King Crank

Tags: Useless research. Yes, yes, clever of you to spot the irony.

So what was I up to in the Archives of Useless Research, you ask? Here (below the fold) is the prospectus for a paper I’ll be presenting in November at the University of Virginia, for a conference called “Inventing America: The Interplay of Technology and Democracy in Shaping American Identity,” loosely tied to the Benjamin Franklin tricentennial (I just can’t get away from that guy, can I?) and sponsored by the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. (I wonder if the AUR’s hollow earths, perpetual motion machines, and secrets of the pyramids revealed are the sort of invention and innovation the Lemelsons had in mind…)

King Crank : Technology and Democracy in the Golden Age of the American Eccentric

The late nineteenth century was, it has rightly been said, “the golden age of the crank” in America. Literally, a crank is a piece of machinery, and Americans in these years embraced machine technologies with enthusiasm. Scores turned their hands to tinkering and invention in hopes of becoming the next Thomas Edison or Alexander Graham Bell. Figuratively, a crank is an eccentric individual obsessed with a single idea, and America was rich in these too. Eclectic druggists, backyard inventors, and political prophets toiled over patent medicines, perpetual motion machines, and social or financial nostrums for the ills of American democracy. Members of this eccentric fraternity often turned their hands to both technological and political reforms. This paper explores the interplay of technology and democracy in the personal imaginations and the public images of the great American cranks.

Before the late nineteenth century, there had been little systematic effort in America to define the boundaries of legitimate and illegitimate scholarship. In Benjamin Franklin’s day, the scientific American was not a specialist but a generalist, dabbling in a variety of academic disciplines. “The book of Nature is open to all,” Franklin said—any humble tinkerer might remake the nation. Nineteenth-century Americans continued to cherish Franklin’s democratic vision of technology and applied science. The professionalization of American engineering, science, and medicine around the end of the nineteenth century, however, required purging these professions of dabblers and dilettantes. In the same way, the growth and bureaucratization of government pushed enthusiastic amateurs away from the machinery of American democracy. By the early twentieth century, a would-be Franklin who dabbled simultaneously in electrical, political, and moral experiments might well be regarded as a kook or a crank.

Yet the so-called cranks pushed back. They attacked the increasing specialization and stratification of American science and society, and appealed to popular traditions of democratic anti-elitism and homespun common sense. In an era of economic crises and social upheavals, they portrayed American democracy itself as a marvelous but malfunctioning machine that required only some small adjustment to resolve the growing contradictions between morality and progress, poverty and prosperity. In this, the so-called cranks reflected and responded to the anxieties and attitudes of a much larger public.

This project draws on the Archives of Useless Research, a remarkable collection of fringe inventions, pseudoscience, and eccentric political philosophies from the “crank files” of Scientific American and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Archives’ contents date back to the late nineteenth century, and they document in a strange but compelling way a period of great change in American political and intellectual life. Scholars have examined the fervid politics of Gilded Age reformers and the technological ferment of the simultaneous “age of invention,” but not united them. In this paper, I aim to understand the interaction of technology and democracy in the eccentric enthusiasms of that age, and to explore the changing place of scientific and political expertise in a nation torn between its faith in scientific progress and its commitment to egalitarian ideals.

Not my most elegant writing, but it sounds like fun, no? And the Archives were full of good stuff (expect a series of excerpts and highlights here). Now I just have to write the paper. In all my copious free time.

1 Comment

Comments are closed.