach history throughout the world. Essential to that endeavor are interactions with foreign colleagues and access to archives and conferences overseas. The executive order threatens global scholarly networks our members have built up over decades. It establishes a religious test for scholars, favoring Christians over Muslims from the affected countries; and it jeopardizes both travel and the exchange of ideas upon which all scholarship ultimately depends. It directly threatens individuals currently studying history in our universities and colleges, as well as our ability to attract international students in the future. It also raises the possibility that other countries may retaliate by imposing similar restrictions on American teachers and students. By banning these nations’ best and brightest from attending American universities, the executive order is likely to increase anti-Americanism among their next generation of leaders, with fearsome consequences for our future national security.

Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, like many of his colleagues before and since, did think historically in ways that should inform consideration of President Trump’s executive order. In a 1989 dissent (Skinner v. Railway Executives Association), Justice Marshall observed: “History teaches that grave threats to liberty often come in time of urgency, when constitutional rights seem too extravagant to endure. The World War II Relocation–camp cases and the Red Scare and McCarthy-era internal subversion cases are only the most extreme reminders that when we allow fundamental freedoms to be sacrificed in the name of real or perceived exigency, we invariably come to regret it.”

This post has been updated to list the following affiliated societies’ endorsement of the above statement: American Academy of Research Historians of Medieval Spain American Association for State and Local History American Society for Environmental History American Society for Legal History American Society of Church History Association for Computers and the Humanities Association for Israel Studies Berkshire Conference of Women Historians Business History Conference Central European History Society Chinese Historians in the United States Committee on LGBT History Conference on Asian History Conference on Latin American History Coordinating Council for Women in History Disability History Association Forum on European Expansion and Global Interaction French Colonial Historical Society Historical Society for Twentieth Century China History of Science Society Hungarian Studies Association Immigration and Ethnic History Society International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in History Labor and Working Class History Association MARHO: The Radical Historians’ Organization National Council on Public History New England Historical Association North American Conference on British Studies Organization of American Historians Pacific Coast Branch, American Historical Association Rocky Mountain Council of Latin American Studies Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media Social Science History Association Social Welfare History Group Society for Advancing the History of South Asia Society for Austrian and Habsburg History Society for French Historical Studies Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era Society for Italian Historical Studies Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing Society for the History of Children and Youth Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) Southern Historical Association Southern Jewish Historical Society Toynbee Prize Foundation Urban History Association Western Association of Women Historians Western History Association World History Association


160+ Science Organizations Urge President to Rescind Immigration Order

Publication date: 

1 February 2017

In a letter to President Donald Trump, the organizations warn that his executive order temporarily barring citizens of seven nations from entering the U.S. will negatively impact the nation’s science and engineering capacity.

As of today, over 160 scientific societies, universities, and other science organizations have signed onto a letter to President Trump warning of harm to the U.S. scientific enterprise as a result of the president’s recent executive order on immigration. Urging him to rescind the order, the organizations say it will block the open flow of scientists and engineers in industry and academia, discourage top international students and scholars from studying and working in the U.S., and reduce science and engineering productivity.

The executive order, which Trump signed on Jan. 27, imposes a 90-day ban on entry to the U.S. by citizens of seven nations -- Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Sudan. The order also suspends the admittance of refugees awaiting resettlement in the U.S. for 120 days and indefinitely bars the admittance of Syrian refugees.

According to reports in the media, multiple students, postdoctoral fellows, and professors from affected countries were stranded abroad or detained at airports following the order. Existing scientific collaborations, career plans, and conference attendance have been disrupted. And a number of U.S.-based scientific societies have indicated they may be compelled to hold conferences outside of the U.S. to ensure that all scholars in their field of science are able to attend.

Dear President Trump:

The January 27, 2017, White House Executive Order on visas and immigration has profound implications for diplomatic, humanitarian, and national security interests, in part because of the negative impact on U.S. science and engineering capacity.

The 180 undersigned organizations – representing a broad spectrum of professional scientific, engineering and education societies, national associations, and universities – are deeply concerned that this Executive Order will have a negative impact on the ability of scientists and engineers in industry and academia to enter, or leave from and return to, the United States. This will reduce U.S. science and engineering output to the detriment of America and Americans.

