University home |A-Z|

Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine

Making modern technology

HSTM60272 (30 credits)

Semester Two

Classes: one weekly two-hour seminar, Thursdays 10:00.

Contact: Dr James Sumner


The unit aims to:

  • introduce students to the history of technological development, and its relationship with political, economic and social change, across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries
  • promote appreciation of the influence of everyday, unglamorous and ‘invisible’ technologies alongside prestigious and deliberately striking ‘high technology’
  • develop understanding of the infrastructural role of technology, including the power relations and value judgments embedded in ‘neutral’ or ‘inevitable’ developments
  • characterise the changing relationship between technological manufacture, the physical sciences and informatics across the period in view
  • enhance students’ research and essay-writing skills, and provide suitable grounding for dissertation research into the history of technology.

Students should be able to:

  • describe and analyse the history of technological development, and its relationship with political, economic and social change, in the period 1800-2000
  • construct and defend an argument according to the norms of scholarly historical research
  • critically examine the social consequences of technological innovation, and the strategic use of conspicuous technologies to promote interests and activities of various kinds, particularly at national level
  • contribute to group discussion
  • read, summarise and critically examine source texts, and present findings orally in a group setting
  • conduct independent research on primary and secondary historical sources
  • clearly present an argument in essay form using appropriate source documentation
  • critically and comparatively appraise source texts
  • give an oral presentation examining a source text, and respond to questions or comments from others
  • engage scientific, technical and lay audiences in discussions about the intentions behind, and consequences of, technological change


When people refer to “technology”, they often think of the newest and most striking artefacts: the latest tablet PC, superjumbo airliner or stem cell innovation. It’s similarly easy to think of showstopping material technologies from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: textile mills and steamships, radio telescopes and particle colliders. Yet there are many other, apparently “ordinary” technologies, which have equal and sometimes even greater influence on the way we live our lives. Some, like plug sockets or plastic bags, are material; others, like the metric system or credit scoring, are not.
This course addresses the international history of technological development from the nineteenth century to the present day. It focuses particularly on technology’s relationship to the physical sciences, as “Big Science” made ever greater organisational and material demands; on nationality, through attempts to portray Britain as intrinsically inventive; on warfare, both hot and cold; and on the steady expansion of concepts from information-processing science into all areas of human life and work.

As this is a team-taught course drawing on staff research interests, the exact content will vary. A typical schedule is as follows:

  • The invisibility of infrastructure
  • The figure of the inventor: industrial heroism and the patent lobby
  • Ships, dams and skyscrapers: the material culture of technological gigantism
  • Manufacturing numbers: organised computation before electronics
  • Technology and national identity: the Great Exhibition and the Festival of Britain
  • Air-mindedness and the technologies of colonialism
  • The growth of Big Science: is physics engineering now?
  • Space technology: a passage to new worlds, or a weapon of Cold War?
  • Meteorology, surveillance and environmental awareness
  • Computers in use: modelling and networking
  • The domestication of the computer
  • Mills, telescopes and nuclear bunkers: the technological heritage industry
  • Everything in bits? Technoscience, convergence and the birth of bioinformatics


Contact time is devoted to small-group discussion based on assigned readings. Students will regularly be asked to introduce the themes and arguments of readings to the rest of the class, and respond to comments. Some classes will also feature short video screenings.

Readings and other support materials are delivered via Blackboard, which is also used for essay upload. Students are encouraged to raise questions about the course in class or via email, and the group email list is used to continue general discussion on course themes. There will be occasional, informally organised visits to sites discussed on the course.


Two 3000-word essays (50% each)


  • Thomas J Misa, Leonardo to the Internet: technology and culture from the Renaissance to the present. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press 2004, chapter 3 onwards.
  • Ben Marsden and Crosbie Smith, Engineering Empires: a cultural history of technology in nineteenth-century Britain. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan 2005.
  • Jon Agar, The Government Machine: a revolutionary history of the computer. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press 2003.
  • David Edgerton, Warfare State: Britain, 1920-1970. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2006.


The seminar discussion format of the course gives all students regular opportunities to discuss their ideas with teaching staff. Staff are also available to discuss essay proposals and general course performance by appointment, on a one-to-one basis. All coursework is double-marked, and essay scripts are returned to the students with both sets of markers’ comments.


Dr James Sumner; Dr Simone Turchetti; others, to be announced.

View a recent course outline (pdf)