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Category: Writings

Thinking Historically about Technology

This is another article I wrote for the Collegian, entitled “Thinking Historically about Technology.” In this article, I illustrate how I think about technology by using a case study of one of my favorite Indian technologies, auto-rickshaws. (This version is slightly edited from the version that appeared in print.)

After graduating from college, I spent a year volunteer teaching at a school in the state of Meghalaya in northeast India. I first arrived in Meghalaya, jetlagged and disoriented, on a Wednesday afternoon at the beginning of the hot, sticky monsoon month of September. Come evening, I passed out on the bed of my quarters and slept like a dead man.

When I got up on Thursday morning, the day was already well underway. The sun had lifted his head above the jungly hills to the east of the school. It was not even 7 a.m., yet it was already blazing hot. My quarters were on the top floor of a three-family dwelling, one of several such structures built to the same plan around campus. From the back balcony, I had a view of the hills, some fields, a highway, and the Didram River, which gives the school its name. From the front door, over the school compound’s wall, I could see children in blue uniforms heading for school, even though classes were not scheduled to start for another hour yet. Some of the older students roared up on shiny motorbikes. Others pedaled awkwardly along on conventional bicycles, their bookbags slung haphazardly over their shoulders. Some came on foot, trudging along with their hands in their pockets.

And then there were some who came in the oddest vehicles I had ever seen: bulbous, three-wheeled conveyances with open sides that went sputtering down the road. A driver sat in the front of the vehicle, peering through the windshield and clutching onto motor scooter-style handlebars as he navigated the treacherous road. Students were piled in the back seat and up front around the driver, their legs jutting out of the open sides in order to free up room inside the vehicle.

As I watched these bizarre vehicles bounce past on the road, I asked my roommate, who had already been in India several months, what those things were. “Why,” he said, “those are rickshaws!”

I quickly grew enamored over rickshaws, which are an inventive solution to the age-old problem of how to move people from one place to another. I also liked them because they are fun to ride. As I traveled around India, I was impressed by the huge variety of rickshaws that I saw in use. In Calcutta, I saw hand-pulled rickshaws, a relic of the colonial era. In various cities and towns around India, I saw and rode on cycle rickshaws. The greatest variety is found in the motorized rickshaws, commonly referred to as “auto-rickshaws” or just “autos.” Most auto-rickshaws share the same basic three-wheeled configuration. Almost all of them have handlebars rather than steering wheels, since the first auto-rickshaws were built from motor scooter parts. Apart from these similarities, rickshaws vary greatly in size and under-the-hood specifications. There are black rickshaws that run on gasoline and green rickshaws that use cleaner-burning compressed natural gas. Some rickshaws have two-stroke engines, like a lawnmower or a chainsaw. To start them, the driver yanks a lever or pulls a ripcord, depending on the model. Other rickshaws have four-stroke automobile engines and electric starters. A few rickshaws are even designed with rear-facing seats, so you can watch the road unroll behind you as you ride.

In an Indian city, it is usually not hard to find a rickshaw to take you someplace. On a street corner, just wave at a passing vehicle and shout “Oe, rickshaw!” (“Oe” is a Hindi interjection that means “hey.”) In most cases, rickshaw drivers will spot you first and volunteer to take you someplace, whether you want to go or not. Drivers park their vehicles at strategic locations and wait for customers to arrive. As soon as one appears, they all cluster around and start debating prices. Rickshaws in many cities are required by law to use meters, but most drivers claim that their meters are all inexplicably broken.

Not only are rickshaws a clever solution to the problem of people-moving (and fun to ride), they also provide an opportunity to think about technology historically. One of my favorite books that I’ve read in grad school is The Shock of the Old, by David Edgerton. In the book, Edgerton argues that the best way to think about technology is not in terms of innovation—the creation of new stuff—but the use of things that may be old or new. Edgerton cites rickshaws as an example of “creole technology”—something that originated in one part of the world but took on new use and meaning elsewhere. Rickshaws are glorified motor scooters—a technology that originated in the West but is now being used extensively, and to good effect, for different purposes far from its place of origin. Auto-rickshaws are not an old technology; they are a relatively new one, coming into vogue since World War II. They are not an intermediate step toward bigger and better western-style technology—they are here to stay.

Lately, rickshaw technology has flowed to the West. I have yet to see three-wheeler auto taxis anywhere in America, but cycle rickshaws are already a feature of American life. Entrepreneurs using pedicabs, as they’re called here, have set up shop everywhere that they can find tourists who are too lazy to walk where they want to go. In New York City, adults pay $60, and children $50, for a ride around Central Park in a pedicab. Even my town of Auburn, Ala., has rickshaws on the weekends of home football games. Someday, I want to hail one of these pedicabs with “Oe, rickshaw!” and then try to haggle the price of a ride across town down to $2.

