Convention of cranks

Why the nineteenth century’s golden age of pseudoscience may be a precursor of our own

by Rob MacDougall

© SCOPE Magazine, Spring 2011


Pravda, Russian for “truth”, was the official newspaper of the Soviet Communist Party from the start of the Bolshevik Revolution to the final days of the Soviet Union. After the collapse of Soviet communism, Pravda fell on predictably hard times. The newspaper was sold to foreign owners, who reinvented it in the 1990s as a rather shameless supermarket tabloid. The pages that once delivered the ponderous dictates of the Kremlin were given over to breathless reports on extra-terrestrial invaders, ghostly apparitions, and the curative properties of goat testicles. This may be a fitting fate for a newspaper whose truth was never much more than titular. But Pravda’s transformation (liberation? decline?) strikes me as a kind of metaphor for our whole information environment, as we pass from the top-down mass media of the twentieth century to the interactive digital media of the twenty-first.

“2.1.1 Invention to Pass Time (I)”, by Dale Lawrence

The shorthand story of our own revolution is by now familiar. In the twentieth century, we built powerful tools by which a few people could broadcast their version of truth to a mass audience. In the West, at least, such power was supposed to come with responsibility. Around our presses and bully pulpits we built codes of professional conduct and hierarchies of expertise. But now the world has turned. Networked digital and social media are toppling the old business models and the intellectual authority of twentieth-century institutions. Today, we are told, everybody can broadcast to everybody, or at least speak to themselves. We have moved from the cathedral to the bazaar, from the one voice of our own Central Committees to the post-Soviet cacophony of Twitter and YouTube, Wikipedia and web 2.0. To some, this is the happy dawn of a more democratic marketplace of ideas. To others, it is a descent into crankdom, quackery, and untruth.

It is hard to judge a revolution still in progress, and harder still to say much about today’s social and technological changes that has not already been said. Whatever else new media does, each innovation in communications turns us, if only briefly, into historians of technology. Until the novelty of this or that tool fades, we are all Marshall McLuhan, conscious of and curious about the media we use. Blog posts about blogging, tweets about Twitter, books about the obsolescence of books: every new form of communication produces a similar moment, if only a moment, of critical self-reflection.

But I really am a historian of technology. Does that expertise equip me to offer anything new to this debate? One thing my training has taught me is to be very wary of making predictions about the future. Another thing is that, when in doubt, a historian can always say: This has all happened before. Which, in fact, it has.

The golden age of crankdom

There have always been people who believe in odd things, and those who fixate on impossible inventions or miracle cures. The market for comforting falsehoods remains bullish in good times and bad. But the cranks and pseudoscientists of the nineteenth century were remarkable in terms of the wide exposure they achieved, the large audiences they reached, and the banquet of strangeness they laid out before their era’s marketplace of ideas. Quack doctors hawked patent medicines to cure all ills, backyard inventors toiled over perpetual motion machines, and political prophets brought forth strange commandments to lead their faithful to some promised land.

Historians of science have identified a particular “discourse of eccentricity” that flourished in nineteenth-century Britain. Britons borrowed a word from geometry and astronomy—as in the orbit of a comet, an eccentric circle is one that is not concentric with another circle—to describe individuals who would not fit into the social or intellectual categories of the day. Victoria Carroll’s 2008 book Science and Eccentricity describes the era’s fad for eccentric biographies, its close association of science and strangeness, and a corresponding fascination with boundary-crossing “freaks” or hybrids of the natural world. Early Victorian eccentrics were an eclectic bunch: cross dressers and nudists, hermits and misers, vegetarians and gluttons. Yet as the century wore on, the label more often became affixed to amateur scholars whose theories transgressed emerging boundaries between literary genres or scientific fields. This nineteenth-century discourse of eccentricity helped to define and entrench a new intellectual order, hardening lines between the disciplines, between professionals and amateurs, and between legitimate and illegitimate ideas.

In nineteenth-century America, the closest equivalent label was not astronomical but mechanical: the crank. The etymology of the word “crank” in this sense is not clear—it was probably a conflation of crank’s original root, meaning crooked, and the word “cranky,” meaning irritable—but the term took hold in the nineteenth-century United States as a way to describe anyone in the grip of an implausible idea. American ideas about crankdom worked in much the same way as Carroll’s discourse of eccentricity, but with a more political edge. American cranks routinely conflated mechanical, social, and financial ideas. The dotty, pontificating crank became a recognized symbol of the age, and allegations of crankdom and quackery flew back and forth in the boisterous political combat of the era.

