Category Archives: history of capitalism

Methodising by Accounts and Other Dreams of Enlightenment – or, A Life in an Early Age of Big Data

“We have taken the liberty to add to this manual, a kind of classic legislative tablet, or memorandum. It will serve for private use, by methodising the most interesting points of the legislature. You may help your memory and do good, if you can thereby shew the necessity of filling the blanks in the assembly with a due portion of the classic information and assistance requisite for the business of the day: sometimes you will find you have too few commercial men, or too few agriculturalists, and often too few LIBERAL AMERICANS, who may embrace correct views for the interest of the whole of the union…” [More]

With that introduction, Samuel Blodget Jr. introduced his readers (in 1806) to the first Congressional scorecard:

Source: Samuel Blodget Jr., Economica: A Statistical Manual for the United States of America (Washington, D.C., 1806) from
Although, really, it’s more an account book than a scorecard. Blodget hoped to rationalize his nation’s government by teaching its leading thinkers to figure like merchants, and keep proper accounts. Moreover, Blodget believed in numbers’ almost mystical power to open minds. After presenting a table comparing the nation’s population, state income, size, and militia strength to that of other nations, he mused on the benefits of looking at such extensive tables: “the mere habit of contemplating subjects of magnitude, will help to cure local prejudices.”[More] He dreamed of a nation led by universalists, unburdened by prejudice or interest—all driven by and committed to data (the Big Data of the day). It was a big dream.

But Samuel Blodget, Jr. knew how to dream big dreams. His contemporaries had a word for his type: a “projector.” An epithet as well as an honorific, it translates roughly to “entrepreneur,” although projectors’ goals did not have to end in a company, as modern usage assumes. Blodget’s dreams touched the worlds of government, of education, and of finance. Threaded between these dreams ran twin cords of commerce and Enlightenment.

Born in 1755 in Woburn, Massachusetts to a prominent New England projector (whose projects ranged from milling to potash manufacture to fur and lumber trade to canal building), Blodget came of age at the dawn of the American Revolution and in 1775 joined the rebellion, where he eventually joined General George Washington’s staff (while his father sold cloth from his mills to the rebels). He lasted three years before the strain forced him out of the service. But those three years stirred him as much as a philosopher as they did stoke his patriotic fervor (and kindle his abiding adoration of General Washington.)
As Blodget told the story, he overheard a conversation in October of 1775 between Washington, General Nathanael Greene, and others encamped at Cambridge, MA. As they lamented the sorry state of the local seminary—a small affair we know as Harvard—amidst the deprivations of war, Greene offered a promise of hope: once the war was over, the nation would found a university “at which the youth of all the world might be proud to receive instruction.” Washington replied “Young man you are a prophet!” according to Blodget, before explaining that the site of such a university should be a new federal city at the falls of the Potomac. “From this time on,” wrote Blodget years later, “any chart [map] of North America, was in luck, if it escaped the tracing, by penciled lines, a great road from the Pacific to Laboradore, by the falls of Potomac; and also radii for the governmental main roads, from the center to every part of the union.”[More] Even as his other interests demanded attention, Blodget aimed to bring this overheard prophecy to fruition.

The young veteran made a sizable fortune in the next decade through the so-called East India Trade, although he doesn’t appear to have ever made it to China himself. He did travel to Europe twice—at the Hague he began designing the National University in earnest, a work that continued when he visited Oxford. He also found the time to sit (prance?) for John Trumbull, garbed as a revolutionary rifleman.

Portrait of Captain Samuel Blodget in Rifle Dress, by John Trumbull. Source: The Athenaeum.
In 1791, Blodget put his money where his projections were. He invested a magnificent sum[1] in lands in and around the future federal city of Washington. Of the 3,000 house lots he purchased, Blodget granted half (every other lot) to the US government. Once the government built up the city or sold its plots, his plots would gain substantially in value. In this object he found company with a handful of other land speculators—a species in abundance in Early America, where speculation preceded baseball as the national pastime, at least for those with any wealth. But Blodget and his peers’ colossal speculation turned sour as Congress dithered over whether to finance the city’s construction— Blodget blamed congressional divisions for simultaneously embarrassing him financially and frustrating his dream of a federal city and he vented quite a bit of spleen over “party spirit” in his later writings.