(Those who missed the first article “Does Technology Have History?” can read it here.)

http://www.willylogan.com/?p=688After graduating from Walla Walla in 2009, I spent a year on a student missionary posting at Riverside Adventist Academy in the state of Meghalaya in northeast India. I first arrived in Meghalaya, jetlagged and disoriented, on a Wednesday afternoon at the beginning of the hot, sticky monsoon month of September. Come evening, I passed out on the bed of my quarters and slept like a dead man.

When I got up on Thursday morning, the day was already well underway. The sun had lifted his head above the jungly hills to the east of the school. It was not even 7 a.m., yet it was already blazing hot. My quarters were on the top floor of a three-family dwelling, one of several such structures built to the same plan around campus. From the back balcony, I had a view of the hills, some fields, a highway, and the Didram River, which gives the school its name. From the front door, over the school compound’s wall, I could see children in blue uniforms heading for school, even though classes were not scheduled to start for another hour yet. Some of the older students roared up on shiny motorbikes. Others pedaled awkwardly along on conventional bicycles, their bookbags slung haphazardly over their shoulders. Some came on foot, trudging along with their hands in their pockets.

And then there were some who came in the oddest vehicles I had ever seen: bulbous, three-wheeled conveyances with open sides that went sputtering down the road. A driver sat in the front of the vehicle, peering through the windshield and clutching onto motor scooter-style handlebars as he navigated the treacherous road. Students were piled in the back seat and up front around the driver, their legs jutting out of the open sides in order to free up room inside the vehicle.

As I watched these bizarre vehicles bounce past on the road, I asked my roommate, who had already been in India several months, what those things were. “Why,” he said, “those are rickshaws!”

I quickly grew enamored over rickshaws, which are an inventive solution to the age-old problem of how to move people from one place to another. I also liked them because they are fun to ride. As I traveled around India, I was impressed by the huge variety of rickshaws that I saw in use. In Calcutta, I saw hand-pulled rickshaws, a relic of the colonial era. In various cities and towns around India, I saw and rode on cycle rickshaws. The greatest variety is found in the motorized rickshaws, commonly referred to as “auto-rickshaws” or just “autos.” Most auto-rickshaws share the same basic three-wheeled configuration. Almost all of them have handlebars rather than steering wheels, since the first auto-rickshaws were built from motor scooter parts. Apart from these similarities, rickshaws vary greatly in size and under-the-hood specifications. There are black rickshaws that run on gasoline and green rickshaws that use cleaner-burning compressed natural gas. Some rickshaws have two-stroke engines, like a lawnmower or a chainsaw. To start them, the driver yanks a lever or pulls a ripcord, depending on the model. Other rickshaws have four-stroke automobile engines and electric starters. A few rickshaws are even designed with rear-facing seats, so you can watch the road unroll behind you as you ride.

In an Indian city, it is usually not hard to find a rickshaw to take you someplace. On a street corner, just wave at a passing vehicle and shout “Oe, rickshaw!” (“Oe” is a Hindi interjection that means “hey.”) In most cases, rickshaw drivers will spot you first and volunteer to take you someplace, whether you want to go or not. Drivers park their vehicles at strategic locations and wait for customers to arrive. As soon as one appears, they all cluster around and start debating prices. Rickshaws in many cities are required by law to use meters, but most drivers claim that their meters are all inexplicably broken.

Not only are rickshaws a clever solution to the problem of people-moving (and fun to ride), they also provide an opportunity to think about technology historically. One of my favorite books that I’ve read in grad school is The Shock of the Old, by David Edgerton. In the book, Edgerton argues that the best way to think about technology is not in terms of innovation—the creation of new stuff—but the use of things that may be old or new. Edgerton cites rickshaws as an example of “creole technology”—something that originated in one part of the world but took on new use and meaning elsewhere. Rickshaws are glorified motor scooters—a technology that originated in the West but is now being used extensively, and to good effect, for different purposes far from its place of origin. Auto-rickshaws are not an old technology; they are a relatively new one, coming into vogue since World War II. They are not an intermediate step toward bigger and better western-style technology—they are here to stay.

Lately, rickshaw technology has flowed to the West. I have yet to see three-wheeler auto taxis anywhere in America, but cycle rickshaws are already a feature of American life. Entrepreneurs using pedicabs, as they’re called here, have set up shop everywhere that they can find tourists who are too lazy to walk where they want to go. In New York City, adults pay $60, and children $50, for a ride around Central Park in a pedicab. Even my town of Auburn, Ala., has rickshaws on the weekends of home football games. Someday, I want to hail one of these pedicabs with “Oe, rickshaw!” and then try to haggle the price of a ride across town down to $2.

