informationcommunicationproductionfive projects

The original project-proposal to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation

  HoTNet: A History of Technology Network

A Proposal to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to Establish a
Network of History of Technology Websites


Project Overview

Changes in the scale, complexity, and pace of development of recent science, technology, and medicine and the rapid spread of web-based internet technology combine to present a series of challenges and opportunities for future scholars of history of technology and for all those interested in learning about it. On the one hand, modern technological systems are not easily studied and described by traditional historical methods. Paper archives and linear written accounts hardly grasp what has occurred. On the other hand, the flexibility and power of internet-based technologies like the World Wide Web offer scholars and others interested in the history of technology an exciting new environment in which to both author "works" and learn. In coming years this new environment holds the potential to transform the practice of the history of technology, broadening access to a vast array of diverse primary sources, enabling many more people to participate in and contribute to the development of the historical record, and creating new outlets for scholarly research.

It is still too early to anticipate the full impact of new information technologies upon the study of technology, but the projects proposed herein will explore the prospects for using internet-based technologies in this arena. Specifically, over the two-year life of the grant, we propose to establish a series of research websites dedicated to collecting all manner of historical data dealing with a select handful of interesting episodes or developments in the history of technology. The artifacts and episodes are described in further detail in the pages that follow. Lead investigators at Berkeley, Brown, Stanford, MIT, and UCLA will be responsible for establishing websites and identifying important historical resources that will need to be represented in the separate databases. The resulting sites will serve as both resource databases and libraries for scholars, but we will also find out if a larger public exists for these materials. The sites will include broadly representative (and continuously expanding) primary source documents and archival materials sufficiently rich to initiate new research in fields related to the history of the specific events or episodes, as well as links to secondary literature useful for orienting a scholar or other interested user to the subject domains of the history of recent science and technology. We are motivated by the goal of constructing flexible, "organic" on-line resources that will grow in accordance with the needs and views of future users rather than embodying fixed structures based on any single, limited view of the history of technology. Although the lead investigators will direct the establishment of the websites, we anticipate that the sites will gradually become self-sustaining as more and more interested parties learn about the existence of these on-line resources.

To support these activities we plan to use existing web-based browsers in conjunction with MediaWeaver, a database software package developed by the Academic Software Development (ASD) group at Stanford University. The websites will be housed and maintained at Stanford, and overall technical support for the separate research efforts will be provided by ASD, thereby minimizing the need to hire staff support at each of the remote institutional locations.

At the conclusion of this series of experiments, we will prepare one or more reports summarizing the implications of the research for future studies in the history of technology. To assist with our own internal assessment, we propose to engage an outside consultantsociologist and historian of science Susan Leigh Star, who has worked with the University of Illinois' Digital Library Initiative, Building the Interspace, in a similar capacity to design and implement an on-going evaluation of the specific websites and of the project as a whole. Star's evaluation is described in more detail in an appendix to this proposal.

We plan to address our findings to four primary questions: 1) From the perspective of working historians, is it possible to perform new and better history of technology, accessing data not previously available to historians, using contemporary web-based technologies?; 2) If so, what general lessons might future web-based researchers learn from our experiences?; 3) Within each specific project, what have we learned that we would not have known in the absence of an interactive, data-rich, web-based environment?; and 4) How can we effectively engage wider public interest in the internal workings of the history of technology?

Funding is requested 1) to underwrite the process of resource identification and data collection; 2) to support two workshopsone at the outset and one at the end of the grant periodto allow the different researchers to share strategies and experiences; and 3) to provide appropriate technical support for the duration of the studies.

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Project Descriptions

This section describes the specific projects that will constitute the core of our research effort. The project leaders will gather at an inaugural workshop to discuss common problems and aims and will remain in contact throughout the period of the studies. Specific research topics may evolve in response to discussions at this workshop. The range of topics will doubtless elicit an extensive array of different types of historical sources and an equally wide-ranging set of approaches to their storage and presentation.

Each project, however, will use the web-based environment to attract new types of historical materials, to involve new participants in the recording of historical events, and to engage new voices in the recounting and interpretation of the past. A separate section within each project description highlights the "recruitment" strategy that each investigator will employ to attract these new types of sources and participants. Recruitment strategies will vary from project to project, but in each instance, we will attempt to target funds carefully to take advantage of existing information networks.


