Comedy, Cartoons, and Satire: Communicating Science and Technology

Endorsed by the Agricultural History Society (AHS)

Saturday, April 4, 2020, 10:00 AM - 11:30 AM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Environment; Popular Culture; Science and Technology


Nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century periodicals often poked fun at science and technology, through cartoons, satirical writings, pithy anecdotes, and poetry. Many scholars have argued that these jabs were part of Americans’ anti-elitism and anti-intellectualism, but scientists and engineers also enjoyed a laugh. Indeed, they employed humor and used these same genres to publicize new discoveries and mock overly-serious or inept colleagues. Some of these jokes remained behind closed doors of professional meetings. Other samples of humorous science circulated within professional journals and trade publications, while some made their way into periodicals read by the wider public. And many Americans learned of and reacted to scientific and technological works-in-progress from the parodies and doggerel of the comic press, broadside parables, and performance spaces. Together, such visions of science and technology offered a public, non-specialist view of the nascent professional endeavors of scientific thinkers and presumed innovators.

This panel will explore how humor communicated and complicated science in the United States. From geology to industrial machinery, agriculture to communication technology, Americans both had fun with science and technology and learned about them through humor.

AJ Blandford introduces us to the role that humor played in establishing and questioning America’s first public science, geology. As the basis for internal improvements, geologists and their findings were the subject of intense public and political scrutiny, which frequently mocked the science. As public servants, geologists mocked their scientific rival instead of their political foes. By reading through and against the humor, Blandford argues that humorous attacks reveal the conflicting hopes and anxieties different groups had about entrusting the authority of this new class of technical experts.

Melanie Kiechle will discuss plumbing poetry and sardonic takes on industrial labor. Through wit, Kiechle argues, both technological experts and observers familiarized Americans with the tremendous changes in built environs, medical knowledge, and industrial production. Environmental historians have argued that these changes created a “second nature” that alienated individuals from the natural world and ushered in many anxieties of modernity, but Kiechle suggests humor revealed and made approachable what was otherwise obscured.

Benjamin Cohen adds to the session with an analysis of the ways cartoonists, humorists, and vaudeville actors reacted to and reshaped the perceptions of new technologies. Examples about electricity, telephones, factory life, and the general demeanor of the inventor reveal a picture of savvy consumers whose angst and concern over new technological systems show how users configure, manipulate, and challenge the notion that novelty equals improvement.

Finally, Emily Pawley will address the challenge of negotiating contemporary audiences’ sense of humor. While many nineteenth-century jokes fall flat in the classroom, serious and regular topics of nineteenth-century agricultural concern elicit snorts and giggles today. Is it possible, Pawley asks, to use anachronistic humor to explore the corporeal realities of daily life?

Overall, our exploration of scientific humor past and present binds together studies in humor and comedy, the history of science and technology, environmental history, and cultural histories of the long nineteenth century.

Papers Presented

Chicken Is a Funny Word: The Distortions of "Seriousness" in Histories of Agricultural Knowledge

Historians of science have long seen the need to rescue past science from the condescending or anachronistic ridicule of the present, managing laughter to restore the context and the dignity of therapeutic bleeding, or phrenology, or geocentrism. In histories of agricultural science this is particularly challenging, in part because the objects of agricultural science—animals and plants and farm landscapes—are mostly known popularly through early childhood education. Contemporary audiences have been formally taught how to imitate a chicken or a cow but not much else. Modern lack of familiarity with agriculture means that many productive features fundamental to agriculture, like managed sexuality, slaughter, feeding and intentional fatness, dirt and manure feel transgressive and more than a little disgusting. Historians of agricultural science are used to anticipating and deflecting this laughter, by concealing these features. This paper describes the distorting consequences of our attempts at seriousness, which force us to blur details of bodily experience that were, for much of American history, an accepted part of everyday life. It argues that by embracing and highlighting the grotesqueries at the core of agricultural production, the very features that make audiences laugh, we can find the agricultural sciences’ most significant connections to the history of the body and of race and gender, as well as their important ecological consequences.

Presented By
Emily Jane Pawley, Dickinson College

Geology and the “hundred other ologies,”: The Role of Parody in the Making of the First Public Science

Geology was the most “fashionable” science in the nineteenth-century. Women and men of all ages and classes thronged to meeting houses and lyceums where naturalists expounded on the newly deciphered history of the ancient Earth. Geologists regaled their sometimes rowdy audiences with stories of cataclysmic explosions, floods and mass extinctions while flourishing colorful maps, minerals and fossils—the relics key to unravelling these mysterious former worlds.

But geology was not just popular; it was political. As the premier science of the internal improvements era geology both determined the routes of new canals and railroads and illuminated the travel guides that followed them. Between 1824 and 1879—when the U.S. Geological Service was formed—every state, federal territory (and even far off lands such as the arctic) received some form of government sponsored geological survey. These surveys transformed geologists into a new class of civil servants which made them even riper targets than they already had been for parody, satire, and even sabotage!

Geologists across the country were skewered by a skeptical public in newspapers, serial novels, travel guides and in the records of legislatures and assemblies across the country. Suspect politicians and the hard of hearing alike confounded geology with theology and phrenology, sometimes effectively undermining these publicly underwritten surveys and sometimes just bruising scientific egos. Geologists struck back with their own witty jabs in scientific journals, letters and field-notes where they mocked their scientific rivals and the “illiterate” lawmakers who controlled the fate of their new careers.