A convention of cranks

The overlap between crankdom, invention, and political reform was on clear display at the so-called “Convention of Cranks,” a meeting of the American Bimetallic League at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. Six hundred delegates attended this convention in order to promote the remonetization of silver. The money debate between advocates of gold, silver, and paper money was central to American politics in the 1890s in a way that is hard to fathom today. Wall Street and Washington orthodoxy favored a gold standard, and would-be reformers like the Bimetallic League faced harsh derision from the establishment. Speaking of the pro-silver convention in 1893, the Chicago Herald said, “The air seems to breed cranks, and the demon of destruction is abroad in the land.” But the mayor of Chicago, Carter Henry Harrison, welcomed the Bimetallists. He opened the convention with a speech saying, “It is said you are lunatics… I say I am rather glad to welcome such lunatics as you.” Members of the Bimetallic League warmly applauded Harrison’s remarks, and spent the rest of the conference addressing each other as “fellow lunatic” and “brother crank”.

1893 was a year of economic panic. League members shared a belief that an injection of silver currency into the American economy would relieve suffering farmers and restore prosperity to the West. But silver was far from the only topic discussed. While the wealthy and powerful saw the gold standard as a basic tenet of economic prosperity and even moral probity, something drew eccentrics and oddballs to the silver cause, and drew silverites to ever more radical ideas. At a moment when America seemed to teeter on the brink of financial ruin, the convention of cranks offered an explosion of nostrums, inventions, theories, and cures. Flat earthers and spiritualists rubbed shoulders with rain makers and prognosticators of all kinds.

One of the stars of the convention was Minnesota Congressman Ignatius Donnelly. Donelly is remembered today as a Populist leader; he wrote the ringing preamble to the Populists’ Omaha Platform in 1892. He also wrote several books about the lost civilization of Atlantis, the end of the world, and the secret messages encoded in Shakespeare’s plays by their “true” author, Francis Bacon. At Chicago in 1893, Donnelly debated Carl Browne, a California showman who dressed like Buffalo Bill—and in private, like Annie Oakley—who combined his own political activities with trying to invent a flying machine and hawking a patent medicine called “Carl’s California Cure”. It was also at the Convention of Cranks that Browne met Jacob Coxey, a “Greenback” advocate so committed to monetary reform that he named his youngest son “Legal Tender”. Coxey had invented his own patent medicine—the evocatively named “Cox-E-Lax”—and had his own technological prescriptions for the nation’s economic ills. Together, Browne and Coxey would go on to organize Coxey’s Army, a famous protest march to Washington by hundreds of unemployed workers, hoboes, and tramps.

Crankdom was at once a mechanical activity and a political one, and the two were often intertwined. Cranks slipped easily between the political, technological, and scientific realms, often trying to bring the tools of one to bear on the problems of another. Each had their own individual hobby horse, but on the whole the Convention was an optimistic gathering. The cabinet of cures on offer for America’s economic ills testified to a deep belief, or desire to believe, that politics, economics, science, and society remained understandable and perfectible by ordinary folk.

Ben Franklin’s ghost

John Murray Spear was a Universalist minister in nineteenth-century New England. Spear was a reformer: an opponent of the death penalty, an advocate of women’s suffrage, a staunch abolitionist, and an operator in the underground railroad. In 1844, Spear was attacked by an anti-abolitionist mob and beaten within an inch of his life. He received severe head injuries and spent several days slipping in and out of a coma. Some time after this experience, Spear was, he believed, contacted by the friendly ghost of Benjamin Franklin.

This was not as unusual as it might sound. In the middle to late nineteenth century, millions dabbled in spiritualism, visiting séances, decoding table rappings, pushing Ouija-style planchettes, and watching mediums emit ectoplasmic goo. And no spirit from the other side—no messiah, no rich dead uncle, no lost child—communicated with American spiritualists more frequently than the unquiet shade of Benjamin Franklin. From beyond the grave, Franklin transmitted messages to and from dead loved ones, spoke out on the issues of the day, and lectured on scientific topics like magnetism and balloons. The industrious Franklin had apparently kept busy in the afterlife, for he often provided his living correspondents with descriptions of new inventions: self-adjusting window blinds, an improved flush toilet, and the like. Andrew Jackson Davis, a leading spiritualist known as the Poughkeepsie Seer, offered an ingenious explanation as to why Franklin appeared so frequently in spiritualist séances, and why spirits in general had only recently become so talkative. It was Franklin’s spirit, Davis said, that had posthumously invented the “Celestial Telegraph” by which the dead could send messages back to the living world.

