historian, author, film producer

Category: technology (page 1 of 3)

Railroad Exhibition planning with the Sheldon Museum of Art

In 2012 the United States will mark several important anniversaries for the Great Plains region, including the passage of three pieces of landmark legislation–the 1862 Pacific Railroad Act, the Morrill Land Grant Act, and the Homestead Act. In addition, the Civil War Sesquicentennial is already underway, directing further attention to the importance of this period in American history.

We are currently planning an exhibition on “Railroads and the Making of Modern America” at the Sheldon Museum of Art from January 21, 2012 through April 2012. This exhibition will coincide with the Center for Great Plains symposium on “1862-2012: The Making of the Great Plains” and will feature works related to this theme in the Sheldon Museum of Art permanent collection. Railroads shaped the landscape of the Great Plains, and they were a central actor in the drama of American modernity.

In one of the most important treatments of the railroad in American art and literature, Leo Marx explained, “The sudden appearance of the machine in the garden is an arresting, endlessly evocative image. It causes the instantaneous clash of opposed states of mind: a strong urge to believe in the rural myth along with an awareness of industrialization as counterforce to the myth.” Machinery was associated with democracy, progress, a sense of history, and a step beyond natural limits. For Marx, Daniel Webster’s defense of the Northern Railroad’s opening in August 1847 captured the trade-off or reconciliation Americans made in adapting to the railroad–the losses (of peace and repose, ugly landscapes, noise, smoke) were more than offset by progressive force of the machinery, tied as it was to the republican progress, cosmic harmony, civilization, and history. No wonder then that Henry David Thoreau treated the machine as both an interruption and a vital, electric event. Henry Adams would consider the generation after 1865 “mortgaged to the railroads” and concluded “no one knew it better than the generation itself.” Adams thought that the railroads were “but one active interest, to which all others were subservient, and which absorbed the energies of some sixty million people to the exclusion of every other force, real or imaginary.” Indeed, the railroads contributed to “a steady remodelling [sic] of social and political habits.”

The railroads have a prominent place in American history textbooks, and yet the global, transnational modernity that railroads catalyzed remains difficult to convey. Art and visual images open up this issue in ways that can reach larger audiences, including elementary, secondary, and college students. Most often, the railroad as a subject in American art has been associated with the themes Leo Marx elucidated in his landmark The Machine in the Garden–the railroad as a subject of the pastoral ideal. But the Sheldon’s collection offers a strikingly different opportunity to examine the railroad as a principal actor in the making of modernity, and in the global consequences of American railroad development.

The Sheldon permanent collection offers the opportunity to unveil the global breadth of these processes and to explore the ways railroads became symbolic technologies, shaping the modern ideas and practices of this period. The Sheldon collection includes engravings and lithographs from the Great Plains, including works featuring the Union Pacific Railroad (U-222), the Platte Valley (U-4497.1), and the Black Hills (U-4498.1). But the collection also features strong work from the 1930s and 40s (such as “Slag Heaps,” “Railroad Crossing,” and “Railway Station”). Some of this work came out of the Works Progress Administration. Finally, the collection has excellent works from the 1960s and 1970s, including Roy Ahlgren “Great American Perspective,” the “Tubes” series, and Walter Blakelock Wilson “Prairie Boxcars.”

Roy Alghren, 1973

In addition, the International Center for Quilt Studies will lend one of its “railroad” pattern quilts and several local private collectors will lend several major contemporary works on the subject of the railroad.

In 2008-09 the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Kansas, opened an exhibit on “Art in the Age of Steam: Europe, America and the Railway, 1830-1960.” This exhibit attempted to focus on “how artists responded” to the railroad and featured the work of a wide range of artists–impressionists, photographers, modernists, and landscape painters. The works were arranged chronologically by period, although a few categories were broadly construed (such as “states of mind”).

This exhibition will take a somewhat different approach. We will examine the ways artists captured and shaped the modern ideas, practices, and experiences made possible with the railroads and why they were so important in American history. Rather than depicting the influences only from Europe, we intend to emphasize the broader cross-border movements of the railroads and to explore their global consequences. The audience will be presented with some familiar objects depicting for example the transcontinental, but they will also see and discover the ways that the Great Plains was part of a much larger set of modern processes.

Book Arrives

Today at 10:00 a.m. the UPS man showed up in my office with a manila envelope from Yale University Press, and in it was The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America, printed and bound and delivered. In three dimensions. The object. A book. On my desk. Along with the book came a very nice letter from Christopher Rogers, my editor at Yale. What a day!

When the UPS man arrived, I happen to be reading Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fore’s The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects for my class, which we’ll discuss on Thursday. And also on my desk there is Edward L. Ayers, an oldie but a goodie, Vengeance and Justice, for a graduate student discussion.

Teaching American History–with the Gilder Lehrman Institute in Colorado

Yesterday sixteen teachers from Virginia toured Cripple Creek and Victor, Colorado. Thomas Andrews, University of Colorado, Boulder, and I each met with the group in seminar session to discuss the effects of railroads and coal mines on the West and in U.S. history.

The highlight of the day, of course, was the trip we took down the Mollie Kathleen mine shaft, 1,000 feet down. We also rode the narrow gauge railroad. I’ll post more on this gold mine and our experience in the coming days.

As always, it was a pleasure to talk with and be with these passionate teachers and to think about history together–how to interpret the past, how to teach the past. Thanks to the teachers, Andy Mink, and the Gilder-Lehrman Institute for a great trip and day!

June 27, 2011:

With Gilder-Lehrman Institute teachers down in the gold mine, at 1,000 feet.