The New York Blackouts (James T. Sparrow, Brown University)

This website will explore the history of the New York blackouts of 1965 and 1977. Twice, an entire region's electrical power grid failed suddenly. Millions of people lost power, prompting dramatic community responses ranging from spontaneous neighborly cooperation to terrifying riots. Public utility companies such as Con Edison discovered the overwhelming demand for accountability the public can make when one of its essential resources, electricity, is threatened. Interestingly, following the outages, a new generation of power managers were trained by studying the causes of the blackouts. What were the new technological arrangements adopted by the electric companies to prevent further blackouts? Why did they fail to prevent another blackout in 1977?

This project will address these questions through a combination of traditional and non-traditional approaches. While much can be learned by using tried and true methods to analyze company archives, published accounts, and news media coverage relating to the blackouts, these approaches are bound by the epistemological biases of the researcher, whose sense of significance and causation guide the selection of evidence. An interactive approach to data collection and historical discourse, aided by the networked possibilities of the Web and the interpretive sensitivity of oral history, can correct for that bias. 

As historical subjects, the New York Blackouts are both well suited to the new technological capabilities embodied in web-based data manipulation and timely reminders of the importance of robust systems for the generation and distribution of electric power. The prospective deregulation and integration of regional power grids underscores the need to know more about past system failures than simply what happened. The web-based environment will allow a fuller understanding of the multiple levels of historical action that resulted in these costly system failures.

Recruitment Strategy. The project will conduct a limited number of oral interviewspeople who experienced the blackouts, including private citizens, Conlinemen and managers, and public authorities. We have already had preliminary contacts with representatives from some of these groups and believe that a narrowly-focused interview strategy, in conjunction with collecting existing private and public documents about the blackouts, will generate a core of interesting material sufficient to attract other participants to the website. Other outreach mechanisms will also be employed to make as many would-be contributors as possible aware of the existence of the website. As the project collects these materials and transfers them to digital&nbspformat, the website will gradually mature into a forum for scholarlyand public exhibition. Hypertext links willscholars to evaluate the digitized sourcesaudio and/or videoof interviews, news coverage of the blackout (television, radio,&nbspprint), scanned images of photos and manuscripts, interactive scenarios orof the power grid and its failure, and the likewhich providespecific evidentiary bases for competing arguments. More enduringly, the site will exemplify a new model ofdiscourse and multi-author collaboration. The project will inviteto utilize its digital holdings and Web tools for their research,to publish their findings in Web-based articles linked to the site.

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The Computer Mouse (Timothy Lenoir, Stanford University)

This site will focus on the history of the computer mouse and early developments of the field of human computer interaction. The primary objective of this site is to construct an archive of community memory generated by the actors themselves. Material (text and images) on the multiple forms and variations of the mouse will be collected. The central focus will be on the work of Douglas Engelbart's group at SRI on the NLS system, including their development of the mouse, display editing, windows, cross-file editing, outline processing, hypermedia, and groupware.

To create a digital archive about the history of the mouse will entail several parallel data collection efforts. First, journals of the group currently in datatape format will be converted to contemporary format and linked to streams of published work. Second, a major milestone of the SRI group was a 1968 teleconference demonstrating the features of the prototype timeshared workstation. This tape will be digitized and historical commentaries by Engelbart and leading workstation developers will be linked to the appropriate sections of the video. After major funding cuts in the 1970s many of Engelbart's group migrated to Xerox PARC. A third aim of the Stanford project will be to trace the migration of ideas and people from SRI to PARC and subsequently to organizations such as SUN and Silicon Graphics. We will also incorporate material on the development of the ALTO workstation at PARC and Ethernet.

In addition to collecting data about the history of an important technological innovation, the Computer Mouse website will yield insights into the process of technological standardization and the relationship between the form and function of technical instrumentation; and it will provide a valuable historical snapshot of the evolution of human-computer interactions. Moreover, since the computer mouse is a pervasive and well-known technology, we hope that this website will attract wider public interest in the history of a now mundane, but once marvelous, technology.