While Blodget struggled to put together the pieces of his Washington ventures, he hoped for better fortunes in northern financial adventures. He launched in quick succession two “Tontines,” a form of lottery-cum-stock institution/instrument that sold shares (graded crudely with a life table such that the older paid less and the younger more), aggregated capital for commercial or charitable activities, and then paid its accumulated assets off to all those who survived in 21 years. Blodget’s first Boston Tontine aggregated $2 million in capital, but lost a bid for incorporation— revolutionary elites worried about a “Tontine Gentry” gaining too much economic and cultural power. It did manage to incorporate later as a state bank. Blodget’s second effort, launched in Philadelphia and then extended to Boston with his partner—the appropriately named Ebenezer Hazard—had trouble attracting enough investors, but left in its wake another new endeavor: the Insurance Company of North America—the first general insurance company in the US and, as Hannah Farber of Berkeley recently argued at the Huntington’s Capitalizing on Finance conference, a lightening rod for controversy over the proper role of corporations in early American life. 

Amidst all these trials and activities, Blodget launched one more project, one designed to rationalize legislation and reform the political system that had already so frequently troubled him. He began informally, distributing his thoughts on political economy and his compellations of government census data among Washington friends, many of whom sat in Congress. In 1806, unable to subsidize a free newsletter, he published Economica: A Statistical Manual for the United States of America, promising that any profits would go to the national university. The book opened with an epigraph from Aristotle: “The legislature ought to make the people happy.” Blodget thought that Congress could achieve that goal if it applied the rules and rationality of commercial arithmetic to the practice of governance. In that faith, he trod a path worn by absolutists like Louis XIV’s minister Colbert and more liberal monarchists like William Petty and other British proponents of “Political Arithmetick.” Achieving such a goal in a republican government meant cultivating widely the habits of keeping accounts and thinking with numbers, a realization that fueled broader efforts to teach arithmetic in America as a means of teaching reason. That explains all the blank pages and empty forms in Blodget’s text, left “to be filled with a pen, with the result of future years.” [More] Blodget led a life suffused with numbers and committed to keeping accounts of data—he dreamed that his country would follow.

The War of 1812 struck Blodget hard on several fronts. The Insurance Company of North America, primarily a marine insurer, struggled to adapt to the dangers posed to shippers by the on-going Napoleonic wars and America’s fight with Britain. And the British invasion of Washington D.C. added insult to Blodget’s financial injury in that city. He died in April of 1814, his fortunes so battered (perhaps even to the point of bankruptcy) that he failed to leave the bequest for a national university that had so long been his dream. (In 1806, Blodget prepared a plea to Congress to donate to the National University a sum equivalent to the losses he sustained in his Washington speculations—and in working as the agent of the city’s superintendents. His arguments failed to loose Congress’s purse-strings.)

The United States never founded a national university. But even as Blodget failed personally, his other projects survived him. The Insurance Company of North America and Economica lived on, each in its own way a manifestation of Blodget’s enlightenment dreams acted out in the idiom of commerce.

My thanks to Hannah Farber, who knows more about Blodget than anyone else, for her comments and suggestions.

More Reading:

On Blodget’s early life and family, see:

  • Lorin Blodget, “Samuel Blodget, Jr.,” in Horace Wemyss Smith, Life and Correspondence of the Rev. William Smith, D.D. (Philadelphia: Ferguson Bros. & Co., 1880), vol. II, 514-519
  • “Biography of Honorable Samuel Blodget,” The Farmer’s Monthly Visitor (Manchester, NH) 12, no. 6 (June 1852) 161-164 [paywall].

For more on the “Tontine Gentry” and the fascinating interlinkages between struggles for cultural and economic power in early national Boston and Philadelphia, see Heather S. Nathans, “Forging a Powerful Engine: Building Theaters and Elites in Post-Revolutionary Boston and Philadelphia,” Pennsylvania History 66, (1999): 113-143, esp. 121-123 [paywall].

