Liveblog: Technology, HASTS 25th Anniversary Event

Liveblog November 11, 2013 1:13 am


Co-written with Lan Li, with additional help from Julia Fleischhack; photos by Ashawari Chaudhuri and Amy Johnson; Wordle shows program interests between 2000 and 2004.

Onward to Technology! Aka the third panel of the HASTS 25th Anniversary Event, introduced by Grace Kim and moderated by Shreeharsh Kelkar.

Lindy Biggs (‘87): The Changing Meaning of Work in England’s Early Industrial Period

David Lucsko (‘05): Dismantlers or Graveyards? Automotive Salvage in the Twentieth Century

Rob Martello (‘01): Paul Revere and Ben Franklin: Artisans, Entrepreneurs, and Boundary Crossers

Bill Turkel (‘04): The Hands-On Imperative


Lindy Biggs (‘87): The Changing Meaning of Work in England’s Early Industrial Period

AC_Lindy Biggs

For today’s event, Lindy will present a chapter of a new book that asks how societies adapt to radical technologies. This is a British story with a particular focus on child labor. It’s one based on questions that people don’t typically ask of the industrial period: What did “the industrial” mean to folks living in the 18th century? What did people say about it?  How did they deal with these dramatic changes? The historical records are vast, but unexplored.

This research draws from Parliamentary hearings that collected information on child workers from men working in textile mills and churches. These men were asked: Did they [children] labor? Was the work heavy? Was it dangerous?

Here, Lindy pauses to ask, What was labor in the 18th century?

To the British Parliament of this time, “the factory is a foreign landscape.” And in this foreign landscape, children weren’t doing the work. Machines were. So was this really work? How much should children be paid to watch machines?

For Lindy, these questions demonstrate how machines were profoundly changing the meaning of “work.” This reveals the difficulties of understanding what it meant to labor beside a machine for up to 14 hours a day. Nothing like factory work had previously existed, but it seems obvious that children who tended machines had a difficult job.

And yet, witnesses from the 1816 committee offered comments like, “There is no labor, there is only watching.” “The children seemed to sit around all day.”  “Only the frail can do this work.”  “What could be easier work than lifting threads?”

Other witnesses, however, described the children as “poor little emaciated things.” 

Performed by the bodies of “poor little emaciated things,” labor could be considered in the abstract. It was the wasting of physical strength. (There’s a section on this in Marx’s Grundrisse as well.) Understanding changing notions of “labor” can help us learn about factory work in the Industrial Revolution.

“Defining labor is perhaps another way to define the Industrial Revolution.”


David Lucsko (‘05): Dismantlers or Graveyards? Automotive Salvage in the Twentieth Century

AC_David Lucsko

Junkyard. The word itself immediately conjures up a number of images. Heaps of broken cars, a guard dog. A neighbor with a moldy old car, trash in his driveway. Or maybe images from Breaking Bad or Pulp Fiction, criminals getting rid of evidence against a background of stacked car carcasses.

Whatever our image, it is negative. A junkyard is scar on the landscape.

Indeed, the word “junkyard” is laden with so much baggage that the members of the salvage industry reject its use. Whatever we call them, we tend not to rank them all that highly. We treat them akin to landfills and sewage plants. But all of these are important, they all play very important roles in our lives. We may not like the way that they look or their effects on property values or the environment, but we need them.

There are two chief aims of his current research:

  1. Peel back the veneer of myth and misnomer. How have salvage yards really operated?
  2. What are the behaviors of the typical salvage yard customer?

David suggests we can understand the junkyard as a symbol of 20th century life. Key here is the junkyard as “open graveyard.”

Back in the early 20th century, when the salvage industry first emerged, it mixed scrap and resale. This was not the open graveyard model of our imagination. These were streamlined, dynamic operations that plucked marketable parts from cars as they arrived and then sold the rest for scrap. Such salvage businesses thrived through the mid 20s.

During this period, due to changes in the auto market, the number of cars scrapped shot up. This led to what we tend to think of today as the junkyard — the open graveyard littered with stacks of car carcasses.

Of course, streamlined salvage continued in certain contexts as a way to control markets for used cars and parts. However, low scrap metal prices at the end of the Depression only confirmed and strengthened the trend toward open graveyards. Then, in the early 1950s, post-WWII scrap prices plunged, and such junkyards flourished.

But by the middle of the 1960s, open graveyards were fenced and hidden and subject to environmental constraints. This led to a re-emergence of streamlined salvage. The decades after this — up to the present day — only strengthened this trend, as they saw the development and introduction of features like technologies for flattening cars, the ability to market over the internet, et al.

