Technology, History, and Travel

A Consolidated B-24 Liberator from Maxwell Field, Alabama, four engine pilot school, glistens in the sun as it makes a turn at high altitude in the clouds.

The Little Big History

What stories matter in history? If you had posed this question to a historian in the United States or Europe a hundred years ago, he probably would have told you in a roundabout way that only the experiences of white men mattered—more specifically, powerful white men. Historians of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, almost to a man (and they were all men), only studied the lives of kings, prime ministers, presidents, senators, and generals; or great artists, great thinkers, great industrialists, and great inventors. These historians didn’t pay any attention to the common man and woman, because these people simply didn’t matter in their worldview.

This sort of thinking about history seems silly and old-fashioned now, as well it should. All people are a part of history, not just the white and powerful, and their stories deserve to be told too. One outcome of this contemporary understanding of history is a profusion of books, movies, and museums about minority experiences—for example, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Museum of Chinese in America, Roots, and Hidden Figures. Another outcome is the rise in popularity of genealogical or family history research. If all people’s experiences are a part of history, then one’s ancestors are a legitimate subject of research, even if they were not powerful or influential.

Even though they are studying the past, family history buffs don’t really have the same objectives as historians. The job of a historian is to ask questions about the past—not only what happened, but why. (“History” comes from a Greek word meaning inquiry. The discipline of history is not, and has never been, just about facts.) Historians need to make connections from event to event, to understand why something was important. For family history researchers, significance is a given: this person is my ancestor, therefore he or she is important. Because family history isn’t exactly history as historians understand it, I prefer to use the term family heritage instead.

There is a genre of historical writing that discusses people who may not have been important in their own time, but their experiences can be used to draw broader lessons about the period in which they lived. This is known as microhistory. When written well, microhistories can be good reads that teach you about much more than the small event that is their main subject matter. (That not all microhistories are this well-written is not a valid reason for condemning the genre as a whole, as some of my classmates did in grad school.)

One excellent microhistory is Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend, by Scott Reynolds Nelson. The author takes a well-known but little-understood folk song and uses it to discuss convict labor and industrialization in the post-Civil War American South. The results of archival research are interspersed with accounts of the author’s travels to the places where John Henry lived, worked, and died. I have read more books about convict labor than I would care to count, but this is the only one I keep thinking about long after I read it.

Another great microhistory wasn’t even written by a historian, and it is on its face a creative nonfiction biography. But Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand, is about more than just one man’s sensational life story. Hillenbrand uses Louis Zamperini’s experience of capture and imprisonment by the Japanese to illustrate the experiences of thousands of Allied prisoners of war in the Pacific Theater.

Can family heritage buffs learn something from the microhistory genre? I hope they can. If I were not a member of my own family, I wouldn’t care about the stories of, say, my Austrian immigrant ancestors who settled in Colorado a hundred years ago. But I would be interested to know how their experiences of migration, acculturation, and ultimately assimilation reflected broader trends in the lives of European immigrants in rural America at the turn of the twentieth century.

(Header picture: B-24 Liberator bomber in flight over Montgomery, AL. USAF photo from Wikipedia.)

Alabama State Capitol

Good Bye Wallace!

Fifty years ago, every American who paid any attention to the news was familiar with George Wallace, four-term governor of Alabama and perennial presidential candidate. To many people who lived outside of Alabama—and especially outside the South—Wallace was a reactionary and antagonist, the stereotype of the race-baiting Southern Democrat and white supremacist. Baby Boomers like my parents remember Wallace’s calling for “segregation forever” in his inauguration speech in 1963, and then making a show of bodily blocking a doorway to oppose the desegregation of the University of Alabama. It was during Wallace’s first term as governor that vigilantes and law enforcement intimidated, beat up, and even killed civil rights activists. The villainous image of Wallace was passed down to later generations by that great repository of Boomer nostalgia, the 1994 film Forrest Gump, which features a scene set at the University of Alabama during Wallace’s desegregation protest.