On the Universal Tontine and the Insurance Company of North America, see:

  • A History of the Insurance Company of North America of Philadelphia: The Oldest Fire and Marine Insurance Company in America (Philadelphia: Press of Review Publishing and Printing Company, 1885), 9-12.
  • Marquis James, Biography of a Business, 1792-1942: Insurance Company of North America (New York: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1942), 11-14.
On commercial arithmetic as a mode of teaching reason or managing a monarchy, see:
  • Jacob Soll, “From Note-Taking to Data Banks: Personal and Institutional Information Management in Early Modern Europe,” Intellectual History Review 20, no. 3 (2010), 355-375.
  • Patricia Cline Cohen, A Calculating People: The Spread of Numeracy in Early America (New York: Routledge, 1999), 130-138.
  • Julian Hoppit, “Political Arithmetic in Eighteenth-Century England,” Economic History Review 49, no. 3 (1996): 516-540.
On the repeated failures to found a national university, see A. Hunter Dupree, Science in the Federal Government: A History of Policies and Activities to 1940 (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1957), chapters 1-3.

[1] Blodget paid over $100,000 — which works out to $2.5 million in 2012 dollars in terms of spending power or $7.9 billion 2012 dollars as a percentage of total GDP. I calculated these figures using the invaluable “MeasuringWorth” calculator:

Touring The Idea Factory….or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Bell Labs

A Special Guest Post from Ben Gross, Research Fellow, Center for Contemporary History and Policy, at the Chemical Heritage Foundation (Thanks Ben!)

First off, I would like to thank Dan and the other members of the AmericanScience community for offering a forum to discuss a subject near and dear to my heart: the history of corporate science. Specifically, I would like to take a moment to reflect upon the significance of this place:

Bell Labs, courtesy of Wikipedia

Behold, Bell Labs! Located in Murray Hill, New Jersey, during the quarter century after World War II, this facility rose above all others to become synonymous with American innovation. Although a relative newcomer compared to research organizations at General Electric or Du Pont, the technologies developed within its walls—most notably, the transistor—prompted Fortune magazine to identify it in 1958 as “the world’s greatest industrial laboratory.” Further achievements over the coming decades, such as the launch of the first commercial telecommunications satellite (Happy 50th birthday, Telstar!) and pioneering work on solar panels, lasers, charge-coupled devices, and mobile telephony reinforced the Labs’ reputation.

Indeed, by almost every measure—the size of its technical staff, the number of patents it generated, total Nobel Prizes won—Bell Labs eclipsed all rivals. Industrialists and policymakers scrutinized the work underway at Murray Hill, eager to replicate its scientific and commercial accomplishments. Corporations like Allied Chemical and Standard Oil, attributing Bell Labs’ success to its campus-like atmosphere, went so far as to construct their own research centers in suburban New Jersey. These firms, and many others, also broadened their investments in fundamental research, due to shifts in Cold War funding policies formulated in consultation with Bell research managers like Mervin Kelly and William Baker.

Given this prominence, it is unsurprising that Bell Labs has secured a central position in the historiography of corporate science. Leonard Reich’s comparative analysis of G.E. and Bell, for example, was among the first books challenging historians to treat research conducted in for-profit settings on equal terms with academic laboratories. Steven Shapin’s The Scientific Life echoes Reich’s argument and cites the behavior of Bell Labs’ managers both to call attention to the artificiality of the sociological distinction between not-for-profit and industrial science and to promote increased discussion of the latter. (Though as Will Thomas recently observed, the scope and objectives of such a research agenda remains a matter for debate among scholars like David Edgerton and Philip Mirowski.) Whether compiling surveys of 20th century “big science” or focused case studies of the constituent technologies of the digital age, a mention of Bell Labs is almost inevitable.

Which is why my immediate reaction to the news that journalist Jon Gertner had published another volume on the subject was a combination of curiosity and frustration. For although I am always pleased to see the history of industrial science receive greater public attention, I worried that this new book, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, would merely rehash the earlier literature and reinforce the notion that Bell Labs was the be-all and end-all of corporate R&D. “Thank goodness,” I joked. “Bell Labs hasn’t received enough attention over the years. Finally, someonewill take a  momentto recount the originsof the transistor!”

Sarcasm aside, I was excited to read Gertner’s account, particularly after learning he would be dropping by the Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF), where I am currently working as a postdoctoral researcher, for a public conversation with fellow electronics historian David Brock. The event was held last Wednesday and on the whole I was pleasantly surprised, both with the book and Gertner’s willingness to acknowledge the challenges associated with compressing nearly a century of complex scientific and political history into a relatively brief 350 pages.