“By 1999 it was beginning to look a lot like 1929.”

Open graveyards were still abundant, but order had begun to replace chaos.

Most of the brands of hands-on auto enthusiasts emerged in the 1930s and 1940s and 1950s — and all of these hobbyists came to relies on open graveyards for parts, developing an affective attachment to these graveyards. The Business of Speed explores these communities and their relationship to such graveyards.


Rob Martello (‘01): Paul Revere and Ben Franklin: Artisans, Entrepreneurs, and Boundary Crossers

ACJ_Rob Martello 1

After graduating from MIT in 2001, Rob took a job at Olin College, which at the time was known as the “college that didn’t exist.” It was a promise with an endowment, a project to innovate and change education in the 21st century. So he started conducting educational research, experimenting with student autonomy.

Rob was also keen to assign students projects that combined the history of technology with engineering technology, so he designed a course called The Stuff of History. In this course, students take an object and study it structurally, socially, and historically. This allows students to contextualize science and appreciate the connections among technologies, technological systems, and global values. Some of the actors who take on these values are the historical figures Rob studies — artisans, entrepreneurs, and boundary crossers.

This lead Rob to his research on Paul Revere. In this history, Revere is not the “Midnight Rider,” but a silversmith, a mechanic working with his hands and experimenting with technology. He was known as the “handiman of the revolution” and dispatched on a number of jobs because he knew how to get things done. Even if he didn’t know, he could figure it out. Yet despite his handiness, Revere failed to advance as a social elite — because of his work as a craftsman.

Even when Revere couldn’t get what he wanted right away, he figured something out. He established a shop and started to hire factory workers. Sure, he could have remained a wealthy silversmith, but he chose to flourish as an entrepreneur. He started doing government contracting work, entering new fields as a result of figuring something new out. Maybe you’ve heard of “Revere ware”?  He mastered this entrepreneurial practice, crossing many mechanical boundaries.

Onward to Benjamin Franklin. You know him as an inventor, a scientist, a diplomat, and a pretty accomplished man. (But is this a history of Great Men?) Despite his many accomplishments, he starts off as a printer. He’s an artisan — and this aspect of Franklin is still an untold story.

Benjamin Franklin “was really one of the first modern printers.”

Rob asserts that the way Franklin, as one of the first modern printers, saw his work shaped the rest of his life. Here, Rob shifts to consider artisans and social mobility. Although Revere was never able to break free from the ranks of artisans, Franklin was able to cross this social divide, leaving the “taint” of craftsman labor behind.

Rob then refers to “proto-industry,” a stage between craftsman labor and industry. How are early manufacturers picking and choosing new practices in this period of proto-industry? These are important questions for understanding the success of Revere and Franklin.


Bill Turkel (‘04): The Hands-On Imperative

AC_Bill Turkel

The title of his talk today comes from Stephen Levy’s Hackers. When he read this book in 1985, Bill was a “young nerd in the middle of nowhere.” Hackers inspired him.

People learn with their hands as well as their minds. For his dissertation, Bill investigated the way people were reconstructing various kinds of usable pasts from human remains. What he terms “applied public history.” These pasts were often deeply conflicted.

In Spark from the Deep, the book he just finished, Bill looks at the origin of electronic technologies, relating this to our historical relationships to fish and eels. Why? Because for the vast majority of human history, the only way that people could experience electricity was through an electric shock from one of these creatures. And when humans did begin to be able to control with electricity, they conducted a great number of strange and horrible experiments.

He deliberately used GIS and GPS as hands-on practices to investigate these relations. At the time, these were still technologies that required a great deal of expertise, they weren’t available as part of the ubiquitous technological accessories we’re familiar with today.

Bill is currently working on two monographic projects:

1. The path to building a machine that can make a copy of itself, aka the self-replicating machine.

In this context, he points out that DIY computer machining has allowed him to learn a lot more than if he had just consulted traditional scholarly resources.

2. Analog electronic computers, a project with Edward Jones-Imhotep and Kristen Haring.

Building these machines give you a sense of what a differential equation is and why it matters, showing again the importance of tacit knowledge. They hope to build kits so students can learn through such hands-on experience themselves.

Bill is also building a huge digital archive of schematics and graphs, the many images that appear in electronics manuals and guides. He suggests that looking at pictures — and knowing how to look at pictures — is critical to learning how to build electronics. They’re trying to get at important tacit knowledge that’s embedded here.

Bill works frequently with colleagues on pop-up makerspaces now, and is always on the lookout for people to collaborate with. So if anyone is interested in getting involved in these kinds of projects, drop him an email.


Q & A

Shane Hamilton (10’) has a question for Dave as well as one for Bill.