Dystopia Anew–Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion

In The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom (Public Affairs, 2011), Evgeny Morozov looks at the Internet and our present technologies of Twitter, Google, iPads, iPhones, ad infinitum with a healthy dose of skepticism and irony. Has our technology enabled democracy, social equality, and progress? Most Americans might answer yes without hesitation. Not so fast. Morozov’s book reminds us that these technologies can be used to suppress as much as to liberate. And that human nature and will govern the power relations in society.

I’m very sympathetic to this view. Looking back in the nineteenth century, we see a similar kind of euphoria over the convergence of rail and telegraph in American society. And yet we also fought a Civil War in which over 600,000 Americans died. For generations we have carefully separated these two events–in large part because our faith in technological progress has been so embedded in our national culture ever since. We want to see both our first great technological transformation and the Civil War as similarly progressive. And of course they were in many important ways. Yet, if we look closely we see in the nineteenth century many of the same unintended consequences–most prominently, the ways technology could extend and enable slavery in the American South.

And the similarly powerful technological transformation underway now, as Morozov reminds us, should make us more alert, not less, to its varied consequences. For an excellent review, see The New York Times book review by Lee Seigel.

On the Union Pacific Steam Excursion

We set off yesterday on the Union Pacific’s historic route from Omaha station to North Platte. We were pulled by Engine No. 844, built in 1944 and the last steam locomotive constructed for the Union Pacific. This special excursion benefitted the Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Along the route to Elkhorn, Grand Island, Gibbon, and Kearney, spectators lined the nearby roads to watch the 844 steam past. Everyone waved, took pictures, and cheered. “Train chasers” followed along nearby highways and state route 30, racing ahead to shoot video over and over again.

In North Platte, the 844 was detached and several E-9 locomotives from the Streamliner era hauled us back home to Omaha. The 844 is a massive, black beast of a machine, and its steam power to this day remains awe-inspiring.

The locomotive, though the principal actor in this drama, was no more impressive that the Union Pacific’s fleet of lounge and dome cars, beautifully maintained and restored. We were in the City of San Francisco. Its burnished wood and etched glass suggest opulence and grace. The City of San Francisco’s lounge was arranged for conviviality, conversation, and exclusivity. Its beautifully appointed fixtures and upholstery speak of graceful restraint and sophistication.

On the Union Pacific's 50th Anniversary Special Excursion, November 13, 2010, near Elkhorn, Nebraska

One is struck immediately by these objects–the locomotives, the old depots, the gorgeous lounge cars, and the dining cars. Their designs were both functional and high modern. The U.P.’s old depot is now the Durham Museum, the Burlington’s old depot sits empty across the tracks from the Durham in Omaha.

The railroads created beautiful material objects across the landscape of the United States, often at great cost both to their owners and their builders. But the landscape of high modernism was carried in these cars too, moving with the City of San Francisco across the Great Plains through places such as North Platte, Nebraska.

This was especially apparent on the dining car, where the Union Pacific set a full service lunch and dinner with Union Pacific silver, china, and glass wear.

The Overland's bar and mural, Union Pacific 50th Anniversary Special Excursion, November 13, 2010

The mural here behind the bar on “The Overland” depicts the distinctive yellow of the Union Pacific passenger streamliner locomotive and its long line of cars, racing across the great West. But the mural in the “Walter Dean” showed an earlier era of excursion, one featuring Native Americans shooting bison from horseback and excursionists shooting bison from the train windows.

Such scenes were meant to be iconic, and they of course reduced the history of these events, ignoring the past in many cases. Yet, the iconic nature of these objects and their place in high modern architecture, art, design, and social life cannot be ignored. They worked in the 1930s and 40s, and earlier, to create a world of separation–the past from the present, the natural from human, the physical from social. The world of machinery and design did not compete with history, it suggested a history all of its own.

We might long for a resurgence in such graceful designs. We certainly today could not be blamed for wanting a less impoverished form of public transportation (compare airports with the grand depots). But we often mix up nostalgia and history.

The Overland Diner/Lounge Car on the Union Pacific's 50th Anniversary Special Excursion, November 13, 2010

Perhaps we can recover the high values of design represented so eloquently in the Union Pacific’s cars while at the same time not repeating the discriminations and inequities in some of modern America’s spaces. The restricted roles black Americans faced in the railroads of yesteryear are often forgotten in the soft glow of the dining car, its alluring silver setting, and its clubby bar meant to be manned.

We should be inspired by the elegance of the cars, and we are. We should be inspired by the steam locomotive, and we could not be otherwise. But we also should look at the empty spaces behind the bar, and think who stood there and what their world was like. Who built these objects and maintained them. And who traveled in them.

This trip was an adventure back in time, and truth be told a wonderful one. The Union Pacific could not have been better organized or helpful–the trip was a delight in every way. We passed through the great Platte valley, skirting along what is today highway 30. The bluffs visible in the distance gave everyone a subtle indication of this historic nature of the landscape and the journey.

One of the President’s of the old Louisville and Nashville once remarked that his railroad had not made a “d —– cent” out of passenger traffic. Indeed, many railroads in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries tolerated passenger traffic as a necessary part of the business in order the mollify the public while they made money on freight. One wonders why the railroads invested anything in passenger service.

But the earliest railroads in the 1840s and 1850s were envisioned and operated as passenger lines. They opened up a vastly important new mobility for Americans. And this idea persisted; despite many a railroad executive’s skepticism, passenger travel continued to mark the railroads as a key force in America’s modernity. It’s easy to see why this was so, when you are sitting in the lounge car of the Union Pacific’s City of San Francisco pulled by the massive steam-driven Engine No. 844, and flying across the broad prairie of Nebraska west into the sunset.