I have always been interested in technology, and now am quite surrounded by it in my profession. I first was drawn to early electrical devices because of the materials—things made of brass, iron, porcelain and marble have a nice presence compared to plastic. Also, you can see quite a different set of assumptions were in play in their design. Desk fans from 110 years ago had brass terminals with deadly voltages exposed to the user. The maker may have told you not to touch them—if you did, it was your fault; not General Electric’s.
I then became interested in the stories behind the creation of new tech and the corporate battles to become the top dog in the yard. As an engineer, I’m fascinated to see new products following the same progression as those fifty years in the past. Very early owners of home computers would sink considerable cash into the latest hardware, only to discover a year later that their PC was so worthless compared to this year’s model that it was hardly worth taking to the trash. Radio owners in the early 1920s went through the same swings between giddiness and buyer’s remorse. In both cases, the technology followed a logarithmic arc that eventually settled down into reasonably mature products. We can learn from these cycles.
I tell people that my interest is in first generation technologies. These are the fertile times when the tech is new and the paradynes have not yet been established. You can see some very odd things before engineers devised the cheapest, most straight-forward way of doing something. Also, the economic forces in play at the birth of a technology make for some very strange products that made perfect sense at the time. I call these, transitional technologies. Radio owners in the early 20’s could save some bucks by buying an accessory that used their acoustic Victrola phonograph in lieu of a radio horn. After you plunked down almost enough money to buy a Ford, saving some cash on the speaker made sense. In the late 1950’s Philco made a console TV with a long umbilical cord so you could move the screen from room to room. In the years before we became “two TV families” this was a good economic idea.
As you can see, I’m much more interested in how new technologies impact families than armies. I like to learn how the new telephone made farm families less isolated, how recorded music gave a Midwesterner his first taste of jazz, and how that first Model T created a whole new world for some folks. That’s the sociology of technology. But I’m still enough of an engineer to delight in obscure technical details.
Enjoy your read!