The Unreliable Nation


Winner of the 2018 Sidney Edelstein Prize from the Society for the History of Technology. The Edelstein Prize is awarded to “an outstanding scholarly book published in the history of technology during the preceding three years.”

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Drawing on previously unpublished archival documents and recently declassified materials, the book shows how Canadian defense scientists elaborated a distinctive “Northern” natural order of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, it illustrates the surprising role of technological failures in shaping contemporary understandings of both nature and nation.

The book is available in both hardcover and e-book: here.

“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 at Harvard University