Reverend Spear spent the next twenty years doing Franklin’s bidding and constructing inventions of Franklin’s design. Before being contacted by Franklin, Spear had shown no particular interest or aptitude for invention or technology. Indeed, a friend called him “quite destitute of inventive genius, scientific knowledge … or even ordinary mechanical abilities.” But this, the friend went on, made Spear “all the better adapted” to being Franklin’s instrument, since he was “neither disposed nor able to interpose any undesired suggestions of his own.” Despite this lack of mechanical ability, every task that Spear undertook for the spirit world combined the technological and the political. His improved sewing machine was meant to liberate women from drudgery. His network of telepathic mediums was meant to break the grip of the hated telegraph monopoly. His perpetual motion machine, the New Motor, was a mechanical representation of America itself. It was not meant “merely” to run forever, or to produce more energy than it used. The aim of the machine, he said, was the “radical agitation” of an “inert society”, converting poverty into abundance and prejudice into love.

John Murray Spear was undoubtedly a crank. He was also a tireless advocate for the poor and oppressed. And he was emblematic of a type. If Spear was one of a kind, his story would illuminate little more than his own psychology. But he was not. Scratch an eccentric nineteenth century inventor and you find a reformer. Scratch a nineteenth century reformer and you generally find an attic full of mechanical inventions or schemes.

Again and again, reformers and inventors in this era reached for machine metaphors, describing democracy or the economy as a marvelous but malfunctioning machine. Nineteenth-century Americans admired their Constitution as a “machine that would go of itself.” Crank inventors literalized this metaphor, conflating the dream of a perpetual motion machine with political or spiritual renewal. The machinery of government, they said, was run down or stuck. But if the nation was a malfunctioning machine then it stood to reason it could be fixed like a machine. There had to be some small adjustment—a priming of the pump, or an application of axle grease—that would resolve all contradictions between morality and progress, or poverty and prosperity.

Metaphors are used for poetic effect, of course, and this makes them slippery sources for historical analysis. Yet to the crank, metaphor was more than poetry. It was an argument in itself. “As above, so below” was the ancient credo of Hermetic magic, and cranks and other marginalized thinkers carried that philosophy into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Over-literalized metaphors and analogies were engines driving crank and pseudoscientific thought.

The information explosion of the nineteenth century

The Burgess Shale, in the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia, is one of the world’s most celebrated fossil deposits. The soft-bodied creatures fossilized there were products of the Cambrian explosion, a great flowering of life that began some 570 million years ago. They are bizarre to human eyes: spiny worms and finned crustaceans, limbless predators with serrated gullets, five-eyed opabinias with vacuum-like snouts. In his 1989 book Wonderful Life, Stephen Jay Gould made the Burgess fossils famous as evidence for the strangeness and contingency of life. He argued that the Cambrian explosion contained far more diversity and variety of life forms than exist today.

The nineteenth century was a kind of Cambrian explosion for intellectual life. The mental soil of the era was crammed with an extraordinary diversity of notions and enthusiasms, many now extinct. Their remains can be found nearly everywhere, deposited in the great libraries and institutions of North America and Europe and in dedicated collections like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Archives of Useless Research.

We need not embrace or endorse the extinct ideas of the nineteenth century to learn from them. Gould saw the diversity of the Burgess Shale as powerful evidence against all self-congratulatory visions of evolution as an upward path towards ourselves. It is easy, but not illuminating, to dismiss the cranks of the past. What if we approached them instead as paleontologists approach the Burgess Shale? We might well ask, what was it about the nineteenth century that allowed such intellectual diversity to flourish? And what changes in that intellectual environment led to the mass extinction of so many theories, pseudosciences, and memes?