Does Technology Have History?

I wrote the following article for The Collegian, the student newspaper of my alma mater, Walla Walla University. In the article, I show why I think it is important to study the history of technology. In a way, the article is my manifesto. (This version is slightly edited from the version that appeared in print.)

When I tell people that I am working on a PhD in history of technology at Auburn University, I get a variety of responses. Those who are in the know say “Oh, Auburn!” because Auburn is well-known in academia for its history of technology program. Most non-historians react with a range of startled or confused responses. More than one person has said: “Oh! that’s interesting. I’d never thought that you could study history of technology before.” Others have been more overtly confused: “So you don’t have anything to study before the 1960s then, right?” Some, hearing “technology” and being vaguely aware that I was an engineering major once upon a time ask whether this is an engineering program or a history program. (It is a history program.) And a few have even gone so far as to ask incredulously: “Does technology have history?”

The short answer: yes, definitely.

All of the confusion about my field of study tells me that there is deeper confusion about the two terms “history” and “technology.” If I define both of these terms as I understand them, then I think I can clear up the confusion about what “history of technology” means.

First: history. The general public’s perception of history tends to be much narrower than the diverse range of topics that historians can actually study. Once when I met a Chinese woman and told her that I was studying history, she snapped, “Why!” It wasn’t so much a question as an accusation. “Why history!” I’d obviously touched a nerve somehow.

Somewhat taken aback, I didn’t know what to say. “Well, um,” I stammered.

“It’s all so pointless!” she went on. “All of those names of emperors and this dynasty and that dynasty. Who cares?”

If emperors and dynasties were all that there was to history, I would have trouble caring too.

Fortunately, history is much more than that. Emperors and dynasties—as well as presidents, prime ministers, kings, queens, and communist party leaders—belong to political history, which is just one way to look at history. There are many, many other ways to consider the past, including social history, cultural history, environmental history, labor history, and also a huge variety of sub-specializations like urban history, history of childhood, history of romance, and history of smell (really!).

Where does this leave our emperors and their dynasties? Don’t get me wrong; they are still important. They just aren’t all-important.

Too often history gets mixed up with the Great Man theory, which says that most or all historical events were caused by the brilliant actions of one great man, or several great men working together. People identified as great men were often politicians or generals. George Washington, arguably America’s greatest “Great Man,” was both. Not all great men were either politicians or generals, though: They could also be religious leaders, explorers, scientists, or even inventors, engineers, and innovators—men like Columbus, Einstein, and Edison.

Anybody living in politically-correct 21st-century America should have no trouble spotting one of the major flaws of Great Man theory: it ignores women and minority groups. In response, women and minorities have come up with their own great women or great men of non-European descent.

Even when Great Man history becomes Great Person history, there are still significant flaws to the whole theory. By focusing on one person out of a million, Great Person narratives are simplistic. They ignore the common people, who contribute to history just like the Great People. Furthermore, these narratives tend to inflate ordinary, flawed human beings into idealized, unrealistic, larger-than-life heroes.

Our English word “history” comes from a Greek word that originally meant “inquiry.” This is still what history means: an inquiry into all aspects of the human past, not just politics or the actions of great people.

Then what about technology? Popular views of technology are also narrower than I feel they should be. This is what the word “technology” means to me and many other people in my field: anything that people make or adapt from nature for their own practical use. It also includes ways of doing things (like how to grow corn) and ways of thinking about things or organizing knowledge (systems of writing, calendars, the periodic table of the elements, and so forth).

By this definition, technology is not just Steve Jobs’ and Bill Gates’ smartphones and computers. It is also more than just the machines and products of modern industry. People were making and using technology long before there were phones, computers, cars, or even steam engines. Dugout canoes are technology. Ox-driven plows are technology.

As you should see by now, history of technology is a diverse field that ranges from ancient times and runs right up to the present. It can be about any part of the inhabited world, because all people use some kind of technology. This is the long answer to the question, “Does technology have history?” Yes, technology definitely has history; its history is parallel to and inseparable from the history of humanity.

Of course, I cant study the history of all technology. The field is so huge that I have to specialize. Im going to write my dissertation (the book that I have to write to get my PhD) about technology in the early independence period of India (1947 to about 1965). In next weeks Collegian, Ill use an example from my research to show how I think about technology historically.

Stanley Beltz article

Aviation History magazine has printed my first article about Lockheed test pilot Stanley Beltz, in the regular “Aviators” column of its September 2010 issue:

http://www.historynet.com/table-of-contents-september-2010-aviation-history.htm

The article is not available online, but you can order issues of the magazine here.

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