Scientific progress depends on openness, transparency, and the free flow of ideas and people, and these principles have helped the United States attract and richly benefit from international scientific talent. From the Apollo Program and exploring the far reaches of the universe, to advancing biomedical research for curing diseases and harnessing science to build a thriving high-tech sector, the United States is considered a leader in science, education and innovation. In order to remain the world leader in advancing scientific knowledge and innovations, the U.S. science and technology enterprise must continue to capitalize on the international and multicultural environment within which it operates.

The Executive Order will discourage many of the best and brightest international students, scholars, engineers and scientists from studying and working, attending academic and scientific conferences, or seeking to build new businesses in the United States. Implementation of this policy will compromise the United States’ ability to attract international scientific talent and maintain scientific and economic leadership.

Today, we urge the Administration to rescind the Executive Order and we stand ready to assist you in crafting an immigration and visa policy that advances U.S. prosperity and ensures strong borders while staying true to foundational American principles as a nation of immigrants.


American Association for the Advancement of Science AACC International Academy for Eating Disorders Academy for Radiology & Biomedical Imaging Research Acoustical Society of America Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences American Academy of Forensic Sciences American Anthropological Association American Association for Clinical Chemistry American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy American Association for Dental Research American Association of Geographers American Association of Immunologists American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists American Association of Physical Anthropologists American Association of Physicists in Medicine American Association of Physics Teachers American Association for Public Opinion Research American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases American Astronomical Society American Brain Coalition American Chemical Society American College of Neuropsychopharmacology American Dental Education Association American Educational Research Association American Federation for Medical Research American Geophysical Union American Geosciences Institute American Institute of Biological Sciences American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics American Institute of Chemical Engineers American Institute of Physics American Mathematical Society American Meteorological Society American Ornithological Society American Physical Society American Physiological Society American Phytopathological Society American Political Science Association American Psychological Association American Public Health Association American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers American Society of Agronomy American Society of Animal Science American Society of Association Executives American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology American Society for Cell Biology American Society of Civil Engineers American Society for Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics American Society of Clinical Psychopharmacology American Society for Horticultural Science American Society for Microbiology American Society of Naturalists American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics American Society of Plant Biologists American Society of Plant Taxonomists American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene American Sociological Association American Statistical Association Archeological Institute of America Associated Universities, Inc. 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Sat, 23 Sep 2023 21:15:44 +0000 0
What Fax Machines Can Tell Us About Electric Cars

This is Jonathan Coopersmith's history of technology blog. He teaches history at Texas A & M University. An Associate Professor of History at Texas A&M University, Jonathan Coopersmith’s latest book is FAXED: The Rise and Fall of the Fax Machine (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015).

Imagine if you could gas up your GM car only at GM gas stations. Or if you had to find a gas station servicing cars made from 2005 to 2012 to fill up your 2011 vehicle. It would be inconvenient and frustrating, right? This is the problem electric vehicle owners face every day when trying to recharge their cars. The industry’s failure, so far, to create a universal charging system demonstrates why setting standards is so important – and so difficult.

When done right, standards can both be invisible and make our lives immeasurably easier and simpler. Any brand of toaster can plug into any electric outlet. Pulling up to a gas station, you can be confident that the pump’s filler gun will fit into your car’s fuel tank opening. When there are competing standards, users become afraid of choosing an obsolete or “losing” technology.

Most standards, like electrical plugs, are so simple we don’t even really notice them. And yet the stakes are high: Poor standards won’t be widely adopted, defeating the purpose of standardization in the first place. Good standards, by contrast, will ensure compatibility among competing firms and evolve as technology advances.

My own research into the history of fax machines illustrates this well, and provides a useful analogy for today’s development of electric cars. In the 1960s and 1970s, two poor standards for faxing resulted in a small market filled with machines that could not communicate with each other. In 1980, however, a new standard sparked two decades of rapid growth grounded in compatible machines built by competing manufacturers who battled for a share of an increasing market. Consumers benefited from better fax machines that seamlessly worked with each other, vastly expanding their utility.

At present, there is not a single standard for plugs to recharge electric vehicles. That means that people who drive electric cars can’t rely on refueling at any of a wide range of nearly ubiquitous stations on street corners the way gas-vehicle drivers can. This creates an additional barrier, slowing the adoption of electric cars unnecessarily. Several potential standards are competing in the marketplace now; as we saw with fax systems, the sooner one standard becomes dominant, the sooner the electric vehicle market will take off.