To Dave: Why aren’t cars shipped to India the way computers are shipped to other places offshore? To Bill: As an employee of the British Parliament, does he labor?

Bill: No! (But he does find a way to use grant money to pay for his hobbies)

Dave: These cars are only shipped offshore if they are cut up. There isn’t a direct answer, but salvage yards play a dual role, and act as a ‘stop along the way.’ Salvage yards also offer an inexpensive way for insurance firms to repair cars cheaply. If you send them overseas, it defeats the purpose.


Jessica Wang: First, Lindy, where do debates about childhood fit into this discussion? Why did these guys in the early nineteenth century start to wonder if children were something other than little adults?

Lindy: This idea that children were seen as “little adults” comes from a specific book. Historians have actually discounted a great deal of that argument at this point. Children had always worked, however, unless they were children of the elite. So why was there a sudden outcry? These factories were tourists destinations: Isn’t it wonderful that these children can train and make something of themselves as adults? Of course, realistically, they were like little slaves, bought from orphanages and rarely surviving to adulthood.

But epidemics were traced to these factories and public health concerns triggered this reform movement. A lot of the focus is actually on health issues rather than the fact that children are working or their working conditions.

Jessica then asks Rob, Why is it Franklin is able to become a gentleman when Revere doesn’t manage it?

Rob explains that he has been looking into this and pointed to the differences between a printer and a silversmith. Early on, printers were thought of as muscularly deformed, because one arm would get larger than the other. Later, they were recast as literary people. Franklin was able to play up the literary side of things and became wealthy enough to make a public break. He was also an entrepreneur and saw his fellow journeymen as potential partners rather than as laborers. By the time he retired, he had four journeymen sending him income, so he didn’t have to work in the print shop. Meanwhile, Revere had sixteen kids to feed, was always doing something, and could never completely leave silver behind.


Etienne Benson asks Bill how he justifies — in terms of funding, etc. —  reconstructing analog computers, doing his 3D printing project. How would these techniques enhance historical understanding or learning?

Bill: The story that people tell about analog is basically that digital won. We think there’s a more interesting story there. A lot of these digital circuits actually included idioms that came out of the analog practices. 

In terms of the 3D printing (the project focused on building a self-replicating machine) the interesting thing is plastic. Plastic’s affordances are significantly different from other materials. People are returning to older techniques — techniques that weren’t contemporaneously possible to use at a refined enough level due to material limitations — and trying them anew with plastic.


Mike Fischer poses a question for Rob about engineering education for the 21st century. He remembers Revere as a huge espionage spy in England, but Rob set up Revere’s trajectory as an industrial one. One of the current topics in education today is MOOCs, and Olin College has been described as a pilot case study for flipping the classroom, scaling up this kind of approach. Is it fair to make this analogy of “industrializing” higher education? Does Olin participate in the sense of being a pilot and using a different mode of education?

Rob adds that Revere sent his son to England to learn about best practices with regard to making silver sheets. So he thinks Revere is the first example of American industrial espionage, which he loves to say!

To address Mike’s questions: Would he industrialize 21st century education? Rob needs to think about this. Certainly there is a huge push to use these technologies and invert the role of the teacher, but Olin wouldn’t characterize it this way. But if you described it differently, they might completely agree. They want to grow and build more dorms. At the same time, what is the “project” and why do you want to do this project? Is a project a research paper? Not really, but if the entire class is based on crafting a paper in a certain way, it might be a project. So when they talk about scaling projects at Olin (with 350 students), there can be a model for projects with larger classrooms.

These are questions he wants to keep thinking about.


Anne McCants asks Lindy: In Jane Humphries’s book about child labor and the Industrial Revolution, she makes the point that children who ended up in factories were often missing fathers, they came from vulnerable homes. Could you reflect a little on the experience of child labor as being framed and understood as a “new” horror, when in fact this labor may not have been any more horrible than preexisting workhouses?

Lindy: As you point out, it’s a pretty complex issue. Children had always worked before the factories. Orphanages were a form of workhouse, with conditions that were very similar to factories. Still other children worked in the mines. But it’s the textile mills that become the target of the reformers. This suggests it’s a question of how society deals with this transformative moment. Mines, people understand — awful, but someone has to do it. It’s the textile mills that are the concern. Lindy sees this as a political clash, the old culture versus the new culture.

There are hearings throughout the 19th century, because they can’t figure this out. They can’t figure out what they want to do about children and factories, until the end of the 19th century.

Sure, physicians are against child labor, but what about clergy? Are they against it? Not necessarily. Some physicians and clergy say things like, “Oh they’re fine. The mill brings me in regularly, they’re learning discipline.”

