Segment from Man vs. the Machine

Electric Feel

In the 18th century, two new forms of technology were burgeoning in society: trains and electricity. But how did the public respond to these innovative inventions that were rapidly changing their daily life? Historian David Nye talks to Brian about how people’s relationship with trains and electricity was complicated because the technologies simultaneously evoked hope and fear.

Evenhanded by Podington Bear

00:00:00 / 00:00:00
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Nathan Connolly: On today’s show, we’ll explore the history of technophobia in America. Why some resist, rather than embrace, new technologies.

Brian Balogh: We’ll discuss how railroads sped up 19th century life in ways that seemed, to some, threatening and unnatural.

Ed Ayers: We’ll talk about the history of Sabbath closing laws, and whether bringing them back could be the solution to today’s technological woes.

Nathan Connolly: And later, we’ll learn why technology and terror are often closely linked.

Brian Balogh: Think back to a time in your life when a new piece of technology started to gain some serious attention. Maybe it was the desktop computer, or the iPhone. How did people around you respond to it? There was probably some skepticism at first, questions like, why should I use this thing, or even, is it safe?

Brian Balogh: Back in the 19th century, you’d hear similar thoughts about another booming innovation, the railroad.

David Nye: Like all major technologies, it can evoke both fear and extravagant hope.

Brian Balogh: That’s David Nye. He’s an historian of technology. He talked with us from his office in Denmark on a piece of technology that ironically is becoming more obsolete these days, a landline telephone. I spoke with Nye about the railroad’s influence on American society and how the public responded with hope and fear.

David Nye: The fear was partly just going so fast. There were people who were afraid that it would cause dislocation of the muscles or the bones in the body, or you’d get railroad spine, some people called it. There was a fear that the speed being bad for the nervous system. There’s at least one or two clergymen who made these speeches about well, if God had meant for us to go this fast, he would’ve designed the world differently.

Brian Balogh: The time after midnight was excessively wearisome as we enjoyed the English style cars with eight on a seat riding backward, and eight more facing these backward riders with feet interlocked and one lantern as a lamp to two such Satanic English style compartments. And the glass sliding rack rattling as the springless cars rattled and thumped over the strap iron rails spiked to the long sleeper logs that made the track. Yet, to me and to most of us, this first night and ride in the cars was sublime, as an excitement and a novelty.

David Nye: But of course the extravagant hopes were that you would be able to knit a very large nation together. There was a fear in the early years of the American republic that maybe it was gonna be hard to keep such a large landmass together as one country. And then the hopes were often expressed in speeches, especially when they opened railways. They’d say, well, this will make our communication with, and they would plug in the name of wherever it was, the South or the West or Canada or someplace, but there would be this tighter bond.

David Nye: And there’s this belief that the more rapid and regular the communication would be, the better people would get along or understand one another. There’d be this interchange. The same idea you get of course with the telephone later or the-

Brian Balogh: And the world wide web today.

David Nye: … the world wide web. Yeah, you’ve heard this before. It doesn’t always seem to happen, but it seems reasonable when you hear it. You think well yeah, should be better if we can see each other more often.

Brian Balogh: What were some of the longer term concerns about railroads which really did begin to reshape the landscape and the economy and politics?

David Nye: There’s two kinds of impacts or effects you might say. The first is just the encounter with the thing itself, but then as you say, there’s the longer term effects, and people who are, for example, in other forms of transportation immediately see the railway as a threat. They worry that the canals will no longer be able to compete.

David Nye: But it’s more the way that the railways tend to dominate communities, especially as they get out into the middle West and they’re not going from one well known city to another, they’re actually creating the cities. They’re deciding where they’re gonna build a town. And the town becomes a kind of a creature, you might say, of the railroad. That they can ruin a town by not stopping there, or they can create a new town where they want one. So that the economic might of the railway is something that starts to worry and upset people, that these are monopolistic by nature.

Brian Balogh: Well speaking of trains, a lot of people were taking them to see the latest thing, all these World’s Fairs that were popping up all over the United States at the end of the century.

David Nye: You’re absolutely right. In fact, I don’t think a World’s Fair was ever held someplace where they didn’t have train service. And very often, they’re fairly new cities which are aspiring to become great or well known. So, for example, Omaha, has a World’s Fair in 1898. Omaha, of course, is the place where the railway across the United States goes through. And they imagined, in 1898, that they were on the brink of becoming the next Chicago.

David Nye: Technology is actually, in a sense, part of why you ever had World’s Fairs. They tend to feature inventions and to use technologies as one of the selling points for their visitor. Why should you go to this? Well we have something new. And then one of the things of course is railways, which are the way to get to the Fair but they’re also displaying the latest improvements. And later on there are things like the telephone is first exhibited to the public at the Philadelphia Fair of 1876, or the electric light is exhibited in a Paris World’s Fair and then shortly after, in the United States.