Making a new standard

The two basic approaches to creating standards involve letting the market decide or forging a consensus among participants. Both have benefits and risks. A free-market approach often splits a young market into several competing and incompatible systems. Believing in their technical or commercial superiority, firms gamble that they will create de facto standards by dominating the market.

In reality, as my research into the first two attempts at standards for fax machines in the 1960s and 1970s showed, competing incompatible equipment can slow the growth of an entire market. In the case of the fax, poorly written standards attempted to codify into common use certain fax machine manufacturers’ methods for connecting two machines and sending information between them. As a result, many firms sold machines that could not work with other companies’ devices. Some manufacturers even deliberately made their machines incompatible to lock their customers into their equipment.

No single firm dominated the marketplace, and nobody agreed to use a single common standard. As a result, the fax world consisted of several smaller self-contained markets, not one larger market. And many potential users didn’t use faxes at all, preferring to wait until an obvious winning standard emerged.

Third time’s the charm

Crowning that winner can take many years. So can creating standards by consensus. In the meantime, the spread of fax technology stagnated.

But then a force outside the marketplace began to call for a real fax standard. In 1977, the Japanese government pushed competing Japanese firms and telephone corporations to cooperate and create one standard. The government then convinced the International Telecommunications Union to adopt this as the worldwide standard in 1980. What ensued was the fax boom of the 1980s and 1990s.

This standard found two keys to its success. First, it was royalty-free, meaning any company could adhere to the standard without paying a fee to its creators. (A similar approach decades earlier proved essential for the adoption of standard dimensions for shipping containers.) The Japanese officials and companies calculated that the profits from a larger market would more than compensate for any lost income from the lack of licensing fees.

Second, the standard was not so restrictive as to prevent fax machine manufacturers from introducing other features – such as faster transmission. That allowed companies to compete on more than just price. The result was a continued flow of new, more capable and cheaper machines that attracted new users.

The need for a standard for electric cars

Successfully commercializing electric vehicles will similarly depend on the development, acceptance and implementation of standards. So far, just as happened with fax machines, incompatible chargers have slowed the spread of electric cars.

Depending on the type of car and its age, it may have one of four incompatible chargers. If the charging station you pull up to lacks the appropriate charger for your car, you are out of luck.

People considering buying electric cars already worry about how far they could travel between recharge stops. Then they realize that they can’t use just any charging station – the way a gasoline-powered vehicle can use any gas station. That doesn’t relieve their concerns and dampens sales of electric vehicles.

Developing a standard

Like fax machines, electric vehicles’ incompatibility reflected both evolving technology and groups of manufacturers promoting their own systems in hopes of dominating the marketplace. Already, the first generation of chargers is essentially obsolete because they take so long to recharge a car battery.

The real battle is among the three incompatible fast charging systems available in the United States: the Japanese CHAdeMO, the European-American CCS and Tesla Supercharger. (China is developing its own standard.)

CHAdeMO works only with Japanese and Korean vehicles like the Nissan LEAF and Kia Soul. CCS works only with European and American cars like the BMW i3 and Chevy Spark. The third system, Tesla’s Supercharger, works only with Tesla’s own cars. Tesla sells its customers a US$450 adapter to use a CHAdeMO charger but does not offer adapters that would let CHAdeMO or CCS vehicles use Tesla charging stations.

The end of the battle?

This three-way split is changing. In the last few years, Tesla has veered from its initial exclusivity to cooperation. In 2014, Tesla announced it would share its patents royalty-free – including its charger and plug designs – to encourage the spread of electric vehicle technology. In 2015, the company agreed to make its cars and charging stations compatible with China’s new standard, possibly by using adapters at charging stations.

And in 2016, Tesla joined CharIN, an industry group promoting the CCS standard. That raised the tempting possibility that the company might allow CCS charging at Tesla stations, probably by providing adapters. It also threw Tesla’s significant support behind an effort to create a new standard for even faster charging. This could lead CCS to market dominance, effectively establishing a standard by out-competing CHAdeMO.

Fax machines needed three generations of standards before real compatibility emerged, thanks to Japanese government pressure to cooperate. For electric vehicles, Telsa’s embrace of CharIN may provide that needed pressure. The real winner would be the cause of electric vehicles.