The eighteenth century—Ben Franklin’s day—had been marked in both Britain and America by the scarcity and control of information. As the historian Richard Brown put it, “the most obvious feature of the American information environment at the beginning of the eighteenth century was the relative scarcity of information, its limited topical range, and the crucial importance of social stature … in determining who possessed access.” Franklin himself did agitate for more open flow of information. Knowledge should not be locked in libraries and learned colleges, Franklin argued: “the great book of Nature is open to all.” He promoted the circulation of newspapers, the postal service as a mass medium, and the democratization of science as a crucial civic good. In 1774, Franklin was fired as postmaster of all British colonies in America after leaking government documents to the colonial press. (He became the first postmaster general of the United States the following year.) But then as now, the loudest advocates for the free circulation of information were often the most connected, and not always self-conscious about the privilege on which their access to information rested. As a printer, a postmaster, and an active participant in the trans-Atlantic republic of letters, Franklin was wired in to networks of fairly up-to-date information including scientific and technical knowledge, political and economic theory, gossip and current events. This set him apart from all but a few of his contemporaries. Information and learning were luxuries, available to only an elite few, and the authority to speak on most topics was tightly controlled by law and custom.

All this changed in the information explosion of the nineteenth century. Cheap print and a profusion of presses cranked out a flood of books, pamphlets, newspapers, and broadsides. Technology played a role in this expansion, but just as important were political choices and cultural shifts. Rising literacy created a mass audience—or audiences—for the printed word, and a profusion of genres and styles both catered to and created new communities of politics and taste. Expanding and increasingly affordable postal services put all these documents in motion. Britain introduced a uniform penny post in 1840; the United States democratized its postal rates in 1847. In both countries, postal service represented a grand civic endeavor, a major investment in information infrastructure at a time when governments were relatively small and disinclined to intervene in economic life. By 1831, the United States Postal Service was bigger than the army and represented over three-quarters of the entire federal civilian work force. The French traveler Alexis de Tocqueville reported from the hinterland of the Appalachians in that year: “There is an astonishing circulation of letters and newspapers among these savage woods.”

The first half of the century witnessed a similar explosion in public speech. Previously, secular oratory had been rare and confined to a narrow range of speakers and topics. By the 1820s and 1830s, public speaking had entered its own golden age. Reformers, educators, scientists, and salesmen combined information and entertainment to reach audiences big and small. Competition for eardrums, the attention economy of the nineteenth century, bred diversity rather than uniformity, with an audience for every opinion and a platform for every cause. The era’s menagerie of warring political tribes—Greenbackers, Copperheads, Goldbugs, Anti-Masons, Anti-Monopolists, Yellow Dogs, and more—was one expression of this fragmentation. A bull market in millennial movements and religious splinter sects was another. By the middle of the century, Richard Brown concluded, “America had gone from a society where public information had been scarce, and chiefly under the control of the learned and wealthy few, to a society in which it was abundant and under no control other than the interests and appetites of a vast, popular public of consumers.”

The undisciplined age of science

As access to information exploded, science came along for the ride. For much of the nineteenth century, there was little effort to define the boundaries of legitimate and illegitimate science. For centuries before, the typical scholar of nature had not been a specialist but a generalist, dabbling in a variety of academic disciplines. Indeed, the term “scientist” only came into general use after the 1840s.

Americans in particular embraced the ideal of a democratic science, knowable and accessible to all. Franklin became the patron saint of this tradition in the century after his death—an exemplar of Yankee know-how and practicality, the archetypal “scientific American”. The magazine of that name began publishing in 1845, promoting a Franklinian faith that the common man could, and should, be a participant in the worlds of science and technology. Scientific showmen like Benjamin Silliman and Edward Hitchcock reached huge audiences with lyceum lectures. Industrialists funded mechanics’ institutes, public libraries, and technical schools to educate skilled workers (and to keep them out of pubs). The spread and popularity of such institutions encouraged hopes that widespread scientific enlightenment could be achieved. “The characteristic of our age,” declared William Ellery Channing, “is not the improvement of science, rapid as this is, so much as its extension to all men.”

The middle nineteenth century has been called the “democratic age” in Anglo-American science. One can easily overstate the egalitarianism of science in this era, just as one can overstate the egalitarianism of nineteenth-century democracy itself. But it is certainly true that amateurs and dabblers outnumbered professionals or specialists in the intellectual life of the period. The nineteenth century enjoyed, if not a democratic, certainly an undisciplined marketplace of ideas—undisciplined both in the sense that it lacked much order or restraint, but also in the sense that it lacked formal academic disciplines. The lines between science, politics, invention, reform, and entertainment remained blurry. And the lines dividing subfields within those fields had hardly yet been drawn. Autonomous faculties, specialized journals, and professional guilds were largely late nineteenth-century inventions. The hyper-narrow specialization of twentieth-century academe lay decades in the future.

