Skip to content ↓

Multimedia project works science into American history

Historians from MIT, Caltech and Duke University are collaborating on a $1.75 million, six-year project to develop a comprehensive new American history text and interactive video for a college and general audience that integrates science and technology with social and political history.

"If current textbooks mention science and technology at all, they treat them almost as if they are a separate sphere, but they're not. They are central to the American experience," said MIT Professor Merritt Roe Smith, the project's director. "When you think of our dependence on technological systems, on science and medicine, it makes sense to relate our social and political history to these areas to understand how they interact and influence one another."

In recent years there has been a call by many groups to revise how we look at and teach American history-groups seeking to incorporate additional perspectives of gender, race, ethnicity and class. This history text will synthesize all of these areas, creating what the authors believe will be a thoroughly integrated text that will show the relationships among the social, technological, political and cultural aspects of US history. Because they are concerned with science and technology, they also aim to reestablish the role of politics and government in our nation's development and to give significant attention to the history of business.

Professor Smith's collaborators on the project are Pauline Maier, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of History at MIT; Daniel Kevles, the J.O. and Juliette Koepfli Professor of the Humanities at Caltech; and Alex Keyssar, professor of history at Duke University. Professors Kevles and Smith specialize in the history of American science and technology while Professors Keyssar and Maier focus primarily on American political and social history. Their project, which will be aimed at both a college audience and the general public, is supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which provided $1.75 million for the text. The planned date of publication by W.W. Norton is 2001.

Professors Smith and Kevles had long been keenly aware that the histories of technology and science were woefully neglected in the standard college treatments of American development. In 1988, Kevles and another colleague described this neglect in an article published in the journal Reviews in American History.

The need for a new American history textbook hit Professor Smith while he was teaching a humanities subject on the Civil War. "The students who showed up were already interested and knew a lot about the war-the tactics, the battles, the generals," said Dr. Smith, who is the Cutten Professor of the History of Technology and director of MIT's Science, Technology and Society program. He saw that to engage his students he would have to give them more. So he started introducing them to the technologies behind the war-the impact of rifled weaponry, the effect of the railroads, the meaning of the Civil War as the first industrial war. He even brought in a local surgeon who collects Civil War medical instruments to show the students how surgery was practiced on the battlefield.

"This approach gave us a different way to think about a war in which more than 600,000 died and hundreds of thousands were wounded," Professor Smith said. The course was such a success that students are now admitted by lottery, and Professor Smith began to think about writing a history that would put science and technology in the mainstream of the American story.

The text will be organized in a traditional way but will include new historical anecdotes and material not previously incorporated. Innovations like the telephone, antibiotics, TV and the Internet have had pervasive social and cultural effects on America and will be included in the new work.

"The excitement comes in part from seeing how the story changes when a different set of characters are on the stage," Professor Maier said. "The approach would not work equally well for all national histories. The United States is known as a `technological society' for good reason."

According to Professor Keyssar, the text and video will be an all-encompassing history rather than one that puts a heavy emphasis on science and technology. "But, the evolution of science and technology is absolutely essential to modern history and should be understood as such and not relegated to three paragraphs at the end of a chapter," he said.

"While the available texts may mention the polio vaccine, they utterly ignore the construction of the public and private biomedical research system that produced the vaccine-and has continued to generate medical innovations that shape our lives, by virtue of being both miraculously effective and often astonishingly expensive," Professor Kevles explained.

The authors believe that if citizens of a 21st-century democracy want to understand and become involved with science, technology and government, they will need to understand how these areas have evolved and have come to exercise power and influence in society. "We call ourselves a technological society. We need to understand what that means," Professor Smith concluded.

The text will be unusual in its use of interactive video, the computer technology that allows users to manipulate images, video, text and sound. MIT's Laboratory for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (LATH) has been developing this medium as an educational tool, and has already designed interactive programs for learning languages and studying Shakespeare. Professor Smith and his colleagues will explore audiovisual methods as a way to show maps, graphs, news footage, cultural artifacts, and the design and function of tools and machines, supplementing the text in imaginative ways. They will use it to illustrate topics such as geographic expansion, transportation systems and the evolution of important technologies and systems of production.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 6, 1995.

Related Topics

More MIT News