The sheer scale of the Bell Labs organization forced Gertner to confront a question familiar to historians of collaborative research: how to winnow down an otherwise overwhelming array of actors into a coherent cast of characters. In the CHF discussion, Gertner acknowledged that his initial approach utilized technologies as an organizing framework (one chapter on the transistor, one on satellites, etc.), but that he ultimately discarded that scheme to concentrate on a handful of key figures ranging from managers like Kelly and Baker to scientists like William Shockley and Claude Shannon. While his choice of actors was not arbitrary—nearly all self-identified as members of a prominent group of researchers nicknamed the “Young Turks”—Gertner’s final chapter hints at a persistent tension between “the individual versus the institution.” (358) To what extent, he asks, can the efforts of a select handful shed light on the dynamic realities of the corporate research enterprise? Gertner never provides a decisive answer, either in his book or his CHF visit, preferring to concentrate on his chosen few while occasionally gesturing towards the otherwise unrecognized masses of technicians and development engineers working behind the scenes.

Similarly, while Gertner sometimes called attention to the fact that Bell Labs was not the only industrial research laboratory exploring solid-state phenomena, he was less interested in highlighting interactions between Murray Hill and other firms. Indeed, Bell Labs scientists in Gertner’s account might as well have been working in a bubble, isolated from counterparts at GE, IBM, RCA, and other companies sharing an interest in electronically active materials. Situating Bell Labs as one research center among many, however, would have strengthened his case that its accomplishments were only possible due to its unique status as the research arm of a government-sponsored monopoly. So long as AT&T retained its position as the sole caretaker of America’s telephone network, it could pursue a wide range of research projects without worrying about time pressures associated with competition. Once the government forced AT&T to divest of its local affiliates, the so-called Baby Bells, in 1984, the Labs found itself under the gun as money was diverted towards short-term projects. Having never needed to worry about market research in the past made the successful commercialization of such work all the more challenging.

Gertner’s success in driving home the point that Bell Labs was the exception rather than the rule so far as industrial research was concerned is, I believe, his most lasting contribution to the historiography of corporate science. One could see hints of this in the questions following his CHF talk, where several audience members asked him to speculate about what would have happened if AT&T had retained its monopoly beyond the 1980s. Rather than delve too deeply into the counterfactual, Gertner responded by noting the contrasting attitudes of Bell Labs personnel and modern venture capitalists concerning competition. While contemporary firms tend to frame competition as a driver of innovation, Bell Labs provides a powerful counterexample, suggesting that the absence of rival firms can facilitate the maturation of technological projects that might otherwise be canceled due to concerns with short-term profit margins.

Regardless of the merits of either position, Gertner emphasized that the economic and legal frameworks associated with Bell Labs’ successes were historically contingent. One could not simply transplant their research model to another firm or industry and recreate the atmosphere of Murray Hill. This willingness to treat Bell Labs not as some idealized endpoint that other research organizations failed to reach but as the beneficiary of a unique set of economic and legal circumstances, is the most compelling aspect of Gertner’s book. It is certainly enough to differentiate it from the vast majority of writing on the subject and persuade even the most jaded historian of corporate science to give Bell Labs another look.

How are History of Sci/Med/Tech and History of Capitalism Teaching One Another?

Continuing our ruminations on the history of capitalism and its relationship to the history of science/med/tech or to STS (here) (here) (and here), I think we might find some useful categories of analysis in Jeffrey Sklansky’s recent historiographical essay from Modern Intellectual History (Vol. 9, no. 1, 2012). Sklansky’s piece, “The Elusive Sovereign: New Intellectual and Social Histories of Capitalism,” (requires subscription) does what great historiographical works should do: it covers and categorizes a wide literature using analytical categories that shed new light on the assembled works; it reads recent scholarly trends perceptively; and it points the way toward fruitful new avenues of research and analysis. I’ll summarize Sklansky’s approach to each of these aspects, but for our purposes, I will note this first: Sklansky’s analysis suggests to me that the history of capitalism as currently practiced already shares deep affinities with our own dominant historical and methodological approaches.