The darker side of this intellectual diversity was a real hostility to expertise. In 1844, Oliver Wendell Holmes Senior—no populist he—warned the graduating class of doctors at Harvard Medical School that the rabble would balk at their professional authority. “The ultra-radical version of the axiom that all men are born free and equal … has invaded the regions of science,” Holmes declared. “The dogmas of the learned have lost their authority, but the dogmas of the ignorant rise… to take their place.”

The result of all this was a fairly lawless marketplace of ideas where theories and practices flourished not because they were true but because they could find a buyer. Titles like “Doctor” and “Professor” were appropriated by anybody who wanted them. Barbers called themselves “professors,” as did banjo teachers, tailors, phrenologists, and acrobats. Nineteenth-century Americans experienced medicine, one historian has written, “as a smorgasbord of possible panaceas, some from licensed doctors in their offices and some from quacks selling from carts on street corners.” It would be hard to design an intellectual environment more hospitable to quackery and crankdom, to eccentric scholars and odd ideas.

Yet the climate changed as the nineteenth century wore on. As the leading edge of scientific knowledge advanced, most sciences became less descriptive and more abstract. The work being done in fields like physics, chemistry, and astronomy increasingly required trained specialists with expensive equipment. And virtually all of the disciplines developed elaborate theoretical structures and precise technical terms. Institutional changes mirrored and reinforced these trends. Professional societies became more formal and exclusive. Colleges and universities established graduate schools and specialized research institutions. Scientists and inventors became increasingly dependent on corporate or government funding. By the twentieth century, most inventions or advances could not be made by solitary dabblers but were the work of teams of professional researchers at elite universities or corporate labs. The growth and bureaucratization of government pushed political amateurs away from the levers and gears of democracy in much the same way.

This was a period of aggressive boundary work, as professionals of all sorts campaigned to consolidate their authority and purge their guilds of amateurs. Professionalization involved the identification and removal of dabblers and dilettantes. Terms like “crank” and “quack” were deployed as accusations and epithets as the older, participatory vision of democratic or undisciplined science declined. By the twentieth century, a would-be Franklin who dabbled simultaneously in electrical, political, and moral experiments would surely be dismissed as a kook or a crank.

The politics of crankdom

Like scientific outsiders, radical reformers could be labeled “cranks” and “lunatics”, and caricatures of the political activist as crank inventor or patent medicine quack were increasingly used to discredit political reform. The consistency of the label is remarkable. “Crank” was not a label that everybody used against their political opponents; it seemed to get used again and again in the same specific ways.

When the newspaper editor Horace Greeley ran for president against Ulysses Grant in 1872, he was compared to “the crank of a hand-organ, continually grinding out the same old tunes.” The political cartoonist Thomas Nast, famous for his satirical images of Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall corruption, was equally cutting in depictions of Greeley as a crack-brained, pontificating crank. What was Horace Greeley’s crime? He was a spiritualist, an abolitionist, and a vegetarian. He was chubby, with wooly hair and little round glasses—a tempting target for Nast’s pen. He did dabble in science and invention; he wrote a book about scientific farming that Nast worked into almost every cartoon of Greeley he drew. But Greeley also challenged the financial orthodoxies of the day. When the philosopher John Fiske was a librarian at Harvard in the 1870s, he undertook to cull Harvard’s library of what he called “insane” or “eccentric literature”. In an essay Fiske wrote about “Cranks and their Crotchets”, what did he single out for particular ridicule? Not spiritualism, not phrenology, not perpetual motion, but free silver and financial reform.

Remember Mayor Harrison, who welcomed the convention of pro-silver cranks and lunatics to Chicago? Three months after the convention, Harrison was assassinated, shot by a disturbed young man named Patrick Prendergast. Prendergast was, it turned out, something of a crank. He was an obsessive advocate of Henry George’s single tax, who wrote long rambling letters to just about everybody in Chicago’s public life. His trial, in which he was represented by Clarence Darrow, turned on the question of whether Prendergast was a true “lunatic”—that is, medically and legally insane—or simply a dangerous political “crank”. Because of his political leanings, the prosecution was able to convince the jury of the latter. Prendergast hung, in part, for his crankdom.

