Makers' History

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No ideas but in things. - William Carlos Williams. Paterson.

I spend a great deal of my time working out the operational and construction details of what the average person on the street would think of as an antiquarian museum pieces - dirty old machines that most people despise. I do it because I think it's fun, of course, But the more I do it, the more I become convinced that there is a deeper reason for it.

We have reached a point where we need a new kind of history. Through the 19th century, "history" was no more than the study of the great and powerful. The 20th century saw the limits of this, and expanded history to include the bigger picture - not just the powerful, but common people as well. To this end history has incorporated the methods of other fields: economics, political studies, psychology, and so forth. And as the modern world is rather obviously dominated by technology, history has come to include, rightly, the history of technology.

But it isn't enough. We know now that there can be more than one kind of history - economic history differs from political differs from ... But when it comes to the History of Technology, all of thse histories, however worthwhile they may be, fuse into a single kind of history. They're histories by historians.

So the History of Technology as you read it today can tell you all manner of things about why engineers and machinists made things. It can tell you of the economic pressures which forced them to make things, or allowed them to proceed. It can tell you of the political climate of the time, of the social status of engineering and how that shaped lives. It can tell you of the growth of factories in cities, and their decline. It can tell you of the influence of war and population shifts on technology. It can tell you everything about why an engineer might make something except the one reason which every real engineer knows to be at the heart of the matter: because of the machine itself.

Engineers - makers of things -build things because of the things themselves. Because they can. Economics and other factors are important, to be sure. But fundamentally everything that can be made will be, just because that's what makers do. If you've just studied technology in the abstract, as a historian might, this will be incomprehensible. If you've spent a lot of time around engineers and makers, or are one, it will be obvious.

This isn't acknowledged by existing histories of technology. It's something that historians seem incapable of understanding (and if they do they'll certainly never be rewarded for writing it). What we need now is another kind of history - a history of technology for technologists, not historians. Such a history wouldn't replace the older histories, or invalidate them. But it would augment them. It would be a history of the made things themselves for their own sake - a history which tells us in an engineer's detail exactly how things work.

The world today is completely dependent upon technology. It isn't just a matter of convenience, of cars being faster than horses. As I write this in 2014 we have over seven billion people on a planet which could support fewer than one billion with preindustrial technology. Take away technology and more than six billion people would die within a few weeks. That's worth thinking about.

Standard engineering curricula today provide the intellectual support for our technology, but in the long run this isn't enough. It can only generate a small class of trained specialists. That's too fragile a system. Preindustrial civilization was robust in large part because almost everyone in it knew how to make it work. If you teleported 100 random people from the year 1700 to a verdant field on some distant planet, a year later you'd have a working agrarian society. If you teleported 100 random people from the present to a fully equipped 21st century technical infrastructure on some (uninhabited) planet, they'd have almost no chance at all.

To survive, we need histories - narratives - which examine technology as technology for its own sake, and can bring a detailed understanding of technology to any audience. Only then can we expand the audience. Why? Because it's fun. Because it's a part of us. The love of tool-making and tinkering and making is as close to universal in human beings as you can get. Consumerist economics have caused us to forget this. We need a kind of history which will help us remember it.

Without a Makers' History all the other Histories are just chronicles of our own demise.


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