Title Reviewed:
American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm, 1870–1970

Author Reviewed:
Thomas P. Hughes

Casey Blake


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 86, Issue 2, pp 239-240

Article Type:
Book Review

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American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm, 1870–1970. By Thomas P. Hughes. (New York: Viking, 1989. Pp. xii, 529. Illustrations, figures, map, notes, index. $24.95.)

"In the past, the man has been first," proclaimed Frederick Winslow Taylor in 1911; "in the future the system must be first" (p. 188). Four years later the French painter Francis Picabia wrote that in the United States, "the machine has become more than a mere adjunct of human life. It is really a part of human life—perhaps the very soul" (p. 330). With Taylor, Picabia saw "the machine" promoting efficiency, gigantic scale, and hierarchical organization in modern culture. The promise of American technological systems to foster a new civilization spread through the Western imagination like no other utopian ideal since the French Revolution, cutting across national and ideological boundaries. By the 1930s, Joseph Stalin would point to the enormous steel complex at Magnitogorsk as a socialist Gary, Indiana, the fulfillment of his early claim that "the combination of Russian revolutionary sweep with American efficiency is the essence of Leninism" (p. 251).

In American Genesis, the eminent historian of technology Thomas P. Hughes describes the revolution in systems-building as the most significant contribution of the United States to twentieth-century culture. Like his hero Lewis Mumford, Hughes believes that the history of technology is essentially cultural history and that "technology is both a shaper of, and is shaped by, values" (p. 5). Hughes's synthetic narrative of "technological enthusiasm" between 1870 and 1970 has two central themes: first, the incorporation of invention at the turn of the century as the loose, quasi-Bohemian culture of early inventors came under the sway of corporate industry; and second, the diffusion of values and symbols of order, precision, and systematic control from technology to politics and culture.

Hughes's book reaches its climax when it covers the period between 1919 and 1945, as "Taylorismus and Fordismus" inspired Americans and Europeans alike with a "white socialism" of mass production and consumption overseen by engineers (p. 289). Hughes brilliantly demonstrates that it was European Modernists, Weimar social democrats, and Soviet revolutionaries who laid the groundwork for American social planning in the 1930s and the military-industrial complex of the 1940s by translating technics into artistic form and political ideology. But the culminating creations of that enterprise—the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Manhattan Project—also set the stage for the disillusionment with "The System" during the 1960s. Hughes concludes with a survey of the ideas of Jacques Ellul, Mumford, and other theorists of technological dystopia. Despite the Reagan administration's hope of salvation through Star Wars, Hughes asserts that the revolutionary enthusiasm for American technological systems has ended.

Hughes's masterful study of this critical moment in Western culture interweaves elegant portraits of American inventors and systems-builders with its overarching theory of the dialectic of technics and civilization. At times, however, this synthesis comes undone. Some chapters veer between overly technical discussions of scientific matters and summary statements about the culture of technology that lack grounding in other relevant developments, such as the ideology of progress, popular images of technology, and the emergence of a consumer culture. By neglecting popular attitudes about technology and the representation of systems in mass culture, Hughes misses the monkey wrenches of skepticism, sarcasm, and outrage that ordinary people have often tossed into the works of the systems builders. As a result, Hughes gives the impression that the technological ideologues were right in arguing that systems had replaced human beings—a form of technological determinism at odds with his keen Mumfordian insights into modern history.

CASEY BLAKE is assistant professor of history at Indiana University, Bloomington, and the author of Beloved Community: The Cultural Criticism of Randolph Bourne, Van Wyck Brooks, Waldo Frank, and Lewis Mumford (forthcoming).

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.