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UW Historian Targets Technology’s Fallout

April 10, 1997

There may be the tiniest particle of truth in your ongoing assertion that your consistently original spellings are the fault of the clumsy computer keyboard.

“You’re quite correct in thinking the ‘QWERTY’ layout is unnatural and awkward,” says Colleen Dunlavy, associate professor of history at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “Designers of the early typewriter made it that way so typists couldn’t go too fast and jam the keys.”

View the course syllabus for Dunlavy's History of American Technology course.  

Dunlavy says American railroads were built "quick and dirty," without solid foundations -- and hence, we don't have any high-speed trains.

An expert on the history and social impact of technology, Dunlavy is guiding 15 undergraduate students through a survey course on the subject this semester. They are covering technological breakthroughs in this country, from the colonial period up to the present.

The students are discovering that many characteristics of contemporary society grew directly out of technology developed in the last century. For example, we don’t have high-speed trains in the United States because, Dunlavy says, “Many American railroads initially were built in a ‘quick-and-dirty’ fashion, without the sturdy foundation needed by high-speed trains.”

Dunlavy has special dexterity with the subject: In her book, Politics and Industrialization: Early Railroads in the United States and Prussia, published in 1994, she examined the influence of political structures on the evolution of the iron horse in two different countries.

Closer to home — literally — an important contributor to the much-hated “second shift” (housework) was the development of domestic labor-saving domestic devices, Dunlavy notes.

“Standards of cleanliness rose in the wake of the vacuum cleaner and dishwasher,” she says, adding that in the years before the Dust Buster, most people seemed more willing to tolerate a little extra dirt and disarray.

Students enrolled in Dunlavy’s course describe it as a revelation.

“I was so happy to hear her say, on the first day of class, that it wasn’t going to be a survey of artifacts. Instead, we were going to look at the social implications of technology,” says Jarrod Roll, a senior in history and anthropology from Hartford, Wis.

The social implication of mechanized farm machinery particularly stuck in his mind, he says. “Mechanized equipment made agribusiness possible,” he says. “It also turned farming away from self-sustenance that you did with neighbors into a for-profit enterprise you did in competition with them.”

Not surprisingly, Dunlavy’s research also links technological developments to the way academic disciplines function. The much-touted information superhighway, for example, may well have a profound impact on how we study the past.

“It’s largely an issue of access,” she says. “Before the Internet, you had to go to the archives to do research. But increasingly, all you need a computer and software. It promises to make historical inquiry a much more democratic process.”

Marijka Hambrecht is finding that out. A junior from Madison majoring in the history of science, Hambrecht is taking Dunlavy’s History of Technology class. As a project, she and several other students are using only two World Wide Web sites to gather information on transportation during the Civil War.

“The sites’ link format makes it possible for people using the sites to go off on tangents,” Hambrecht observes. “Historians don’t have as much control” as they do over more traditional means of information dissemination, such as books. “The web users create their own stories,” she says.

And according to Dunlavy, that alone is cause for scholars to pay close attention to technology’s implications, whether already apparent or lurking somewhere in a distant cyber-future.

CONTACT: Colleen Dunlavy, 608-263-1854/263-1800,

Tags: learning