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Profs write the book on technology's past

Professors Pauline Maier and Merritt Roe Smith with "Inventing America."
Professors Pauline Maier and Merritt Roe Smith with "Inventing America."
Photo / Donna Coveney

Leave it to MIT faculty members to produce a history of the United States that gives science and technology their rightful due.

Professors Merritt Roe Smith and Pauline Maier have achieved that goal in "Inventing America: A History of the United States," (Norton, 2002) co-authored with professors Alexander Keyssar of Harvard and Daniel Kelves of Yale.

While "Inventing America" seems particularly appropriate to MIT, Maier, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of History, and Smith, the Leverett and William Cutten Professor of the History of Technology, believe their college-level textbook speaks to a wider audience. "The truth is, this is appropriate for Americans in general," said Maier.

Previous texts "created a lot of myths about technological subjects," said Smith. For example, Eli Whitney often is credited with inventing interchangeable parts, but, as the authors of "Inventing America" write, "Interchangeable parts developed incrementally over 30 years, not dramatically and fast."

Smith's expertise in the history of technology helped land funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for the six-year project. He recalled how, during a 1993 lecture to Sloan Foundation directors on the need for fellowships for MIT graduate students in history of technology, he mentioned his disappointment in American history textbooks because they "peripheralized science and especially technology." Two weeks and one phone call later, a foundation officer offered support for the "Inventing America" project.

Smith immediately invited Maier to join him as a co-author. She was then working on "American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence" (a New York Times Editors' Choice in 1997) and looking for a project to take on after the book went to press.

"This sounded intellectually interesting and I'd be learning something, so I accepted his invitation quite quickly," she said. They started working on "Inventing America" in 1996.

Maier learned, for example, why it took 71 years to construct the U.S. Capitol: the plans, drawn in the 1790s by an amateur, had major technical deficiencies. "So much of what Americans had done so far was the work of amateurs, but there were limits to what amateurs could do. If you're going to build a capitol, it helps to know something about how to hold it up," she said. It would be years before Americans could "boast architects and engineers of their own."

Maier and Smith each realized they loved history long before they both joined the MIT faculty in 1978.

Smith's interest began in childhood, through his father's commemorative stamp collection. At Georgetown University, he got hooked on the idea of "history as an interpretive discipline that changed over time as different generations address the subject and as more information became available," he said.

While earning a Ph.D. at Pennsylvania State University, Smith studied New Englander John H. Hall, a pioneer in the early development of interchangeable parts whose work was mostly destroyed during the Civil War. Hall's work became the basis of Smith's first book, "Harper's Ferry Armory and the New Technology: The Challenge of Change." The book received the Organization of American Historians' Frederick Jackson Turner Award in 1977 and the History of Science Society's Pfizer award in 1978, and it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1977.

Maier, who has a Ph.D. in history from Harvard, discovered a "natural sympathy between my mind and the subject of history" while studying at Radcliffe, she said.

"I read Marcel Proust's "Swann's Way" with the same intensity as a detective novel. I loved its treatment of the interconnectedness of past and present, its appreciation with how little things--a taste or a smell--can bring past experiences alive again. In fact, I suspect all of my interest in history stems from this fundamental fascination with time," she said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 30, 2003.

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