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Master Mechanics and Wicked Wizards

Master Mechanics and Wicked Wizards: Images of the American Scientist as Hero and Villain from Colonial Times to the Present

Glen Scott Allen
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    Master Mechanics and Wicked Wizards
    Book Description:

    From the earliest depictions of Benjamin Franklin and his kite experiment to 21stcentury renderings of mad scientists, representations of American scientists in the popular media reveal a great deal about our cultural hopes and fears. In an entertaining and insightful survey of popular media over three hundred years of American history—religious tracts, political cartoons, literature, theater, advertising, art, comic books, radio, music, television, and film—Glen Scott Allen examines the stereotypes assigned to scientists for what they tell us about America's pride in its technological achievements as well as our prejudices about certain "suspect" kinds of scientific investigation. Working in the tradition of cultural studies, Allen offers an analysis that is historically comprehensive and critically specific. Integrating both "high" literature and "low" comedy, he delves into the assumptions about scientists—good, bad, and mad—that have been shaped by and have in turn shaped American cultural forces. Throughout the book, his focus is on why certain kinds of scientists have been lionized as American heroes, while others have been demonized as antiAmerican villains. Allen demonstrates that there is a continuous thread running from the seminal mad scientists of Hawthorne's nineteenthcentury fiction to modern megalomaniacs like Dr. Strangelove; that marketing was as important to the reputation of the great independent inventors as technological prowess was; and that cultural prejudices which can be traced all the way back to Puritan ideology are at work in modern scientific controversies over cloning and evolution. The periods and movements examined are remarkably farranging: the literature and philosophy of the Romantics; the technology fairs and utopian fiction of the nineteenth century; political movements of the 1930s and 1940s; the science fiction boom of the 1950s; the space and arms races of the 1960s and 1970s; the resurgence of pseudosciences in the 1980s and 1990s. This book will be of interest not just to teachers and students of cultural studies and the history of science and technology but to anyone interested in American culture and how it shapes our experience and defines our horizons.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-059-8
    Subjects: Sociology, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. 1-10)

    One scene from an old black and white film best summarizes what this book is about: a tall, thin man wearing a white lab coat bends over the prone body of a bulky giant. He is surrounded by huge Tesla coils filling the air with branching electrical sparks, and tall glass tubes of bubbling liquids. Scurrying about him is a hunchback assistant who whispers, “Yes, master” to his every command, throwing one enormous switch after another. The thin man in the lab coat bends over the prone body; his face is emaciated, intensely pale, shining with mad intensity. He listens...

  5. 1 SIMON PURE AMATEURS: American Scientists of the Early Nineteenth Century
    (pp. 11-22)

    It was a typically dreary Boston November day of 1849 when Dr. George Parkman stepped out of his fashionable home in East Cambridge and headed for Harvard College. The foul weather didn’t improve his mood. He was angry, and he was in a hurry. He stopped at a market on Merchant’s Block—a long, narrow street of butcher shops, bakeries, and produce stands—then decided he didn’t have time to collect his groceries and said he’d pick them up later. At a refreshment stand in East Cambridge he inquired when the next omnibus would leave for Boston, and seemed quite...

  6. 2 SEX AND THE SINGLE MAD SCIENTIST: Domesticating Scientific Passion in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction
    (pp. 23-43)

    If one was asked for the image of the iconographic mad scientist of the nineteenth century, one might reasonably respond that such an image could be found in the character of Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein as described in the Introduction—an image that would become the model for countless mad scientists of books and films in the next 150 years. However, many of the character traits, rhetoric, and even “props” that mark Victor as a mad scientist in these later books and films aren’t to be found in the original novel bearing his name. In fact, we can find most...

  7. 3 A CABINET OF WONDERS: Selling American Science in the Nineteenth Century
    (pp. 44-62)

    The scientist stands before a thick red velvet curtain, pulling it slightly aside to offer a glimpse of what lies beyond. We see a seemingly endless row of shelves rising from floor to ceiling. We can’t quite make out their contents, but from the rapt attention of several people gazing at them, we assume what ever is on display is captivating. At the man’s feet are arrayed massive bones of some prehistoric beast, and on a small table is draped the body of a large bird: peacock? condor? We can’t be certain. In fact, an overall aura of mystery hangs...

  8. 4 THE WORLD OF TOMORROW: Technocracy as Utopia in the Age of Pulps
    (pp. 63-79)

    Flying cars. When I think of the 1920s and 1930s, that’s what I think of: flying cars. Not because such wonders existed back then, but because back then they were certain such wonders would exist by now. With titles likeAir Wonder StoriesandAmazing Storiesand, of course,Wonder Stories, the popular science fiction magazines of the time—eventually to be known as the “pulps” due to the cheap, thin paper used in their production—enthusiastically predicted an almost unrecognizable world of technical achievement right around the corner. Flying cars, for instance, were almost certainly to be available at...