Recruitment Strategy. We plan to implement three forms of recruitment to the mouse "trap." First, inthe archival resource we plan to contact original group members ofresearch teams at Stanford Research Institute who worked directly withand the members of the Xerox PARC group who worked on the Altoand further developments of Engelbart's networking ideas. Alumni of SRI and the Engelbart group maintain close contact with one another. In our effort to publicize the website, we will contact as many members of the original SRI group as possible and encourage them to contribute their own material to the community archive and to annotate and comment upon the hypermedia we will put in the site. We are planning a&nbsp"reunion" of group members to stimulate their contribution to the project. Following the reunion, we will establish an active forum-website for theseof the mouse project where we will encourage their contribution toarchive. This will be linked into the newly forming cooperative ventureSun Microsystems, Netscape, and Engelbart's Bootstrap Institute,the Bootstrap Alliance, to continue the development of Engelbart'sideas on augmenting the capabilities of organizations. Engelbart invited our project to become the "community memory" of the&nbspSun/Netscape Bootstrap alliance. We expect to be able to publicize ourarchive through its association with the alliance. Another way we will alert researchers to our material is to establish linksthe Smithsonian's materials on computer history. Thehistory project at the Smithsonian has already agreed to serve as ancollaborator on an earlier NEH proposal, so we are confidentthey will continue to support the present effort. They have materials onweb associated with Engelbart and the mouse. We plan to make similarwith the Babbage Institute. Finally, we are collaborators with theMuseum Boston in establishing a new history center in Silicon&nbspValley. We will link our materials to their web-based collections. Third, we also plan to alert other educators about the potential of our materialclassroom use. For example, a class on multimedia at San Francisco State willon Engelbart in the coming year. We will certainly alert them to our&nbsppresence, as well as the instructional committees within existing professional societies like the Society for the History of Technology, the History of Science Society, and the 4S (Social Studies of Science Society).

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The Boston Central Artery/Tunnel Project (Thomas P. Hughes, MIT)

Project managers presiding over the development of large technological systems are confronted with complex, multi-disciplinary problems that go well beyond the engineering concerns of artifact design and implementation. Perhaps no project undertaken in recent years better illustrates the issue than the building of the Boston Central/Artery Tunnel. Boston's Central Artery/Tunnel (CA/T) Project is the largest and most complex highway project ever undertaken in the core of a major American city. Begun in 1992 the $7.7 billion Project is scheduled for completion in 2004 and will replace Boston's aging elevated Central Artery (I-93) with a modern underground expressway that will also carry I-93 across the Charles River and make connections with Route 1 (Tobin Bridge), Storrow Drive, and other regional and local roadways. The Massachusetts Turnpike (I-90) will be extended to Logan International Airport through a new tunnel under Boston Harbor, completing the last link in the United States Interstate Highway System. All told, the Project will build or reconstruct 7.5 miles of urban highwayabout half in tunnels. Even before contracts could be awarded for the development of technical components like an Intelligent Vehicle Highway System, the planning of the Central Artery/Tunnel required project managers such as MIT civil engineer Fred Salvucci to engage in complex public fund raising campaigns, to navigate issues of East Boston ethnic politics in connection with the siting of tunnel entrances and exits, to negotiate the maze of environmental impact regulations, including the implementation of a plan (STARTLE) to protect migrating fish in the Charles River during tunnel construction, and to incorporate the aesthetic considerations of local communities in redesigning the original "Scheme Z" design proposal of a major bridge.

The CA/T is the archetype of a modern, large-scale civil engineering project, encompassing a host of different subsystems. We plan to use the CA/T website to help capture and represent the polyvalent, distributed nature of late twentieth century system building.

Recruitment Strategy. The purpose of this site is to archive the multiple layerstechnological, political, economic and socialthat have participated in the construction of the CA/T, to provide a forum for discussing the interdisciplinary character of skills required to manage such projects, and to involve participation by actors at all levels in the construction of the historical archive related to the CA/T. Engineers who have played major roles in planning, organizing, and executing parts of the CA/T will be interviewed. Lists of additional participants in the project will be generated, contacted and given pointers to the website. They will be encouraged to annotate the media we are collecting and to contribute their own documents and "views" to the growing collection. We will also collect documents from the engineering, architecture and design groups responsible for the project. Individual components of the system are subcontracted to 30 different construction projects. Most of the documents related to these organizations are public record, and they will be a major resource for our documentary base. Another source for our digital archive will be the 14-volume environmental impact hearings that involved representatives from numerous public interest and environmental groups. These materials will be a resource for our project. We will contact these representatives and encourage them to contribute to the website.

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Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) (Paul Rabinow, University of California, Berkeley)

From its conception by Kary Mullis (Nobel Prize in chemistry 1993) at Cetus Corporation in 1983 through the present, the polymerase chain reaction or PCR has had one of the most spectacular ascents in the history of technology. PCR has profoundly transformed the practices and potential of molecular biology by extending scientist's ability to identify and manipulate genetic material. It facilitates the identification of precise segments of DNA and accurately reproduces millions of copies of the given segment in a short period of time. In less than a decade, PCR has become simultaneously a routine component of every molecular laboratory and a constantly evolving tool whose growth shows no signs of leveling off.

We are sufficiently close at hand to the birth and maturation of this powerful biotechnology that we have a unique opportunity to establish an archive of its history and a resource for tracking its spread into the present. Professor Paul Rabinow of UC Berkeley has established a documentary base of the invention and early development of PCR, including basic scientific papers, technical reports, interviews with scientists and technicians involved in the development of the techniques and instrumentation, and voluminous material relating to the patenting of PCR and the subsequent storm of litigation surrounding it.