This post originally appeared in

Sat, 23 Sep 2023 21:15:44 +0000 0
Technology's Poor Step-Sister: Maintenance Festival of Maintenance have joined Instagram! Follow us for more #maintenance, #repair and updates for the 2019 Festival

— Festival of Maintenance (@MaintenanceFest) December 19, 2018

This is Jonathan Coopersmith's history of technology blog. He teaches history at Texas A & M University. An Associate Professor of History at Texas A&M University, Jonathan Coopersmith’s latest book is FAXED: The Rise and Fall of the Fax Machine (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015).


Like Rodney Dangerfield, maintenance, whether of physical or social infrastructure, gets little respect despite its importance.  That importance historically has remained mostly invisible and unappreciated – until something breaks.  Keeping things going without a reduction of service or, even more challenging, keeping them operating whilst modifying them are challenges that apply both to airplane and organizations.


As the Festival of Maintenance conference in London this fall demonstrated, the concept can be expanded to almost any area, depending on how you define maintenance.  One of the delights of this one-day event was the big tent of participants.  Attending were academics, museum curators, professional maintainers, a range of maker organizers and activists, an architect, organization and advertising executives and the Guerilla Groundsman – and those were just the speakers.  The result was a vibrant salad of very different ingredients, which was both a strength and weakness.  The strength came from the range of perspectives and approaches.  I had multiple “I had never thought of that” moments, always the sign of a good conference. 


The weakness came from trying to pull everything together into a semi-coherent whole.  The widely ranging approaches and topics also reflect the youth and diversity of maintenance as an exciting area of study and action, as organizer Laura James’s article in Medium covering all the presentations illustrates. 


Maintenance has not received its appropriate academic and public appreciation because it is considered “normal” and often invisible – much of the history of technology focuses on innovation and not application, diffusion, and operation.  Budgets and life-cycle costs, however, ignore maintenance at their cost as do societies.  The public prestige of maintainers is often low, reflected in the historical downward trajectory of words like technician.  This conference, together with the American Maintainers’ conferences of 2015 and 2017, are part of a growing professional and academic interest in maintenance worthy of serious study. 


Perhaps the Festival’s most unconventional talk came from the Guerilla Groundsman who, wearing a pixelated box over his head, described his individual efforts to move beyond picking up trash to actually maintaining neglected parts of the Cambridge public infrastructure.  He cleaned bridges, cut shrubbery, painted bollards and repaired wooden benches, fences, and a sign.  Never did anyone stop his acts of civic reconstruction.   His actions could be seen as quixotic or a sign of local budget cuts in Britain since 2009.


The Guerilla Groundsman raises interesting questions about the potential expansion of active citizen participation in physical maintenance.  His endeavors demanded skill, the appropriate tools, and a willingness to buy wood, paint, and other materials.  In contrast, the civic groups I’ve seen in Japan, the then Soviet Union, and America only picked up litter (though the Japanese efforts were far more intensive), which requires no training or real skill.


More importantly, how do you move beyond the local actions of an individual to a larger organizing of individuals into coordinated actions in cooperation with governments?  Or should that even be tried? 


King’s College, London professor David Edgerton described the discipline and resources demanded by maintenance regimes while wondering why societies regard maintenance and its close relative, manufacturing, as less interesting and prestigious than invention. One benefit of Brexit and Trump-provoked trade wars is explicitly rendering the complexity of contemporary supply chains not just for making but also maintaining. 


Mike Green of the Central London Maintenance Association, which has a majority of the London facilities management market, described a changing institutional world of property maintenance.  A major challenge is reshaping institutions to ensure their compliance with standards in an internet-based world. 


As both Edgerton and Green emphasized, maintenance demands compliance and discipline.  And, as the history of many technologies illustrates, what was once seen as liberating may become imprisoning.  The Victoria & Albert’s Natalie Kane described how adult disposable diaper use is spreading from incontinent to fully functional adults whose employers mandate they wear diapers to maximize their work efficiency or time before taking a break.  Is this mission creep or, in the case of gamers maximizing their time before a screen and Chinese traveling in overfilled train cars during the holidays, self-decided? 


