The Unreliable Nation: Hostile Nature and Technological Failure in the Cold War
(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, July 2017)

The Unreliable Nation explores how two powerful and persuasive ways of understanding the modern nation — the natural and the technological — mapped onto and shaped each other in the two decades after World War II. It argues that the practices and ambitions that created the nation as a natural order were allied with attempts to understand it as a technological space, and specifically as a grouping of interconnected machines and machine behaviors. Focusing on anxieties about technological failure in what many contemporaries viewed as the most hostile nature of the mid-twentieth century — the cold-war Canadian North — the book examines how cold-war scientists and technologists struggled to link a distinctive “Northern” natural order to widespread radio disruptions throughout the region, positioning those relations within a sweeping political program to remake the post-war nation, and carve out identity, status, and power during the early Cold War.

Breaking Machines: A History of the Technological Self (in progress)

Breaking Machines explores how and why “reliability” went from being a property of people to a virtue of machines. Its key finding is that technological reliability emerged at the intersection of evolving technical theories about machine “perfection” and historically-specific concerns over the technological self — the kinds of persons that technological failures either presupposed, threatened, or created. Taking a long view of its subject, the study begins with the French Revolutionary project of building unfailing machines, situating them at the intersection of the contemporary mechanical arts, 18th-century sentimentalism, and concerns about the collapse of the Old Regime’s corporatist structures; it traces those ideas through 19th-century French descriptive geometry and machine theory, changing understandings of “accident” in industrial machinery, and concepts of “freedom” and “tolerance” in British and German engineering. It concludes with the rise of reliability engineering in mid 20th-century America and the politically-resonant attempts to locate reliability itself at the intersection of cybernetics, neurology, electrical engineering, and probabilistic logic.


Edward Jones-Imhotep and Christina Adcock, eds. Science, Technology, and the Modern in Canada (Vancouver: UBC Press, forthcoming).

This edited volume uses the lens of the “modern” in its many forms to explore the social, economic, cultural, and environmental history of Canadian science and technology. It asks how the historical relations between scientific knowledge, material artifacts, and modernity were made, mobilized, and challenged in a nation at once deeply embedded in European political, social, and cultural norms and profoundly shaped by colonial anxieties. Covering the period from the early 19th to the late 20th centuries, the volume’s fourteen substantive chapters are organized around three key themes: bodies, technologies, and environments. Together they examine a wide range of historical topics: colonial anthropology, scientific expeditions, electrotherapy, the occult sciences, industrial development, telephony, patents, neuroscience, aviation, space science, and infrastructure. The chapters tease out the ambiguities, contradictions, and instabilities in scientific and technical activities throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, unsettling historical and contemporary assumptions about the meanings and experiences of modernity in Canada. Methodologically, the book is premised on the understanding that modernity represents a specific and concrete historical condition that shaped Canadian society and Canadians’ experience of themselves and their place in the world. The contributions combine extensive archival research, careful textual analysis, and synthetic historiography. And they investigate their central questions through mid-level concepts and objects—patents, the occult, exploration, scientific rationality, just to name a few—that both illuminate the contours of our topic and point to international and transnational developments.


“The Unfailing Machine: Mechanical Arts, Sentimental Publics, and the Guillotine in Revolutionary France,” History of the Human Sciences (special issue on Psychology and its Publics), in press.

“Doing History by Reverse-Engineering Electronic Devices,” (with Yana Boeva, Devon Elliott, Shezan Muhammedi, and William Turkel), in Making Humanities Matter, edited by Jentery Sayers (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), in press.

“Malleability and Machines: Glenn Gould and the Technological Self,” Technology and Culture 57 (2016): 287-321.

“Sound and Vision,” Spontaneous Generations: A Journal for the History and Philosophy of Science (2012): 192-202.

“Maintaining Humans,” in Cold War Social Science: Knowledge Production, Liberal Democracy, and Human Nature, edited by Mark Solovey and Hamilton Cravens (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 225-243.

“Fermilab: Physics, the Frontier, and Megascience,” (review) Isis 101 (2010): 259–260.

“Communicating the North: Scientific Practice and Postwar Canadian Identity,” Osiris 24 (2009): 144-164. Reprinted in The History of Science, Volume VI: The Modern Life and Earth Sciences, edited by Massimo Mazzotti (London: Routledge, 2015).

“Icons and Electronics,” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 38 (2008): 405-450.

“Philosophy of Science: the Analytic Tradition,” (with David Castle) in The Edinburgh Companion to Twentieth Century Philosophies, edited by Constantin Boundas, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), 270-284.

“Laboratory Cultures,” Scientia Canadensis: Canadian Journal of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine 28 (2005): 7-26.

“Critical Histories,” Scientia Canadensis: Canadian Journal of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine 28 (2005): 3-5.

“Gravity’s Shadow: The Search for Gravitational Waves,” (review) Isis 96 (2005): 458-459.

“Nature, Technology, and Nation,” The Journal of Canadian Studies 38 (2004): 5-36.

“The Computer Revolution in Canada: Building National Technological Competence,” (review) Technology and Culture 45 (2004): 659-661.

“Disciplining Technology: Electronic Reliability, Cold-War Military Culture, and the Topside Ionogram,” History and Technology 17 (2001): 125-175.