The aim of the PCR site would be to make this material available in online form, to contact and encourage members of the communities of scientists, technicians, lawyers, and journalists who have participated in the dissemination and stabilization of PCR technology to contribute their own personal accounts as part of our effort to document the spread of the technology. This site would provide a resource for researching the history of university-industry relations in biotechnology, issues of intellectual property in a domain characterized by interaction of science and applied science (i.e., technology), and the diffusion of technology throughout the bio-medical research community. Dr. Thomas White, Vice President for Research and Development, Hoffmann-La Roche, has formally expressed interest on the part of the company in the importance and utility of such an archive, and has indicated an interest in exploring co-funding possibilities for development of this site.

Recruitment Strategy. The organizer of this website has recently published a book on PCR (Making PCR, University of Chicago Press, 1996); thus many of the first-order resources needed to build this website are already known and, in some cases, digitized. It is also hoped that in building this website, we will be able to take advantage of the visibility of on-going legal proceedings to, in effect, chronicle the battle over PCR in real time. Current debates about patents, priority and ownership will attract participants to contribute their own views and experiences of the past and to comment upon and criticize the views of others. We will, of course, use all available mechanisms to reach those participants who might not be involved in the current debates over PCR.

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Electric Vehicle Drivers and Owners (David A. Kirsch, University of California, Los Angeles)

This site will focus on the history of users of an alternative technologyspecifically, the electric car. Over the past 30 years, various individuals and groups have tried to reintroduce electric vehicles into the American passenger vehicle market. Spurred by concerns about environment, energy security, and economic development, the electric vehicle emerged as a potential alternative to internal combustion. In the wake of several federal and state initiatives aimed at supporting transportation alternatives, a handful of small companies began producing electric vehicles, and many enthusiasts built and operated their own electric cars.

This project will gather information about these early users of electric vehicles and allow interested parties to interpret past experiences in light of continuing debates about future transportation choices. In addition to advancing current research on the problem of technological choice or technological competition and on the specific historical legacy of the electric vehicle in America, this project is an opportunity to explore three relatively uncharted areas within the history of technology. First, this project will attempt to collect operating data from actual users of an alternative technology. While only a handful of companies have actually produced electric vehicles, there are between 8,000 and 25,000 privately-owned electric cars on American roads. With everyone from historians to software engineers increasingly interested in the feedback between design and use of distributed technological systems, data from drivers of electric cars would constitute a valuable resource for future scholars. Second, this site will encourage historians and other scholars of technology to think about the connections between history and public policy. Some technological choices are more important than others, and choices concerning transportation and the automobile have important ramifications beyond the academy. By focusing attention on the first electric vehicle drivers and owners, the website will allow scholars to study both the timing and the motivations of early adopters of this potentially important technological variant. Third, given the glacial pace of adoption of electric vehicles to date and their admittedly uncertain prospects for the future, the data collected might end up serving as an archive on the history of technological failure. Historians have had to struggle to recover the stories of failed technologies and have often fallen victimin the absence of good datato antiquarianism (i.e., the nostalgic accounts of the Stanley Steamer). Should electric vehicles again fail in the marketplace, as they did at the dawn of the automobile era, this digital archive would provide future scholars with a window into the broader phenomenon of technological failure.

Recruitment Strategy. With the fall 1996 introduction of General Motor's EV-1the first electric vehicle from an established car maker since World War Ielectric cars are already very much in the news. The recruitment strategy for this site will take advantage of this increased visibility to attract contributions both from long-time users of electric cars and from newcomers to the industry. Because most owners and operators have kept meticulous records of their own vehicles, there is every reason to believe these records could be readily collected, for instance, by soliciting at electric vehicle rallies, on existing e-mail lists, and through Current Events, the newsletter of the Electric Vehicle Association. We have already established contact with the EVA and are hopeful that they will allow us to solicit contributions free of charge. We will also recruit contributions from the growing electric vehicle component industry through contacts with the Electric Vehicle Association of the Americas, the Electric Power Research Institute, and Calstart, a non-profit consortium dedicated to building the electric vehicle industry in California. Each of these organizationsthrough their own websites, conferences, and membership listswill allow us to reach more participants in the electric vehicle field. Contacts have also been initiated with other transportation researchers (i.e., the Institute of Transportation Studies) and with other historical societies (i.e., the Henry Ford Museum and Research Center and the National Automotive History Collection at the Detroit Public Library), so we will have a host of different ways to insure that electric car drivers and builders will know of our existence and be able to contribute their experiences to our website.