As I found when I moved to Alabama for graduate school six years ago, Alabamians have more positive memories of George Wallace. He is not a villain but an influential, if flawed, leader. In his later terms as governor, Wallace reversed his stance on segregation and voting rights, and ultimately welcomed racial minorities into his administration. In 1972, while running for president, he was shot by a would-be assassin. The attack left him paralyzed below the waist. Popular memories of Wallace usually identify this attempt on his life as the Damascus Road experience that led to the reversal of his views on race.

It may be that Wallace had a real change of heart, but it is also true that he was, to his core, a politician who always knew what would appeal to voters. His first bid for the governorship, in 1958, ended in defeat when his integrationist platform was a flop with Alabama’s overwhelmingly white electorate. Between this defeat and his first victory four years later, Wallace reinvented himself as a segregationist, the image that would define him for so many Americans outside Alabama. By 1972, Alabama’s African Americans had been enfranchised by the Voting Rights Act, and Wallace needed black votes to stay in office. An accurate image of Wallace is neither a racist, nor a man who (like Darth Vader?) became good in the end. Rather, he was a cunning politician and a populist, who played to the fears of voters.

Six years ago, George Wallace’s name and image were everywhere in Alabama. Wallace’s likeness stared out from plaques at rest areas on Interstate 85, which was constructed during his tenure as governor. On the campus of Auburn University, where I studied, several of the prominent buildings were built in the Wallace era. On my way to assist for history classes in Haley Center each day, I walked by a plaque with the name Lurleen Wallace, George’s wife who won election handily in 1966 when he was forbidden by state law from running for a second consecutive term. I occasionally went to the architecture library in Dudley Hall, which had a plaque of George Wallace himself.

The rotunda of the state capitol has spaces for four portraits of governors. In 2011, I was surprised to find that only two of the spots were occupied by recent governors; the other two featured George and Lurleen Wallace. The capitol tourguide claimed that these paintings were on permanent display because George was Alabama’s longest-serving governor, and Lurleen was the state’s first “lady governor.” To me, this seemed like a rationalization, the real reason being the state’s Wallace cult.

Two years after moving away from Alabama, I recently returned to attend commencement, and I used the opportunity to reacquaint myself with the state. I was surprised to find that George Wallace was much less visible in 2016 than he had been earlier. The plaque at the Alabama Welcome Center on I-85 was hidden behind a brochure rack and a Christmas tree. The portraits in the rotunda of the state capitol were gone, having been replaced by more recent governors. At Auburn, Lurleen’s plaque on Haley Center was still in place, but George’s plaque on Dudley Hall had disappeared entirely. The building was recently remodeled, and the plaque didn’t survive the renovation.

The ghost of George Wallace has finally been served its eviction papers. Good riddance, I say. Even though George Wallace was not the meat-headed segregationist and racist that many people remember, he did support views like this for much of his political career, and by memorializing Wallace, it seemed as if Alabama was giving tacit approval of the ugly parts of the governor’s legacy. Alabama shouldn’t forget either the good or bad things Wallace did, but he has no right to be a hero. I’m glad to see that Alabama has begun to move on from the cult of Wallace.


Marina Bay pan

How does Singapore work?

For several years, I was perplexed by a little place called Singapore. I had never been there myself, but I had read and heard that it is a completely independent city-state on an island in southeast Asia. The more I learned about technology and economics, the more I was baffled by Singapore. How could a single city on an island survive as an independent nation? To function, cities need hinterlands from which to draw resources. But how can a city’s hinterland be in another country?

I was fortunate to get the chance to visit Singapore for a conference earlier this year, the Society for the History of Technology’s annual meeting. Having visited Singapore, and read up on it during and after my visit, I think I have a better understanding of how Singapore can be a viable city-state on an island. Here are some things I’ve learned about how Singapore works.


