New Materials

Towards a History of Consistency

Subjects: History, General
Imprint: Lever Press
Open Access : 9781643150147, 306 pages, 21, 6 x 9, April 2020
Paperback : 9781643150130, 306 pages, 21, 6 x 9, December 2020
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This edited volume gathers eight cases of industrial materials development, broadly conceived, from North America, Europe and Asia over the last 200 years. Whether given utility as building parts, fabrics, pharmaceuticals, or foodstuffs, whether seen by their proponents as human-made or “found in nature,” materials result from the designation of some matter as both knowable and worth knowing about. In following these determinations we learn that the production of physical novelty under industrial, imperial and other cultural conditions has historically accomplished a huge range of social effects, from accruals of status and wealth to demarcations of bodies and geographies. Among other cases, New Materials traces the beneficent self-identity of Quaker asylum planners who devised soundless metal cell locks in the early 19th century, and the inculcation of national pride attending Taiwanese carbon-fiber bicycle parts in the 21st; the racialized labor organizations promoted by California orange breeders in the 1910s, and bureaucratized distributions of blame for deadly high-rise fires a century later. Across eras and global regions New Materials reflects circumstances not made clear when technological innovation is explained solely as a by-product of modernizing impulses or critiqued simply as a craving for profit. Whether establishing the efficacy of nano-scale pharmaceuticals or the tastiness of farmed catfish, proponents of new materials enact complex political ideologies. In highlighting their actors’ conceptions of efficiency, certainty, safety, pleasure, pain, faith and identity, the authors reveal that to produce a “new material” is invariably to preserve other things, to sustain existing values and social structures.

Amy E. Slaton is a professor in the Department of History. She holds a PhD in the History and Sociology of Science from the University of Pennsylvania and has taught courses in the history of American science, technology and architecture, as well as in U.S. labor history and race relations. Slaton directed Drexel's Master's Program in Science, Technology and Society from 2001 to 2009 and has been a visiting associate professor at Haverford College.

Slaton has long been interested in the social character of technical expertise and work. She has written on the history of building technologies and materials testing, with a focus on who gets credit when things go well, and who gets blamed when structures and materials fail. Her book, Reinforced Concrete and the Modernization of American Building, 1900-1930 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), integrated the histories of materials testing, construction labor, building codes and standards, and aesthetic change surrounding the introduction of commercial reinforced concrete in the United States. Slaton is also interested in understandings of technical aptitude in American manufacturing and engineering more generally, with particular emphasis on the role of race. Her most recent book is Race, Rigor, and Selectivity in U.S. Engineering: The History of an Occupational Color Line (Harvard University Press, 2010).

Slaton produces the website, centered on equity in technical education and workforce issues, and her commentaries have appeared in Inside Higher Ed, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and other outlets. Her current book project is All Good People: Diversity, Difference and Opportunity in High-Tech America, under contract with MIT Press. She is co-editor, with Tiago Saraiva, of the international journal, History+Technology.