Brian Balogh: Let’s pick one of those wonders, electricity. Can you shed some light on that for us?

David Nye: That’s the metaphor, shedding light, yeah. Well, the first electric lights are displayed in a few city centers and then they quickly got picked up by the World’s Fair’s organizers because they have the obvious virtue that with good lighting, you can keep the Fair open more hours and generate more customers in a sense. If you can get people to come more.

David Nye: But then they realized they could also have spectacular effects with electric light, that the fairground looks one way in the daytime, but when you light it up at night, it has a quite different appearance depending on the skill of the lighting engineer. The early Fairs would be kind of garish by our modern taste, you know, be very strong arc lights, they would be so bright, you could not really look at them.

David Nye: Gradually they actually scaled down the size of the bulbs, so they have a, and I’m not exaggerating, they have 30 thousand, 50 thousand lights in a single courtyard, and they’re all very small, they’re just 4 to 8 watts. And we are familiar with this, if you think of what Times Square used to look like with a lot of individual bulbs, and you can get special effects flashing things on and off or different colors. And that was much more effective, it turned out. The public really liked that, and so the people would sometimes come back to the fairground in the evening, ’cause they wanted to see it in its new guise.

Brian Balogh: What were some of the concerns, you talked about people literally being afraid that they might be injured by going too fast the first time they rode in a train, were there equivalent concerns about electricity?

David Nye: Well the fear of electricity was more of its, that you could get an electric shock, for example. It actually cuts both ways because there’s a big interest in electrical medicine by which they meant that they literally gave you a very mild shock where they sort of plugged you in, and then they gave you a little juice, recharged your battery as they once put it. But there were of course people who thought they’d be killed by touching the wrong wire or doing the wrong thing at a factory. And so they knew that electricity could be deadly.

Ed Ayers: Electricity is eccentric and shocking. Its shocks will make the cars jump off from the tracks and endanger the lives of passengers. Water is a conductor, and rain will divert the electric current from the wires. Collisions and appalling accidents will inevitably occur. The rails will be electrified and horses stepping on them will be shocked and fall.

Brian Balogh: I suppose one of the ultimate signs of having made it as a technology is becoming a verb, right? I faxed you something, I googled. In the case of electricity, it really hit the trifecta because there are a whole series of metaphors built around electricity. Could you share some of those with us?

David Nye: Oh yeah, yeah. Actually it starts before the electric light. In the late 19th century, they would talk about a, if a boy and a girl or a young man and woman were courting, they would talk about, they were sparking.

Brian Balogh: Really? So they were sparking.

David Nye: They were sparking, that was a common expression. And then of course that suggests that these are two bodies which are electrified.

Brian Balogh: Most of my dates were kind of unplugged, David, but. I never really achieved spark level.

David Nye: Well some of them must have worked out, but yeah. But also there’s also this idea of the body being a kind of a storage battery which can be recharged, or it can be run down. He needs to go have a vacation, recharge his battery too.

Brian Balogh: And in some instances, get amped up.

David Nye: Yeah, get amped up, you know. People would drink coffee and say it’s my morning battery acid. So there’s a huge number of these metaphors.

Brian Balogh: So David, when these metaphors start popping, does that mean we’ve simply completely naturalized what was once a very almost frightening technology? Or have we simply pushed some of those fears to the deeper recesses of our minds?

David Nye: Well that’s a very interesting question. So with electricity I think it is true that we’re in a sense naturalizing the technology where we’re identifying with it. We’re taking on its characteristics or what we think of as its characteristics. But, you’re also correct, I think, to see that, well, there can be some fears. I mean electricity’s got some scary properties.

David Nye: So it’s not all to the good. It’s the same thing when we talk about the mind in terms of the computer, which is by the way, interesting. It’s all the mind, electricity’s only for the body. But there is always in a sense the incorporation of a technology into us, it incorporates also some of those fears, as well as some of the excitement and the hopes.

Brian Balogh: David Nye is a professor of American Studies and the History of Technology at the University of Southern Denmark. He’s the author of many books, including American Technological Sublime.

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Technophobia Lesson Set

Download the Technophobia Lesson Plan

This lesson set uses the Inquiry Design Model (IDM),  a distinctive approach to creating curriculum and instructional materials that honors teachers’ knowledge and expertise, avoids overprescription, and focuses on the main elements of the instructional design process as envisioned in the Inquiry Arc of the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for State Social Studies Standards (2013). Unique to the IDM is the blueprint, a one-page representation of the questions, tasks, and sources that define a curricular inquiry.

This lesson asks the compelling question How do people react to rapid technological economic change? and instructs students to write, using specific historical evidence, a response to the following questions: How did American’s respond to the rapid changes of the Market Revolution? What changed and what stayed the same?

In addition to the C3 Framework, it uses both AP US Thematic Standards and AP US Content Standards.