The number of speakers on maintaining the existence of voluntary maker groups reflected the attention this conference received in that community and definitely reflected the challenges these mostly volunteer groups faced in creating and sustaining themselves.  Adrian McEwen modified a P. J. O’Rourke quote, “everyone wants to save the earth, but no one wants to do the dishes,” to illuminate the challenges of sustaining a volunteer organization. 


Institutional infrastructure clearly needs as much attention as physical infrastructure to ensure its functioning, resilience, and relevance, but is maintenance the correct prism to view organizational competence?  If not, what are better approaches?  Judging by the common challenges the maker groups faced, their survival and effectiveness would benefit from maintenance-like analytic guidance and toolkit to motivate members and get their dishes done by improving their social functioning. 


Certainly, thinking of goals and actions from a maintenance perspective can stimulate ideas for a long-term viewpoint.  Alex Mecklenberg, a business consultant at Doteveryone, suggested, “Let’s think about imagining the maintenance of your bank instead of imagining the future of the bank.”  That’s a very different perspective. 


Speaking by Skype, an activity now so common to go unnoticed – unless the connection is poor, Lee Vinsel provided a brief history of the Maintainers, or “How a Group of Bureaucrats, Standards Engineers, and Introverts Made Technologies That Kind of Work Most of the Time” in contradistinction to Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.  The Virginia Tech professor also briefly described an upcoming project, the Maintenance Community Framework, designed to make maintenance activities more effective and more visible to academics and the public. 


Maintainers, both academic and applied, need to study the broader context in which organizations operate and political decisions occur.  Simon Elmer of Architects for Social Housing provided this background in his overview of London council housing.  Compared with renovating and refilling buildings, tearing existing housing down and replacing it with new, larger buildings is more profitable for everyone – builders, architects and other who bill as a percentage of a project, and local councils – except the householders.  How can groups seeking to upgrade, not uproot the existing buildings frame their arguments in ways that are economically and politically attractive to the council members who will decide what course to take? 


Studying and acting on maintenance are clearly resonating with academics and practitioners.  The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation recently announced it will support the Maintenance Community Framework for “InfoMaintainers - people working in libraries and digital preservation - and Maintainers in the Workforce, a group of experts on the law and policy of labor and poverty.”


This mixing will continue:  The 2019 Festival of Maintenance will occur September 28 in Liverpool.  For more information, go to or

Sat, 23 Sep 2023 21:15:44 +0000 0
Why do people still use fax machines? Jonathon Coopersmith is a professor of history at Texas A&M University.


Old technology, but not obsolete. suksawad/

Jonathan Coopersmith, Texas A&M University

The fax machine is a symbol of obsolete technology long superseded by computer networks – but faxing is actually growing in popularity.

Four years ago, I wrote a history of 160 years of faxing, saying my book covered “the rise and fall of the fax machine.” The end I predicted has not yet come: Millions of people, businesses and community groups send millions of faxed pages every day, from standalone fax machines, multifunction printers and computer-based fax services. It turns out that in many cases, faxing is more secure, easier to use and better suited to existing work habits than computer-based messaging.

Businesses often use faxes

Faxing remains alive and well, especially in Japan and Germany – and in major sectors of the U.S. economy, such as health care and financial services. Countless emails flash back and forth, but millions of faxes travel the world daily too.

A worldwide survey in 2017 found that of 200 large firms, defined as companies with more than 500 employees, 82 percent had seen workers send the same number of, or even more, faxes that year than in 2016. A March 2017 unscientific survey of 1,513 members of an online forum for information technology professionals found that 89 percent of them still sent faxes.

The persistence of faxing – and the people who send faxes – is in part because the fax industry has adapted to accommodate new technologies. Fax machines still dominate, but both surveys suggested users were shifting to computer-based services, such as fax servers that let users send and receive faxes as electronic documents. Cloud-based fax services, which treat faxes as images or PDF files attached to emails, are also becoming more popular. These new systems can transmit faxes over telephone lines or the internet, depending on the recipient, handling paper and electronic documents equally easily.

Legal acceptance

This is legal, but most people aren’t used to that idea yet. Africa Studio/

Fax’s longevity also benefits greatly from reluctance – both legal and social – to accept email as secure and an emailed electronic signature as valid. Faxed signatures became legally accepted in the late 1980s and early 1990s in a series of legal and administrative decisions by state and federal agencies. The Electronic Signatures Act in 2000 also gave digital signatures legal power but institutional and individual acceptance followed only slowly – if at all.