It is true that Singapore is very small for a country, but it is large for a city-state. At 278 sq mi, it is much larger than the other two independent city-states, Vatican City and Monaco, both of which are smaller than a square mile. Singapore has room not only for urban areas, but also highways, parklands, reservoirs, military bases, and even some farms.

As Singapore’s population grows, land becomes ever more dear—a problem in dense urban areas around the world. One of Singapore’s solutions to the land crunch is buying sand from Indonesia and using it to reclaim land from the ocean. Another solution is particularly heavy-handed urban redevelopment: unilaterally replacing low-density neighborhoods with high-rise apartment blocks. This has created clean, healthy housing for the common man and woman, but it has also given most of Singapore a generic, characterless appearance.

Although Singapore is an island, it is separated from Malaysia (and the Asian mainland) only by the Straits of Johor, which is about as wide as the Hudson River between New Jersey and Manhattan. There are two permanent above-water links between Singapore and Malaysia, the Johor Causeway and the Second Link. The Johor Causeway opened in 1923, was partially destroyed by retreating Allied troops in 1942, then repaired by the Japanese within days of their occupying the island. It has been in use ever since. The Second Link, a longer but less-interesting concrete bridge, opened in 1998.


Singapore has four sources of clean water, known as the National Taps: 1) rainwater collected in reservoirs, 2) desalinated seawater, 3) three pipelines from Malaysia that cross over to Singapore on the Johor Causeway, and 4) processed wastewater. The last of these, known as the Fourth National Tap or Newater, processes the water through multiple stages of filtration and irradiation. Most of this water is used by industry, but some of it is pumped up into the reservoirs, mixed with rainwater, processed again, and then delivered to the municipal water system. (One of the Newater plants is integrated into a visitor center. Like so much else in Singapore, it is a tourist attraction.)

The drainage of Singapore island has been engineered on a huge scale, to save as much rainwater as possible. Singapore’s planners have gone as far as damming the mouth of Marina Bay, adjacent to the downtown commercial district, to convert it into a freshwater lake.


A highly-industrialized, heavily-urbanized place, Singapore has high energy needs. The island has no petrochemical deposits. Fortunately for Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia both have an abundance of petrochemicals. Singapore imports crude oil from its neighbors, processes it in refineries, and re-exports the refined products at a profit. The majority of Singapore’s electricity is generated from imported natural gas. I expected to find that Singapore also bought electricity from Malaysia’s electric grid, but it turns out that the opposite is the case: Singapore sells a little electricity back to its neighbor across the straits.


More than 90% of Singapore’s food is imported. Farms on the outskirts of the built-up area produce some eggs, fish, and leafy greens, but almost everything else needs to be imported. The top sources of fruits and vegetables are Malaysia (of course), China, Australia, and the USA.

Despite needing to import everything—or possibly because of this—Singaporeans have developed a strong and distinctive food culture. My favorite experience in Singapore was eating lunch at a hawker center in Chinatown—a food court for inexpensive, tasty street food. I got filled up on a mushroom-noodle dish for S$4.50.


Singapore has managed to stay independent and continue drawing resources from its hinterland in other countries because of its robust economy.1 Located strategically on the Straits of Melaka, Singapore has been an important free-trade port almost from its founding in 1819. The city-state’s industries include ship repair, electronics, and petroleum refining. Singapore is also a center of international banking, and its airport is a major hub in southeast Asia. Singapore has been able to sell itself as a clean, hassle-free (if generic) Asian travel experience, and tourism is thus a major part of the economy as well.

Singapore is an orderly, well-managed country. It is a demonstration that technocracy can work on a small scale—as long as you are able to banish your messy hinterland to another country.

  1. Malaysia is also politically invested in Singapore’s independence. Singapore was a part of Malaysia from 1963-1965, but the Malay States expelled Singapore because their leaders feared the ethnic Chinese of Singapore would dominate national politics. []

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