The Social Construction of Technology: Bicycles, Bakelite, Bulbs, and the Dishwasher

Part of my childhood was spent in a tiny town on a Navajo reservation, where we lived in a trailer.  We were one of the lucky few of the residents to have running water.  My sisters and I spent each night washing dishes by hand, a ritual we did not enjoy.

So imagine my delight, not surprise, to learn that a woman invented the dishwasher!

I am currently using the social construction of technology (SCOT) theory to examine the dishwasher for my final paper in a technology and culture seminar.  So far, I have learned that the dish-washing machine was patented in 1886 by Josephine Cochran in Illinois.

What I have been surprised by is the lack of publicity she received in newspapers and magazines.  In searching archival databases, I’ve found no mention of her specifically, and only two allusions to her in articles that focus on other versions of the dishwasher created by men.  Yet Cochran’s machine, as it evolved, became widely used in hotels and restaurants and she even started her own company.  That company is what we now know as Kitchenaid.  It saddens me that she did not receive more press and attention at the time of her invention and her company’s heyday, but I’m more than happy to “rescue” her and study just exactly what happened.

I think what I find most surprising, and therefore worthy of study, is that women in the home did not adopt the dishwasher readily until the late 1940s and early 1950s.  When I started this project, I had decided that one of the most relevant social groups would be homemakers, yet I have found that they were not a big part of the social construction of the dishwasher until later on.  This is due to many reasons, including domestic servants, cost, and the distribution of electricity.  As I continue to research, I hope to learn more.  When I’m done, I’ll share more of my findings with you.

I’m working with the SCOT theory because of an extra reading assignment in my technology class: Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change by Wiebe E. Bijker (1995).  I had to read it along with another classmate for a collaborative presentation and paper.  It’s a beautiful book.

bicycles bakelites and bulbs cover
It outlines the SCOT theory and applies it to three artifacts: bicycles, Bakelite, and bulbs.  (How did you know?)

The history of the bicycle is quite fascinating.  It began without a steering mechanism or pedals, leaving the young men who rode it with muddy feet and the problem of having to get off and turn it in the right direction every so often.  The contraption was also dangerous, which led to some ruptured private parts and concussions after falling over the front wheel.  And the wheels!  They went through many instantiations.  Here are some pictures.

michaux bike

The best invention concerning the wheels were air tires, which the crowd jeered at when they debuted during a bike race.  But when the air-tire bike outpaced every other bicycle in the race, the laughter turned to awe.  Suddenly, air tires were all the rage.  They were especially popular among racers.

Women and bicycles are also connected.  In a short article I recently read by Sarah Hallenbeck (2012) called “User Agency, Technical Communication, and the 19th-Century Woman Bicyclist,” women began writing technically about bicycles and forming clubs, despite public opinion that women should not ride because of their “frailty” and the indecency of it.  However, because we learn from Bijker that bicycles were socially constructed, eventually it became fashionable for women to ride.  In fact, women’s clothing changed so that women could participate in riding bicycles.  So fascinating.

The next section of the book examined the process of Leo Hendrik Baekeland’s invention of Bakelite (patented in 1907), the first synthetic plastic that continues to be used today.  Baekeland was a chemist who won awards and earned acclaim at a young age.  He also experimented with photo paper, but is best known for Bakelite.  Items made from the durable plastic are now auctioned at incredible prices.  Bijker tells the story of the lone, genius inventor, but then complicates it by explaining how other social forces contributed to the invention.  Even Bakelite, it can be argued, was socially constructed.

One of my favorite parts of this section is a quote from Baekeland:  “There was a time in my life when, as a young teacher of chemistry, I was just as cock-sure as some of my older colleagues that everything was as simple as it appears in the textbooks.  This lasted until I tried to make bromide of silver” (p. 128).  He goes on to explain how many varieties there were and how those few varieties he knew of were just the tip of the iceberg.  This quote reminds me to be humble, but it also highlights the complexity of everything and that just when we think we know it all, we probably don’t.

The last artifact of the book is the bulb.  To be honest, it was my least favorite chapter, so I’ll be brief.  Bijker tells of the many governmental, institutional, and corporate influences on the light bulb and how all of those entities had to collide and combine to end up where we are now with electricity in homes and bulbs in common use.

It is interesting to read and understand this SCOT theory.  I see it as useful to my studies, but I wouldn’t recommend this book as a little light reading for everybody.  If you are interested in what I shared about bicycles, instead try the shorter article I mentioned by Hallenbeck.  It was part of her dissertation and has won several awards.