Even parts of the federal government preferred faxes over email for many years thereafter. Not until 2010 did the Drug Enforcement Agency allow electronic signatures for Schedule II drugs like Ritalin and opiates, which comprised about 10 percent of all prescriptions. That meant a pharmacist could accept a faxed prescription but not one scanned and sent by email.

The most recent FBI Criminal Justice Information Services policy allows faxing from physical fax machines without encrypting the message, but demands encryption for all email and internet communications, including cloud-based faxing. It’s much harder to intercept faxes than unencrypted email messages.

Faxing and medicine

Another reason faxing hangs on is because competing technologies are weak. The health care industry generates huge amounts of data for each patient. That should make it fertile ground for a fully digital record-keeping system, “where data can flow easily between patient, provider, caregivers, researchers, innovators and payers,” as Seema Verna, the head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, put it in a speech earlier this year.

Federal privacy laws and deliberately incompatible standards, however, stand in the way. Immediately after the passage of the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, fax vendors retooled their transmission, reception and storage systems and procedures to protect patients’ personal records. Specifically, HIPAA-compliant fax systems ensure the correct number is dialed and limit who can see received faxes. Digital patient-information systems have struggled to meet the same standards of administrative, technical and physical security.

The Obama administration spent more than US$25 billion encouraging doctors and hospitals to adopt electronic medical records systems. Crucially, rather than forcing competing systems to be compatible in order to receive federal support, the administration believed the market would decide on a standard to communicate.

What actually happened was that competing companies deliberately created incompatible systems. Doctors’ offices and hospitals that use different records databases can’t communicate with each other digitally – but they can via fax. For many medical professionals, particularly independent physicians, faxing is far easier than dealing with expensive, hard-to-use software that doesn’t actually do what it was supposed to: securely share patient information.

Comfortable inertia

One more personal factor preserving faxing is users’ reluctance to change. Small businesses who find that faxing meets all their needs have little reason to spend the money and effort to try a new technology for document exchange. Every company that prefers faxes inherently encourages all its customers and suppliers to keep faxing too, to avoid messing up existing ordering processes.

It’s important to remember, too, that fax machines and multifunctional printers with a fax capability provide an inexpensive backup capability in case of technical problems with an internet connection, or even a cyberattack, like the Russian attack on Estonia in 2007.

Absent a compelling reason or some management or government mandate, people often don’t change technologies. This is true beyond faxing: I drive a 2005 Camry. There are plenty of cars that are better in some way – safer, more fuel-efficient, more comfortable – but so long as the Camry passes state inspections and performs adequately, I can avoid the challenges and costs of buying a new car and learning how to use its new features.

International popularity

Faxing is still popular overseas, too. In Britain, the 2000 Electronic Communications Act encouraged but did not explicitly authorize electronic signatures. In 2018, urged partly by the European Union’s promotion of electronic identification, the British Law Commission concluded that electronic signatures were indeed legal but needed significant promotion to increase their acceptance and use.

Not surprisingly, a recent survey found that Britain’s National Health Service operated more than 8,000 fax machines. In response, the U.K.‘s Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock labeled faxing a symbol of National Health Service technological backwardness and pledged to introduce new technologies more quickly. In December, the National Health Service decided to stop buying fax machines in 2019 and end their use by the end of 2020. That’s the same goal the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ Verna has for American doctors to stop faxing.

Nevertheless, faxing continues because it remains better – cheaper, more convenient, more secure, more comfortable – than the alternatives for many people, businesses and organizations. Faxing will remain important until transmitting digital data becomes easier and more accepted. That could be a long way off, though. U.S. federal initiatives are trying to make medical records systems more compatible, but no one has yet been hired to take a key leadership position at CMS.

Eventually the older generation of people more comfortable with faxing than emailing will fade away. Until then, however, fax machines will whirl away.


Jonathan Coopersmith is the author of:

Faxed: The Rise and Fall of the Fax Machine

Johns Hopkins University Press provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.


Jonathan Coopersmith, Professor of History, Texas A&M University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Sat, 23 Sep 2023 21:15:44 +0000 0