Reliable Humans, Trustworthy Machines: A History of the Technological Self (in progress)

This book project examines how observers from the late-18th to the mid-20th centuries saw the problem of failing machines as a problem of the self — a problem of the kinds of people that failing machines created, or threatened, or presupposed. From 18th-century sentimentalism and the guillotine, through Victorians’ nervous fascination with railway accidents, to industrial breakdowns in Jazz-Age America and the suspect citizens of the Cold War, this book excavates the largely-forgotten concerns that linked selves and social orders to the problematic workings of technology. Connecting those developments to our own worries in the early-21st century, the book encourages us to see the history of modern technology not simply as a social history of mechanisms and devices, but as a cultural history of the self and of the social orders it made possible.

jones copy.jpg

The Unreliable Nation: Hostile Nature and Technological Failure in the Cold War (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017)

Winner of the 2018 Sidney Edelstein Prize from the Society for the History of Technology

Throughout the modern period, nations defined themselves through the relationship between nature and machines. Some saw themselves as a triumph of technology over the forces of climate, geography, and environment. Some, however, crafted a powerful alternative identity, defining themselves through technological failures and the distinctive natural orders that caused them. The Unreliable Nation, examines one instance of that larger history: the Cold War–era attempts to extend reliable radio communications to the remote and strategically sensitive Canadian North. It argues that, particularly at moments when countries viewed themselves as marginal or threatened, the identity of modern nations emerged as a scientifically articulated relationship between distinctive natural phenomena and the problematic behaviors of complex groups of machines.

Drawing on previously unpublished archival documents and recently declassified materials, the book shows how Canadian defense scientists elaborated a distinctive “Northern” natural order of violent ionospheric storms and auroral displays, and linked it to a “machinic order” of severe and widespread radio disruptions throughout the country. Tracking their efforts through scientific images, experimental satellites, clandestine maps, and machine architectures, it argues that those efforts naturalized Canada's technological vulnerabilities as part of a program to reimagine the postwar nation. The real and potential failures of machines came to define the nation, its hostile Northern nature, its cultural anxieties, and its geo-political vulnerabilities during the early Cold War. Taken as a whole, the book illustrates the surprising role of technological failures in shaping contemporary understandings of both nature and nation.

“Jones-Imhotep weaves together highly original archival research and big issues: the global ionosphere, the Cold War, the polar North, national identity. If you want to sample the very best of today’s historical writing on science and technology, read this book.”
Donald MacKenzie, Professor of Sociology, University of Edinburgh

“In The Unreliable Nation, Edward Jones-Imhotep traces how experts struggled to adapt military technologies to the exceptional environments of the Canadian North, while those same technologies changed how people perceived the formidable Arctic settings. A fascinating study of how nature, technology, and national identity became braided together during the Cold War.”
David Kaiser, Germeshausen Professor of the History of Science, MIT

“In this fascinating study of northern radio signals, Edward Jones-Imhotep shows a keen eye for cultural history, national self-concept, and technological developments. It is an absolutely terrific contribution to our grasp of technology, a study thoroughly embedded in the project of modern nation construction, at once a cultural-political history and a deep inquiry into radio, radar, and ionosopheric science.”
Peter Galison, Joseph Pellegrino University Professor in History of Science and of Physics, Harvard University




Edward Jones-Imhotep and Tina Adcock, eds. Made Modern: Science and Technology in Canadian History (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2018)

Made Modern explores the complex intersections of science, technology, and modernity in Canada. Organized around three key themes – bodies, technologies, and environments – the book’s chapters examine how science and technology have allowed Canadians to imagine, invent, and reinvent themselves as modern. Focusing on topics as varied as colonial anthropology, scientific expeditions, electrotherapy, the occult sciences, industrial development, telephony, patents, neuroscience, aviation, space science, and infrastructure, the contributors explore Canadians’ modern engagements with science and technology in national, transnational, and global contexts.

Contributors: Tina Adcock, Stephen Bocking, Dorotea Gucciardo, Jan Hadlaw, James Hull, Edward Jones-Imhotep, Dolly Jørgensen, Eda Kranakis, Daniel Macfarlane, Beth A. Robertson, Efram Sera-Shriar, Blair Stein, Andrew Stuhl, David Theodore.



“The Ghost Factories: Histories of Automata and Artificial Intelligence.” History and Technology, forthcoming.

“Le spectateur sentimental et les ratés de la machine. Imaginaire de la guillotine et de la défaillance mécanique à l’aube de la République.” Techniques&Culture 72 (2019) “En cas de panne”: 3-17.

“The Analog Archive: Image-Mining the History of Electronics” (with William Turkel). In Seeing the Past with Computers: Experiments with Augmented Reality and Computer Vision for History, edited by Kevin Kee, 95-115. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2019.

“Sensors and Sources” (with William Turkel). In Varieties of Historical Experience, edited by Stephan Palmié and Charles Stewart, 219-239. New York: Routledge, 2019.

“Science, Technology, and the Modern in Canada” (with Tina Adcock). In Made Modern: Science and Technology in Canadian History, edited by Edward Jones-Imhotep and Tina Adcock, 3-36. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2018.

Paris-Montreal-Babylon: The Modernist Genealogies of Gerald Bull.” In Made Modern: Science and Technology in Canadian History, edited by Edward Jones-Imhotep and Tina Adcock, 185-215. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2018.

“Causality.” (with Tina Choi) Victorian Literature and Culture 46, no. 3-4 (2018): 604-608.

“The Sentimental Machine.” Cosmologics Magazine (Fall 2017).

“The Unfailing Machine: Mechanical Arts, Sentimental Publics, and the Guillotine in Revolutionary France.” History of the Human Sciences 30 (2017) (special issue on Psychology and Its Publics): 11-31.

“Malleability and Machines: Glenn Gould and the Technological Self.” Technology and Culture 57 (2016): 287-321. (Winner of the Abbot Payson Usher Prize from the Society for the History of Technology).

“Sound and Vision.” Spontaneous Generations: A Journal for the History and Philosophy of Science (2012): 192-202.

Maintaining Humans: Electronic Failure and Human Nature.” In Cold War Social Science: Knowledge Production, Liberal Democracy, and Human Nature, edited by Mark Solovey and Hamilton Cravens, 225-243. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

“Fermilab: Physics, the Frontier, and Megascience.” (review) Isis 101 (2010): 259–260.

“Communicating the North: Scientific Practice and Postwar Canadian Identity.” Osiris 24 (2009): 144-164.

“Icons and Electronics.” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 38 (2008): 405-450.

“Philosophy of Science: the Analytic Tradition” (with David Castle). In The Edinburgh Companion to Twentieth Century Philosophies, edited by Constantin Boundas, 270-284. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007.

“Laboratory Cultures.” Scientia Canadensis: Canadian Journal of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine 28 (2005): 7-26.

“Critical Histories.” Scientia Canadensis: Canadian Journal of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine 28 (2005): 3-5.

“Gravity’s Shadow: The Search for Gravitational Waves.” (review) Isis 96 (2005): 458-459.

“Nature, Technology, and Nation.” The Journal of Canadian Studies 38 (2004): 5-36.

“The Computer Revolution in Canada: Building National Technological Competence.” (review) Technology and Culture 45 (2004): 659-661.

“Disciplining Technology: Electronic Reliability, Cold-War Military Culture, and the Topside Ionogram.” History and Technology 17 (2001): 125-175.