  9. 5 THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING SCIENTIST: How the Heroes of Los Alamos Became Internationalist Traitors
    (pp. 80-91)

    Two images of the American physicist Robert Oppenheimer perfectly illustrate the abrupt transition of the “Father of the A-bomb” from patriotic genius to traitorous conspirator. The first, taken on July 16, 1945, while Oppenheimer was director of Los Alamos, shows him standing over the ruins of the test tower at Ground Zero of the first atomic test, at Alamogordo, New Mexico. At his feet is a small, nondescript pile of concrete and twisted metal bars—all that’s left of a hundred-foot structure that held the plutonium implosion device whose twin was dropped later on Nagasaki. Next to him is General...

  10. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  11. 6 INVADERS WITH PH.D.ʹS: Aliens, Commies, and Eggheads in Science Fiction Films of the 1950s
    (pp. 92-113)

    “Half Man Half Ant! All Terror!!”

    Thus warns the movie poster forMant!, a fictional sci-fi horror flick of 1962 as imagined in the filmMatinee(1993). In this satirical and nostalgic send-up of 1950s grade B horror films, John Goodman plays Lawrence Woolsey, a producer of Saturday matinee schlock in the mold of the real-life producer William Castle. Castle was the “innovative” producer of films likeThe TinglerandHouse on Haunted Hillwith all their attendant gimmickry of electrical shockers in the seats, skeletons on wires flying across the theater, and, most creative of all, his offer of...

  12. 7 FALLOUT: Politics and Paranoia after the Bomb
    (pp. 114-134)

    Life at Los Alamos had provided the A-bomb community with what was for any research scientist of the period an almost ideal existence: unlimited resources, access to the best minds in the country, camaraderie, culture—there were frequent concerts, as many of the scientists were excellent musicians—and even a home life, as the government had thought it best, for reasons of security, to “inter” their families along with the scientists. And there was also the intellectual stimulant of working on one of the most important research efforts of all time, the “gadget” as the bomb was nicknamed: a project...

  13. 8 ROCKET SCIENCE: (Their) Sputniks + (Our) Dudniks = NASA
    (pp. 135-148)

    It is sometimes said that two historical moments define the lowest and highest points in Baby Boomer cultural consciousness, moments when nearly everyone of that generation remembers where they were and what they were doing: November 22, 1963, the day Kennedy was assassinated; and July 20, 1969, the day Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. The first seemed to crush the belief that the 1960s would be the quintessentially American decade, while the second revived our vision of America as capable of accomplishing great things. Neil Armstrong, an all-American boy, with his “one small step for a man,” became at...

  14. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  15. 9 TOM SWIFT AND THE COSMIC ASTRONAUTS: Pilots, Pitchmen, Warriors, or Mechanics?
    (pp. 149-172)

    Like many other American boys growing up in the 1950s, I had a firm image of what I wanted to become as an adult: an astronaut. My sources for this inspiration ran the gamut from serious to silly:Encyclopedia Britannicapaste-in stamp books about outer space and rockets; Saturday afternoon newsreels and films about space exploration; and every Tom Swift book I could lay my hands on—Tom Swift and His Rocket Ship, Tom Swift and His Electronic Retroscope, Tom Swift and His Atomic Earth Blaster, Tom Swift and the Cosmic Astronauts…. Later, when NASA began putting men into space,...

  16. 10 AMERICA VS. THE EVIL EMPIRE(S): Good Astronauts, Bad Aliens, and the Battle for the High Frontier
    (pp. 173-206)

    There is an image which captures what most people think of when they hear the phrase “monsters from outer space,” and it looks something like this: a heroic astronaut (space suit, ray gun) confronts some hideous space monster (tentacles, single giant eye) while sheltering a scantily clad space heroine (blonde, Grecian tunic), all of them standing on an alien landscape colored in sinister purples and sickly greens. This image is derived from countless posters for B-level science fiction films of the 1950s, posters that borrowed heavily from the covers of pulp magazines of the ’30s. While the basic components of...

  17. 11 LOOKING BACKWARD: Useful vs. Wicked Inventing in Colonial America
    (pp. 207-236)

    If asked which inventor has made the greatest contribution to American culture, many would argue that this distinction belongs to Thomas Edison. After all, he created more devices, obtained more patents, and ranged more widely across the applied sciences than any other of the Great Independents; some might even argue that he essentially invented twentieth-century America, with its dependence on electrical gadgets, its model of private fortunes built on a moment of inspiration, and its mythology of individual Yankee ingenuity taken to the highest entrepreneurial level. However, I would argue that Benjamin Franklin made an even more significant contribution to...

  18. 12 DÉJÀ VU ALL OVER AGAIN: Fear, Funding, and Ignorance in Contemporary Scientific “Controversies”
    (pp. 237-262)

    Are there real-world effects resulting from an American privileging of the mechanical and material over the theoretical and the abstract? Is America’s preference for utilitarian Mechanics over theoretical Wizards actually shaping its science, not only as it was conceived two hundred years ago, but also as it is practiced today? And, two centuries after Benjamin Franklin, has there been any significant change in the stereotypes I’ve discussed? To answer these questions, I offer the following case studies, analyses of controversies about current scientific priorities, exigencies, and debates. In each case, I contend that the cultural prejudices discussed throughout this book...

  19. NOTES
    (pp. 263-298)
  20. INDEX
    (pp. 299-304)
  21. Back Matter
    (pp. 305-306)