This page presents a course overview, course policies and requirements, and a class schedule.

Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week
Lec 1: 1 hour / session, Lec 2: 2 hours / session

Class Overview

This class will consider the ways in which technology, broadly defined, has contributed to the building of American society from colonial times to the present. Far from being an "add-on" to political and social events, technology is viewed as a central organizing theme in American history. Indeed, the United States is often referred to as "the technological society." What does that expression mean? Why did it originate? How and in what ways does technology intersect with society and politics? How has technological progress been construed in America? Does technology mean progress? If so, progress for whom and for what? What is the relationship between technology and democracy in America? How have notions of "responsibility" in engineering and technology development changed over time?

This course has three primary goals: to train students to ask critical questions of both technology and the broader culture of American society; to provide an historical perspective with which to frame and address such questions; and to encourage students to be neither blind critics of new technologies, nor blind advocates for technologies in general, but thoughtful and educated participants in the democratic process.


This class meets two times per week: the first session per week is one hour long, while the second session per week lasts two hours. Class meetings will consist of lectures or films, followed by discussion. In each longer class period, two students will lead the discussion of material presented in lecture, film, and readings. In addition to attending all classes, students are expected to participate in these discussions by reading assigned materials before class and thinking about the themes, questions, and historical patterns the readings suggest.

Writing Assignments

Writing for this course will consist of a 6-7 page book review of a book selected from a list, a 12-page essay on an assigned topic, and a 2-3 page reading response/discussion paper.

Reading response/discussion paper: each student will be assigned a date on which he or she is expected to submit a reading response paper and lead discussion in the section. An example response paper will be distributed, to give you an idea of how you are expected to construct your own responses.

All written work must be typed in 12-point font, double-spaced, with adequate margins. All papers must be proofread (not just spell checked) before submission: papers will be downgraded for errors of carelessness. Students who need extra help with writing should visit the Writing Center as they prepare their papers for submission, or schedule an appointment with the class Writing Tutor two weeks in advance of due dates. After initial grading, the book review and essay will be revised by students and re-submitted. Improvements will result in higher grades.


There is a cumulative final examination for this class, and two short quizzes, covering the readings, lectures, and films. Keep in mind that the lectures and readings for this course usually do not cover the same material. This means that you must be present in class and take good notes in order to be prepared for the quizzes and final exam.

Grading Policy

Final grades will be determined as follows:

Activities Percentages
Book Review 20%
Essay 25%
Reading Response Paper/Discussion Leading 10%
Quizzes 20%
Final Exam 25%

Regular attendance, participation, and a good attitude are essential. Without all three you will not get much out of this course. Attendance will be taken daily and poor attendance will result in severe final grade penalties. Each student is allowed no more than two (2) unexcused absences. Thereafter one's final grade will be reduced by one full grade per cut. If a situation arises during the term (illness, family emergency, etc.) and you have to miss classes, please be sure to notify the instructor.

Readings and Films

The following two textbooks are required:

Buy at Amazon Cowan, Ruth Schwarz. A Social History of American Technology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1997. ISBN: 9780195046052.

Buy at Amazon Smith, Merritt Roe, and Gregory Clancey, eds. Major Problems in the History of American Technology. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1997. ISBN: 9780669354720.

Buy at Amazon For students who are not familiar with American history and need to familiarize themselves with the subject, a helpful introduction is: Maier, Pauline, et al. Inventing America: A History of the United States. 2nd ed. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co., 2005. ISBN: 9780393926750.

Class Schedule

1 Introduction
2 What is Technology?
3 Technologies of Colonization and Conquest
4 Crafts and Craftsmanship in Early America
5 Paul Revere: Technologist?

Guest Speaker: Prof. Rob Martello (Olin College)
6 Politics and Early American Industrialization
7 The Role of the State in Early American Industry
8 Social and Political Implications of the New Technology
9 The Transportation and Communications Revolution

First Reading Quiz
10 Art and Industrialization
11 The Emerging Culture of Engineering in America Book review due
12 Technology in the Civil War Era
13 Technology in the Civil War Era (cont.)
14 Human Machines? Frederick W. Taylor and the Rise of Scientific Management
15 Automobility and Mass Production
16 Second Reading Quiz
17 Mass Production
18 Hobbyist Worlds and Technological Enthusiasm in Modern America

Guest Speaker: Kieran Downes (MIT)
19 Aeronautics and the Systems Approach

Guest Speaker: Dr. Deborah Douglas (MIT Museum)
20 Technology and Art at the Apex of the Machine Age First draft of essay due
21 World War II: A Technological Turning Point?

Guest Speaker: Dr. Brendan Foley (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute)
22 World War II: A Technological Turning Point? (cont.)
23 A New World: Technology in Cold War America
24 Computers and Control: The Apollo Program

Guest Speaker: Sandy Brown (MIT)
Final draft of essay due
25 Nature's Revenge: Technology and the Environment
26 The Brave New World of Biotechnology

Guest Speaker: Victor McElheny (MIT Knight Fellows Program)