What would they be doing otherwise? Working. Including those with fathers. In later hearings they bring in workers who say that working in the mills as a child was actually better than working for their fathers, because their fathers beat them all of the time.


Jennifer Mnookin asks a question for Bill about using reconstruction and reverse engineering as a historical method. On the one hand, it allows us to understand artifacts in a more personal way, but it also might disembed these artifacts from the context in which they were made, making students think that they know more than they do. How does he handle this?

Bill: It’s not that we’re trying to replicate the experience, but rather learn something else about the object. He describes his new project involving digitizing and recreating historic smells. All we can do is smell what we think might have been a smell at the time. We can still imagine what it would be like for us under those circumstances (the smell of gasoline invoking one thing or something else at a different time), but we have to be reflexive about what we’re doing. He’s not under any illusions about knowing what it was like to do things under a different setting. Regardless, we still might come to know something about technological systems that we might not have access to ourselves otherwise. It’s another way of knowing the past that is incomplete.


Harriet Ritvo asks Lindy, If you’re thinking about a change in attitude rather than a change in actual conditions experienced by children, perhaps you should look even further back? She suggests the humane movement and the abolitionist movement may have served to shift attention to factory conditions. That the child labor movement may have been the recipient of the sensibilities developed in the context of these other two movements.

Lindy: Indeed, child labor reformers often invoke the abolitionist movement. “These are young white slaves. Why aren’t you people getting behind this movement?” However, unlike the abolitionist movement, there’s very little involvement of clergy. They’re strangely absent. She’s looking for explanations for this, but thinks the animal rights movement would be a very interesting analogue to consider as well.


Merrit Roe Smith asks Lindy and Rob a question. When he studies labor in the 19th century, there are regional variations — New England, south of the Mason-Dixon Line, etc. Some of these British employers were using words like “discipline” and “hard work,” which sounds more like the American setting, where child labor in factories was a good thing because this was a place where they would learn all these great values that Ben Franklin espoused. In the US, there is still another element, where if you own a milling machine, they will say, “This machine proudly uses child labor!” Still, there are regional differences.

Lindy:  She hasn’t seen this difference yet. There is a difference in the size of mills. And you can’t predict who is going to be on which side. There are a lot of mill owners who want to reform, but they can’t change their operations unless everyone also does or else they will be out of business (or so they say.)

Roe: What about work rules? Attending church?

Lindy: These weren’t for children because they lived in the mills — they were orphans.

Bill wants to add something about late 17th and 18th century. At the time, apprenticeship was a noble thing, you don’t marry and you go to church. But this is disintegrating around the 19th century. Apprentices don’t want to stick around for seven years, so factories emerge, filling this role. The factory was seen as a way to deal with orphans.


David Singerman asks David two questions:

  1. Where do cars go? Where do they move within the US?
  2. Are there alternative models for life cycles of cars? He suggests two possibilities: airliners put out to pasture in Mexico for stretches, and depots in Ghana where cars are constantly being salvaged and modified, but kept running. (He references David Edgerton’s description of the latter.)

David Lucsko: One of the reasons I’m interested in junkyards is that I came to it through enthusiasts and car customizers.

At the heart of the book he’s working on is thus creativity. (This talk today dealt with only material from the beginning of the book.)

With regard to dry climates, California is a fascinating example. Land is so valuable in California that salvage yards are proportionally very small. In Arizona, on the other hand, as well as New Mexico, Colorado, etc. — anywhere with an arid environment — cars survive longer. Thus these areas become repositories for salvage. “Arizona” comes to mean rust-free spare parts. But these cases aren’t the same as intentionally retiring cars to an area, as the airliners are retired.


Susan Silbey asks Rob about his experience at Olin, intrigued by these scaling-up projects. They’ve done this for 10 years. Can he help her understand the transference of skills to students through a project? In doing humanities, instead of term papers, they also have research projects, and they know what they want to get out of these with regard to analytic skills and making knowledge. But what do they see students gaining in project-based approaches in particular disciplines? Do they work for some disciplines and not others?

Rob: Projects don’t work for everything. What are some of the outcomes? Lots of the alumni go to graduate school. They’re a little behind in their first semester of courses, particularly with regard to disciplinary language, but they’re advanced in research and dealing with uncertainty. Lots of their students work for Microsoft and Google — as project managers, not as technical folks. They’re the ones dealing with uncertainty and failure. So they want their students to work in a scaffolded way and make mistakes, so that they’re not terrified when they hit walls. Their first year projects are different from their senior year projects, which are more rigorous and also with more failure modes. But they’re still learning about other environments.

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