The Unreliable Nation: Hostile Nature and Technological Failure in the Cold War
(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 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 of violent magnetic storms and spectacular auroral displays on one hand, to widespread radio disruptions throughout the Northern regions on the other. In doing so, the book illustrates how scientists, engineers, government officials, and contemporary commentators positioned those relations within a sweeping political program to remake the post-war nation, and to carve out identity, status, and power during the early Cold War.
“Jones-Imhotep weaves together highly original archival research and big issues: the global ionosphere, the Cold War, the polar North, national identity. If you want to sample the very best of today’s historical writing on science and technology, read this book.”
—Donald MacKenzie, Professor of Sociology, University of Edinburgh
“In The Unreliable Nation, Edward Jones-Imhotep traces how experts struggled to adapt military technologies to the exceptional environments of the Canadian North, while those same technologies changed how people perceived the formidable Arctic settings. A fascinating study of how nature, technology, and national identity became braided together during the Cold War.”
—David Kaiser, Germeshausen Professor of the History of Science, MIT
“In this fascinating study of northern radio signals, Edward Jones-Imhotep shows a keen eye for cultural history, national self-concept, and technological developments. It is an absolutely terrific contribution to our grasp of technology, a study thoroughly embedded in the project of modern nation construction, at once a cultural-political history and a deep inquiry into radio, radar, and ionosopheric science.”
—Peter Galison, Joseph Pellegrino University Professor in History of Science and of Physics at Harvard University
Reliable Humans, Trustworthy Machines: A History of the Technological Self (in progress)
This book examines how observers from the late-18th to the early-20th centuries saw the problem of failing machines as a problem of the self — a problem of the kinds of people failing machines created, threatened, or presupposed. From 18th-century sentimentalism and the guillotine, through Victorians’ nervous fascination with railway accidents, to industrial breakdowns in Jazz-Age America and the suspect citizens of the Cold War, this book excavates the largely-forgotten concerns that linked selves and social orders to the problematic workings of technology. Connecting those developments to our own worries in the early-21st century, the book encourages us to see the history of modern technology not as a history of disembodied mechanisms and devices, but as a history of the self and the social orders it made possible.
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.
ARTICLES AND BOOK CHAPTERS
“The Analog Archive: Image-Mining the History of Electronics,” (with William Turkel) in Seeing the Past: Augmented Reality and Computer Vision in Historical Practice, edited by Kevin Kee (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, forthcoming).
“The Unfailing Machine: Mechanical Arts, Sentimental Publics, and the Guillotine in Revolutionary France,” History of the Human Sciences 30 (2017) (special issue on Psychology and Its Publics): 11-31.
“Doing History by Reverse-Engineering Electronic Devices,” (with Yana Boeva, Devon Elliott, Shezan Muhammedi, and William Turkel), in Making Things and Drawing Boundaries: Experiments in the Digital Humanities, edited by Jentery Sayers (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 163-176.
“Malleability and Machines: Glenn Gould and the Technological Self,” Technology and Culture 57 (2016): 287-321.
“Communicating the North: Scientific Practice and Postwar Canadian Identity,” The History of Science, Volume VI: The Modern Life and Earth Sciences, edited by Massimo Mazzotti (London: Routledge, 2015). Reprinted from Osiris 24 (2009): 144-164.
“Sound and Vision,” Spontaneous Generations: A Journal for the History and Philosophy of Science 6 (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.
“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.