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Technical Implementation Plan and Description of MediaWeaver

Technical infrastructure for the proposed network of history of technology websites will be provided by MediaWeaver, a product of the Stanford Academic Software Development (ASD) group. Developed by the ASD professional programming staff, MediaWeaver is a generalized architecture for managing arbitrary forms of media and associations among media. MediaWeaver keeps track of associations of multimedia objects, including images, computer programs, structured text, audio and video recordings, distributed across a heterogeneous network of computers, and will deliver this information to multiple users on personal workstations. Using high-level object-oriented abstractions, MediaWeaver provides an open environment in which users may browse, compose, and search arbitrary types of information in different ways across multiple computer systems. In addition to managing distributed digital libraries, MediaWeaver incorporates a variety of tools into what will, in effect, become a "networked scholarly workspace" to assist scholars and other prospective users in both individual and collective research projects. These cataloging and abstraction tools will be an important resource for each of the separate project leaders and are crucial enablers of scholarly work. MediaWeaver is a highly successful system that provides the main data storage and retrieval engine for numerous different courses and research projects presently running on the Stanford network--one of the most active nodes on the internet.

MediaWeaver has been developed in consultation with the Stanford University Libraries. Henry Lowood, curator for history of science and technology and bibliographer for the Society for the History of Technology, has helped devise the bibliographic categories used by MediaWeaver, and he has reviewed the guidelines and manuals for people contributing data into a MediaWeaver database to insure compatibility with prevailing bibliographic norms. These standards will allow the materials collected in the course of our studies to be readily archived and referenced at the conclusion of the projects. Existing organizations with interests in the history of technologyi.e., the Society for the History of Technology, the Smithsonian, the Henry Ford Museum and Research Centermight then be able to maintain the archived databases at minimal expense. Finally, unlike many web-accessible databases, all materials stored in our digital libraries will contain full bibliographical information, short abstracts, and thumbnails of image files.

Any user employing a commercial web browser will be able to connect to the any one of the history of technology websites and use MediaWeaver. The systems' electronic tools are both powerful and transparent and include:


  • full content search engine
  • searches captions, abstracts and contents of all documents indexed in the websites
  • image search tool
  • searches databases of images using criteria of color histogram, texture, and pattern
  • guided tour builder

"Guided tours" are short, analytical hypermedia treatments of a particular subject area incorporating materials from the respective archives. Such tours provide an interpretive view and sample orientation to materials in the digital library. A "construction kit" allows contributors and other interested visitors to the sites to develop rich hypermedia documents with minimal technical skills.

Further descriptions of MediaWeaver and a number of experimental applications of the database technology to a range of scholarly projects can be viewed at the following website:

To provide support for the network of researchers, we propose to employ a full-time systems administrator who will be based at Stanford. This person will insure technical compatibility and network access and provide individual user support for the participants in the project. The system administrator will provide support across all of the various history of technology websites. Should future plans call for the research network to be expanded, this level of dedicated staff support could potentially accommodate as many as 6 websites, depending upon the complexity and data-intensity of the individual projects. We believe that this level of dedicated staffing will be necessary to get the network of websites "off the ground", and that by centralizing these efforts at Stanford, we will avoid needless duplication of effort at each of the remote institutional locations.

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[Note that the following work plan assumes that we establish the network of websites in early 1997.]

Feb 1997 Inaugural Workshop--Stanford University

All participants will meet for two days to get acquainted and to discuss potential topics and strategies. Specifically, we will develop lists of research subjects and criteria for assessing the prospective value of the different topics under consideration. Time will be set aside for sessions with the support staff so that the lead investigators are familiar with both the MediaWeaver technology and with the Stanford-based support team.


Apr 1997 Preliminary Data Collection and Entry Begins

Although formal evaluation will not begin until month 12, all websites will be monitored throughout the life of the network to track frequency and patterns of use.

Virtual Workshop for Project Participants Created

We hope to experiment with new net-based communication tools to establish an ongoing, virtual workshop to continue sharing ideas and strategies emerging during the course of the individual projects.


Aug 1997 Assessment of Initial Progress

Consider Expanding Research Network by Adding 2-4 New Sites


Jan 1998 First-year Review

Initiate Formal Evaluation Study

Assessment focusing on creation of network and of historical websites. Identify strategies to attract extra material not finding its way into the websites.


Jun 1998 Conclude Data Collection


Oct 1998 Concluding Workshop

Begin Preparation of Summary Report(s)


Jan 1999 Conclude Formal Evaluation Study

Determine Disposition of Data Resources


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