Framing his essay, Sklansky explains the difference between the “old” and “new” histories of capitalism, being very careful throughout to avoid any claim that the new is better or smarter, or anything of the sort: it is simply a new avenue of investigation that raises interesting research questions and speaks to our contemporary sensibilities and concerns. The old history of capitalism, dominant only a few decades ago, focused on “proletarianization,” on the process of making wage laborers. The new history of capitalism, Sklansky argues, shifts its emphasis toward “commodification”:

The ceaseless process of churning work and wealth into prices and profits effectively converts qualities into quantities, rendering all things countable and commensurable by subjecting them to a single standard of pecuniary value. Joining material life to the abstract power of capital, commodification requires for its comprehension a more capacious kind of historical inquiry, transcending the old division of labor between intellectual and social history. (234)

He goes on to explain attention to commodification forces historians to think about “implicit notions and norms” alongside “formal intellectual systems such as Newtonian mechanics and neoclassical economics.”(234)

Why make this shift? For one, it allows for some productive synthesis. Take for example, the idea of commodified labor. Unlike proletarianization, which assumed a move toward wage labor, applying commodification as a lens for thinking about labor allows for narratives of capitalism that include non-wage labor, including chattel slaves, as well as “paupers, prisoners, ‘coolies,’ peons, sailors, servants, contract laborers, sharecroppers….”(237) Given the significance of slavery historiography over the last generation, it makes sense that any history of capitalism should be capable of thinking about slavery as part of the system, rather than as something exceptional.

A more important reason for the shift may have to do with our prevailing political economies. The story of proletarianization meant more to historians bringing to the past questions raised by their own experience of post-WWII industrial unionism. In our own financialized times, as industrial corporations increasingly and worryingly recede into the past, historians have begun to ask more about the importance of finance, and really of money, over the last few hundred years.

Sklansky divides the existing scholarship into three categories: works “conceiving capitalism” as a:

  1. “form of selfhood or way of being,”
  2. “a system of representation or way of seeing, and”
  3. “a framework of trust or way of believing.” (234)

Number 2 should strike a particular chord with us. Sklansky points to (among others) Lorraine Daston, Ted Porter, Mary Poovey, and John Carson as examples of people who demonstrate the power of new conceptual apparatuses, often constructed with the sciences, to facilitate the reduction of a complex material world into something that can be bought, sold, and traded in markets, to allow “economic actors and activities in all their irreducible particularity [to be] broken down and reconstituted in terms of commensurable units of quantitative value.”(243) Number 1 should sound familiar too, since our field has been paying more heed to scientific selves as of late. And while Sklansky draws few parallels from number 3 to any literature from the history of SciMedTech, I can’t help but think that the movement Sklansky sees to “blur the boundary between selling and speculating, finance and fraud” is related to our own commitments to treat “pseudoscience” as a suspect label, which dates back at least to Shapin’s decision to take phrenology seriously in the 1970s.

Sklansky closes the essay with a call for increased attention to capitalism as a “way of ruling, of establishing and exercising social power.”(246) His idea here is not so much that we should imagine William Graham Sumner’s “captains of industry” to be in charge of everything as it is that we should recognize the way that capitalism created new social and cultural forms that mediate power relations, for everyone from the wealthiest financier to the poorest whaleman. This looks to me like a Foucauldian approach, with the “microphysics of power” originating and evolving in shifting political economies. More specifically, Sklansky points to Ken Alder’s Engineering the Revolution to suggest the ways that states shape industries, markets, and ideology all at once; he points as well to work that shows capital to act as a kind of quasi-state, and to histories of social thought like those by Howard Brick and Dan Rodgers that tie political/economic and intellectual change together.

On the whole, the trend Sklansky sees appears to have been made possible in large part by creative intellectual appropriation: Daston, Porter, Carson, Alder etc. are not “historians of capitalism.” But Sklansky is right in seeing their work as consonant with and constitutive of the project of the history of capitalism. Up to this point, history of capitalism seems largely to have been working in parallel to or even borrowing from the science-studies-turn in history of science.

But I have high hopes that the history of capitalism will increasingly be a resource for us to draw upon, that in the process of appropriating STS for its own purposes, the history of capitalism will show us new ways to think about changes in science, medicine, and technology that are more aware of political economy.

