King Crank

Communication Networks and Heterodox Ideas in 19th-century North America

Perpetual Motion by Norman RockwellThe late nineteenth century was the golden age of the American crank.

Historians in recent years have been eager, maybe too eager, to identify “communication revolutions” or “information explosions” in earlier historical eras. But if there has ever been a communication revolution, then the transformation of the public sphere in 19th-century North America deserves that name. Cheap print and a profusion of presses increased the volume of information circulating in the United States from a trickle to a flood. Canals, railroads, and the telegraph accelerated the pace of communication to electric speed.

These changes combined with the egalitarian pretensions of 19th-century Americans to create a raucous and undisciplined intellectual culture—“undisciplined” in the sense of lacking restraint and also in lacking formal academic disciplines. That culture was innovative but also susceptible to eccentric or wrongheaded ideas. Quack doctors hawked dubious, even dangerous, patent medicines. Crypto-geographers searched for Atlantis and the hollow earth. Would-be inventors toiled over rainmaking cannons and perpetual motion machines.

My SSHRC-supported research project examines the communication revolutions of the 19th-century United States and Canada and their relationship to the construction of intellectual authority. We are using computational research methods—text mining, adaptive filtering, and network analysis—to trace the circulation of so-called “quack,” “crank,” and “pseudoscientific” ideas. How do “wrong,” “bad,” or “weird” ideas spread? And how do the networks through which we communicate shape the beliefs we hold? The goal of the project is to understand the past but also to draw useful lessons for responding constructively to crankdom or pseudoscience in our own time.