We should not be surprised that the crank story ended up intertwined with the money question. The money debate was for post-Civil War America a burning, hugely divisive issue. It fired passions and invited ordinary Americans to argue over the nature of their country and its new corporate economy. Coin’s Financial School, a pro-silver treatise that John Fiske ridiculed as alchemy, sold one million copies in the 1890s. How many books about fiscal policy are read by one million ordinary Americans today? Yet the money debate is now remembered, if at all, as something abstract and arcane. This is a measure of how thoroughly financial conservatives discredited their populist foes. Defenders of the gold standard associated monetary reform convincingly and damningly with all manner of crack-brained inventions and mechanical schemes. Would-be reformers pushed back, but by the turn of the century they were ever more marginal. The twentieth century would be the age of the expert—an era of highly specialized knowledge, of clearly defined guilds and hierarchies of professional authority and expertise.

Crank 2.0

But as we’ve seen, the world has turned. The doomsayers and the cheerleaders for our Web 2.0 world all seem to agree that the old hierarchies of knowledge and expertise have been toppled or outflanked. Maybe the twentieth century will prove to be the aberration, with its professional guilds, its elevation of experts, and all its powerful tools for letting a few insiders speak to and for everybody else. If we are entering a new era of undisciplined knowledge and innovation, it is worth looking back at the last such age. History remembers few eras as innovative as the late nineteenth century, at least in technological terms. But one would also have a hard time naming a period that embraced more flavors of pernicious nonsense. Is that the trade-off on the table? Are we entering a new golden age of pseudoscientists, quacks, and cranks?

The parallels are persuasive. As in the nineteenth century, our own information explosion was triggered by technological changes, but cultural and political factors give it form. The Internet is both printing press and postal service on a scale that Franklin’s ghost would never have believed. We use it to connect across continents and oceans, even as we subdivide, like our nineteenth-century forebears, into tribes of affinity, opinion, and taste. Web culture is a kind of consilience engine, mashing up data and weaving connections between disciplinary silos. Today’s blogs bear a remarkable resemblance to the newspapers of the antebellum era: a motley banquet of individual, often partisan voices, with much content clipped and “curated” from other sources. Contemporary distrust of experts and disillusionment with traditional institutions inspires hopes for new models of online participation, while simultaneously fueling the new crankdom. Frightening economic, political, and environmental challenges ensure high demand for simple cures and easy answers.

One might wish to draw a line between scientific and political cranks. Cold fusion is a crank idea because it doesn’t work; it is harder to be as definitive about fringe ideas in politics or economics. Yet in the history of crankdom, such distinctions are rarely respected. John Murray Spear’s quest for perpetual motion was never really about the laws of thermodynamics. And who can claim that the battle between creation and evolution is not as much about politics as science? Confronted with tenacious pseudosciences like creationism, or the pseudohistorical beliefs of the 9/11 “Truth” movement and the Birthers, we could just cluck our tongues at the foolishness of the inexpert masses. But maybe it would it be more fruitful to ask, like a paleontologist at the Burgess Shale, what intellectual niche does this community inhabit? What emotional or intellectual functions does this belief fulfill?

There is much to be said for guilds and hierarchies of authority and expertise. But they have their costs. The scientific experts of the early twentieth century overturned all manner of superstitions. They also drastically narrowed the acceptable range of inquiry and belief. Progressive-era political experts made government more efficient but less accountable, pushing ordinary citizens away from the machinery of politics and contributing to what Lawrence Goodwyn called a “mass folkway of political resignation.” At a time when political apathy and scientific illiteracy are widespread, there might be something to learn from a moment when so many were so fiercely engaged, and so certain there must be a solution to all the world’s woes. We may expect our new century to be profoundly innovative—but we must also anticipate our share of eccentrics, quacks, and cranks.

Rob MacDougall is associate director of the Centre for American Studies at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada. He is a historian of business, technology, and culture, especially information networks in nineteenth-century America. He blogs about history, games, and play at and His book, The People’s Telephone: The Rise and Fall of the Independent Telephone Movement, will be published this winter by the University of Pennsylvania Press. Tecumseh Lies Here, an augmented reality game he is designing about the War of 1812, will be loosed upon the world in the summer of 2012.