STS Colloquium Series

Fall Semester

26 September 2019: Jennifer Tucker 

Dangerous Exposures: Work and Waste in the Victorian Chemical Trade

The towns of Widnes and St. Helens, where many of the world’s first chemical factories and towns were created in open farmland during the nineteenth century, are especially important places to study historical responses to industrial pollution and its associated costs. Like modern-day alchemists, chemical industrialists transformed the rural landscape, their factories churning out base elements that were transformed into textile dyes, soap, and glass: materials that seemingly defined the Victorian era. Yet while many contemporary observers praised the alkali industry for providing materials that facilitated modern activities, others saw a different side to the new chemical industry. Not only did the process of generating salt cake from salt and sulfuric acid release hydrochloric acid gas into the atmosphere, it also produced an insoluble, smelly solid waste that became piled in heaps and spread on fields near the soda works. The chemical trade harmed not only the local air, water, and land, however, it also injured people: especially chemical workers. 

Drawing on newly recovered archival sources in northwest England as well as textual and visual collections at the University of Liverpool and the Wellcome Library, this paper will explore the nature and significance of the Victorian alkali industry in addressing a range of questions in environmental history, history and theory of photography, law, and public health.  In my research, I have been examining how photography emerged in the nineteenth-century as both a new mode of documenting chemical pollution and a technological process that was itself the product of a chemical industry that produced chemical waste and photographic pollution. The paper offers new evidence of the importance of visual imagery (particularly news illustrations, photographs and lantern slides) in raising public awareness about the potential dangers of alkali waste products for local environments and chemical workers, and argues that an understanding of the language of visual imagery of alkali industry is useful for understanding the later transformations of public environmental law and policy in the region.

24 October 2019: Joy Rankin 

Creating Computing Citizens: American History from the User Up

Abstract: What does it mean to write American history from the user up? When I was researching A People’s History of Computing in the United States, stories of students and teachers, principals and professors, touch screens and video games – in New Hampshire, Minnesota, and Illinois – jumped off the pages of newsletters, grant reports, and other archival documents. Those are not the people or places that typically come to mind when we think about America’s digital origin stories. This talk focuses on the users of 1960s and 1970s academic computing networks to develop a history of the digital age that emphasizes creativity, collaboration, and community. These students and educators built, accessed, and participated in cooperative digital networks, developing now-quotidian practices of personal computing and social media. In the process, they became what I call “computing citizens.”  I’ll use several case studies to illustrate the dynamic - and unexpected - relationships among gender, community, computing, and citizenship.

21 November 2019: Jennifer Derr 

Living the Nile River

In October 1902, the waters of the Nile filled the reservoir of the first Aswan Dam, and Egypt's historic relationship with the river forever changed. Egyptian agriculture had long depended on the annual Nile flood, its rhythms demarcating the seasons and determining cycles of poverty and prosperity. Beginning in the second decade of the nineteenth century and stretching through the middle of the twentieth, the Nile River was engineered to support the production of new cash crops that included cotton, sugarcane, and maize. The construction of the dam tamed the river’s waters and produced new agricultural environments. The new river that took form—the perennial Nile—reshaped Egypt's colonial economy and the forms of subjectivity with which it was associated. From the microscopic to the regional, the local to the imperial, Jennifer L. Derr’s new book, The Lived Nile: Environment, disease, and material colonial economy in Egypt, places the environment at the center of questions about politics, knowledge, and the lived experience of human bodies. At the root of this investigation lies the notion that the Nile is not a singular entity but a realm of practice and a set of materially specific relations that structured experiences of colonial economy. The production of a new Nile River helped to mold the future of technocratic knowledge and shape the bodies of those who inhabited rural communities. In her talk, Derr will explore the material and epistemological histories of this profound transformation.

12 December 2019: Brian Lander

Water Control Technology in the Yangzi River Lowlands

The lowlands of the Yangzi River valley once contained a 1000 km series of wetlands, most of which have now been transformed into farmland. This paper will review the water control technologies that were used to do this over the past two millennia. Unlike permanent wetlands that can be drained to create farmland, the Yangzi wetlands are created by the flood pulses of the summer monsoon, so colonizing them required keeping out occasional flood waters. Dikes (levees) were the main infrastructure for this. Dikes are relatively simple to build, but require large amounts of labor, so the key factor in their success was the ability of political organizations to regularly mobilize large numbers of workers to build and maintain them. In particular, the strength of the large dikes along the Yangzi River tended to fluctuate along with the strength of the state. Villages or wealthy families also built polders (dikes that fully encircled a given area) to colonize smaller tracts of wetlands. In the 18th and 19th centuries, population growth drove people to colonize ever deeper areas of the wetlands, but many of these remained precarious until the advent of concrete and other modern technology in the 20th century. The Three Gorges Dam was built in part to prevent the seasonal flood pulses that were the dominant factor in the region’s ecology, which is thus changing dramatically.