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American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm Paperback – March 1, 1990


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 544 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books (March 1, 1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140097414
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140097412
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.5 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,125,450 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

This potentially interesting yet turgidly written sociological study argues that the fertile era of technological innovation in America, which produced the electric light, the telephone, the automobile and the airplane, among other wonders, is better understood as a period of system building than of invention. A professor of the history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania, Hughes begins by analyzing the careers of a dozen independent inventors, including Edison and the Wright Brothers as well as the less famous Lee De Forest and Edwin Armstrong (who vied for patents on the vacuum tube). He goes on to describe the gigantic systems their inventions generated, in the U.S., Europe and even the Soviet Union--the electric utilities, the gasoline-fueled automobile industry, broadcasting, aviation and the rest of the military-industrial complex. Hughes's extensive research has turned up a wealth of detail about the history of engineering and technology, but because he jumps back and forth between innovators and systems builders to work out his sociological theories (rather than choosing a few critical examples and then telling those stories in depth), the book seems destined more for sociologists than a general audience.
Copyright 1989 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

This history of technology, covering a century of remarkable activity, starts off with the independent inventors--Edison, Bell, Sperry, and the Wrights. The author delves into their motivations and methods and sheds light on how they selected problems to be solved. The history then progresses to the larger, more complex innovations, including electrical power distribution systems and Ford's assembly plants. A fascinating section deals with the Soviet Union's exploitation of America's know-how, especially in scientific management, as developed by Frederick W. Taylor, Frank Gilbreth, and Henry Gantt. More recent and complicated systems approaches, as represented by the TVA program, the Manhattan Project, as well as other military and space programs, are also discussed. A final chapter surveys the disappointments with technology, as articulated by Lewis Mumford, Jacques Ellul, Henry Marcuse, and others. A well-rounded, if a bit plodding, survey of 100 truly monumental years.
- Daniel LaRossa, Connetquot P.L., Bohemia, N.Y.
Copyright 1989 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By James Hoogerwerf on April 22, 2007
Format: Paperback
The title indicates his thesis. "Americans," Hughes writes, "created the modern technological nation; this was the American genesis."(3) The problem he faces is this: Americans see "themselves primarily as democratic people dedicated to the doctrine of free enterprise" rather than, as he does, as builders.(1) Hughes' challenge therefore is to redirect the focus on Americans and their culture as inventors and systems builders. He makes a good case. Hughes articulates a chronology that logically follows the growth of systems. First he discusses the invention of systems, then the spread of large systems, and finally "the emergence of a technological culture, of mammoth government systems, and counterculture reactions to systems."(6-7)

American inventiveness and technological enthusiasm characterize the period from 1870 until 1970. In its aftermath there remained a legacy, which Hughes labels as "the burden" of nuclear destruction, environmental concerns, and the wastefulness of wars (he specifically mentions the Vietnam War). Hughes hopes that "those who know the history and [understand] the burden may be able to rid themselves of it or turn it to their ends."(12) In his eyes history has a humanitarian message and he is the oracle. While his focus is on technology, his philosophy is humanistic. Government has a role, but people make the difference. This is how history is valuable. The American experience was unique and his purpose is to elevate people's understanding of their role; indeed, their responsibility.

Beginning in 1870, about the time when Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876, independent inventors were responsible for a "Gigantic Tidal Wave of Human Ingenuity.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Lehigh History Student VINE VOICE on November 16, 2008
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Thomas Hughes provides a critical look at how technology developed throughout the 20th century. The book begins in the 1870's with the inventors workshop and people like Edison gathering machinists around to develop new technologies for profit. This type of work space was based upon proprietary knowledge and combing the skills of those present. It was not a business driven venture on a product but it focused on the business of innovation. From the centers of innovation corporations began to develop their own think tanks and research and development labs. Although the book leaves out the early efforts of Du Pont it does pick up with AT&T and Bell Labs as the forbearers' of corporate research. The military became the other area for innovation as World War I and eventually 2 brought together science and research in a whole new way from the TVA to the Manhattan project. Also included in this new venture was mass production and the scientific management of Frederick Taylor that was employed at companies such as Bethlehem Steel and beyond. The book trails off in the 1970's with the countercultures efforts at rejecting Taylorism and starting into the PC revolution. This book provides an excellent synopsis of these doctrinal shifts in technological production and how they shaped America.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Mark S on December 5, 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Starting with a flurry of patents in the late nineteenth century, Hughes traces the history of technological development and its social impact. He begins with independent and dynamic inventor-entrepreneurs who applied a non-theoretical, trial-and-error approach to invention and who needed to appeal to sponsors for funding and implementation of their inventions. They were pragmatists who often used metaphors to try to understand and solve their problems (pp. 75-83 offers an excellent exposition of metaphor). They were eventually replaced by scientists working in cooperative settings, not often concerned with the practical uses of science and technology, but guided by curiosity and theoretical considerations. They were theoreticians who used mathematical symbols to find new avenues of research. This is one of the main tensions that runs through the book: practical inventors and engineers versus abstract-minded scientists.

Ironically, it was the individual inventors, like Edison and Ford, who undermined their own way-of-life by implementing the rigid, hierarchical system that mitigated the role of individual creativity and initiative, swallowing both the inventor and the scientist. Samuel Insull, who had worked under Edison, built an elaborate and intertwined conglomeration of electrical utilities, and stimulated demand as a means to lower electricity prices and justify massive integration - here we see the beginnings of the intimate relationship between consumerism and technological advancement. The system was further conceptualized and elaborated by Frederick Taylor's scientific management ("the system must be first") and implemented in ever-increasing complexity until it culminated in the Manhattan project - the largest and most complicated system in history.
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6 of 19 people found the following review helpful By dlross21@hotmail.com on July 29, 1999
Format: Paperback
From the Independent innovators, to the beginning of research groups, to military research, to systems creators of Taylor and Ford, to military industrial complex systems of production. The first few and last chapters are the best. Edison had over 1000 patents, I have none. :-(
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