Gadgetry v1.3

A functional and fictional device.

About Colophon Data Decades Graphics


This companion site contains research data and working notes for an upcoming book, Gadgetry: A History of Techniques. In writing about the imaginative space between a user and a tool, one of my entry points has been to ask: what counted as a gadget at different moments in time and why?

Across the twentieth century, many kinds of objects were described as gadgets, from dashboard gauges to atomic bombs, can-openers to Walkmen. While “gadget” can be a placeholder for any kind of object, even imaginary ones, its evolving application to particular tools and techniques reveals important lessons about our relationship to technology. The gadget is a unique genre, comprising physical objects, conceptions, and habits.

For this book, I search databases of novels, magazines, and newspapers in order to explore the distinctly vernacular philosophies — the media theories from below — that emerge from users of technology and their everyday practices. Using databases like the Corpus of Historical American English, Readex’s African American Newspapers, and the Media History Digital Library, I proceed by collecting as many instances of the word “gadget” as possible and plugging them into categories of my own making based on how the term is applied: is the gadget handmade or mass produced, seen as important or a trinket? Does the word refer to the entirety of the tool or a component within it? And so on.

Inspired by Otto Neurath’s 1920s design of the ISOTYPE system, categories of gadgetry are indicated by icons throughout this site.

Because I have hand-coded this “dataset” and designated myself the categories into which I sort each instance of the word (such as control mechanisms and imaginary devices ), the portrait that emerges of a discourse on technology could be described as entirely of my own making, as opposed to computationally-generated. Part of this book is interested in exploring the difference between these two categories of interpretation when it comes to the history of collective mentalities.