(Capitalist) Numbers to Narratives

Lee kicked of a lively discussion Friday as he wondered what the history of capitalism had to say to the history of technology, (medicine?), environment, and science (HoTeES, or HoTMeS?). Lee postulated that the interactions of capitalism/political economy and science might be expected within the realms of shared problems and jointly produced tools. I wrote a dissertation about “tools for discrimination” and the “science of difference,” wherein life insurers are shown to be important sponsors of investigations into human difference—so I am on board. To help me judge Lee’s hypothesis, I would like to offer a few posts over the next week that point to intersections between these two fields (HofCapitalism, HofScience/Tech/Med/Env). Let’s get empirical, so to speak!

A different sort of account book, but an accounting nonetheless—from Samuel Blodget’s Economica: A Statistical Manual for the United States of America (1806)

Evidence 1: Caitlin Rosenthal’s exquisite essay in the most recent issue of Common-place, one of the hippest journals around. Rosenthal has one big argument, accented by a score of anecdotal gems. She argues that account books, whatever else they might be, are always narratives—they tell stories. This, she claims, was true for the early nineteenth century books that now populate her historical work and remains true for the accounting summaries published by firms like Countrywide Financial on the brink of its disastrous unraveling.

Rosenthal battles the false conception that keeping accounts implies a mechanical, objective system (or, really, that such a system precludes narratives). Her case rests in part on evidence that nineteenth century systems were anything but mechanical: indexes were just being invented and were hardly standardized, accounting procedures varied from account keeper to account keeper (to much consternation). But she closes the piece noting that today’s accounting system, although constrained by hosts of rules and standards, still produces narrative documents, which are trusted with peril.

Yet Rosenthal’s point does not appear to me to be destructive or skeptical—she has not come to bury objectivity, accounting, what-have-you. In fact, much of the essay revels in the details of early nineteenth century bookkeeping practices, asking, not judging. The question arises over and over: why did all these individuals keep books?

One answer Rosenthal provides is this:

Keeping accounts was a daily quest for useful information. Sometimes quantitative information was punctuated by a bit of prose, verbalizing the intentions of a book’s keeper. In 1870, Thaddeus Fish of Kingston, Massachusetts, contemplated the buying and selling of eggs in his account book. He described how a woman had “bought 150 eggs of a country man.” She sold all of the eggs, but at an array of different prices, some yielding a profit, but others a loss. Fish, puzzling over her business, supplemented his muddled calculations with text: “I Demand to know whether she Lost or gained by her eggs.” The urgency of his demand reflected neither profit seeking nor an opposition to it. Rather it revealed the daily necessity of understanding whether time was well spent and which risks were worth taking.

She also points to accounts kept to facilitate long distance management, to discipline laborers, to judge workers’ alcohol consumption (and morals, implicitly), to facilitate inheritance, and more generally to provide some antidote to the complexity of modern life.

So, how can we use Rosenthal’s piece as evidence in our general investigation? First, we might decide to conclude something not-that-surprising: that historical or sociological approaches to knowledge (like Ted Porter, who looms here, next to Michel Foucault, among others) have provided useful tools for historians of capitalism like Rosenthal (although I’m not sure if that’s a label she would embrace).

Second, we might say something more significant: that nineteenth century Americans (and lots of other people too) were interested in making sense of an increasingly complex, interconnected world. They encountered overlapping and interrelated problems of trust (how do I decide who to invest in, or who to believe?), problems of risk (how do I decide whether its worthwhile to invest or believe?), and problems of knowledge (what is true? what will work?). To solve these problems, they (whether businessmen, farmers, or scientists) turned to new tools and techniques, and especially to quantification.

Finally, we might learn a lesson from the attention to materiality in Rosenthal’s essay and apply that to our investigations of new shared knowledge practices. Rosenthal shows us account keepers writing over every corner of a book, desperate to save expensive paper, for instance. How did those account books compare to the ledgers and notebooks that scientists increasingly relied upon? Did astronomers and actuaries go to the same shops in New York (the Mutual of New York, I happen to know, bought all its accounting materials from a printer on Nassau Street in the 1850s)? My guess is: yes. In so far as the actuaries were often also astronomers, the answer was surely yes. So I will add a category to Lee’s speculations: shared problems, shared tools, and shared materials.

[Three different people sent me a link to Caitlin Rosenthal’s piece in the space of two days—it might have taken me a while longer to find it otherwise. Thanks to GH, HR, and MK.]