Presented By
AJ Blandford, Rutgers University

Technological Resistance is a Joke: How Satirists and Comics Cracked Back at Triumphalist Innovators in the Early 1900s

Calling Thomas Edison the “Wizard of Menlo Park” was as much a term used for parody as one of endearment in the later nineteenth century. When vaudeville actors first invented the grapevine game as a joke about the flaws of communication with the new telephone, they were speaking to a receptive audience less enthusiastic about mechanical invention than the phone’s cheerleaders. When Charlie Chaplin became part of the machine in Modern Times, his use of literal phrasing—he is, famously, physically inside the machine, processed by it—carried forward in cinematic form a template for technological critique about industrialization. Satire works when it pokes fun at something that has a general degree of understanding by its audience. Electricity, telephones, and factories had become part of popular culture when satirical responses called into question their presumed cultural value. The paper takes its cue from work by Ruth Schwartz Cowan, David Edgerton and the co-hort of technology studies scholars who examine the ways maintenance and use dominate the life of technologies rather than innovation and novelty. Satirical commentaries reveal assumptions about how users appreciate and understand technological novelty. They sharpen readers' view of what the novel contribution seeks to do and how it confronts accepted cultural norms. Drawing from the satirical press of the late nineteenth-century and vaudeville archives of the early twentieth centuries, it traces a line of consistent critique about those who benefit and those who feel beleaguered by the incursion of new technological systems.

Presented By
Benjamin R. Cohen, Lafayette College

Poetic Plumbing and Laughable Labor: Humorous Lessons in New Technology

In the nineteenth-century United States, a number of popular scientific and medical journals aimed to appeal to both educated lay people and trained scientists. Poetry and satire on scientific topics often made its way into publications such as Manufacturer and Builder and the Sanitarian, in between articles that detailed the most recent scientific and medical discoveries. The perils of improper plumbing appeared in verse, and technology-savvy humorists’ satirized laborers’ encounters with industrial technology.

Scientific topics also made their way into the columns of popular journals such as Harper’s Weekly and Godey’s Lady’s Book, where the authors were primarily popular poets and humorists rather than scientists and physicians. Despite the difference in authors, these poems covered similar topics and were widely reprinted, disseminating discoveries and recommending new behaviors to the middle-class audiences of these publications.

This paper argues that poems and satire popularized science through their very form. Simple meter and rhyme facilitated memorization and recitation, and punchlines explained technological marvels. Poetry and satire, like formal articles, was also a space for debate: dissenters responded in kind, challenging new knowledge through reference to the efficacy of traditional methods. By following discussions of new knowledge through the humor of trade and popular journals, we can see how scientific knowledge entered high-brow and low-brow culture by appealing to existent practices, eliciting laughs, and employing dialectic.

Presented By
Melanie Kiechle, Virginia Tech

Session Participants

Presenter: AJ Blandford, Rutgers University
AJ Blandford is a doctoral candidate in US History and the History of Science, Technology, Environment and Health at Rutgers University. She’s the co-author of a history of Geological Hall, the first geological museum in the United States, and has presented papers at the annual conferences of the American Society of Environmental History and the History of Science Society. She has been a research fellow at the Huntington Library, The Library Company of Philadelphia, the Academy of Natural Sciences, the American Antiquarian Society and a digital humanities fellow at the American Philosophical Society. Her dissertation, “Labor and the Visualization of Knowledge in American Geological Surveying, 1787-1861,” analyzes the role of geological illustration in geology’s rise from an obscure elite leisure activity to the first publicly funded science.

Presenter: Benjamin R. Cohen, Lafayette College
Benjamin R. Cohen teaches at Lafayette College in Easton, PA. He is the author of Pure Adulteration: Cheating on Nature in the Age of Manufactured Food (Chicago, 2019) and Notes from the Ground (Yale, 2009) and co-editor (with Gwen Ottinger) of Technoscience and Environmental Justice (MIT, 2011). He writes widely about food, technology, and environmental issues at a number of forums.

Presenter: Melanie Kiechle, Virginia Tech
Melanie A. Kiechle is an associate professor of history at Virginia Tech, where she teaches US history, environmental history, and the history of science and medicine. She is the author of Smell Detectives: An Olfactory History of Nineteenth-Century Urban America (University of Washington Press, 2017) and is currently researching the curious ways though which new scientific knowledge was incorporated as common sense--or dismissed as nonsense--in the nineteenth century.

Presenter: Emily Jane Pawley, Dickinson College
Emily Pawley received an MPhil in the History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge in 2002 and a PhD in the History and Sociology of Science from the University of Pennsylvania in 2009. She teaches environmental history, the history of capitalism, and the history of science at Dickinson College. Her research has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Mellon Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Chemical Heritage Foundation, the Smithsonian, and the American Antiquarian Society. She has published on analytic tables, cattle portraiture, counterfeit apples, and aphrodisiacs for sheep. Her book project, the Balance Sheet of Nature: Agriculture and Speculative Science in the Antebellum North examines the kinds of knowledge that emerged to make sense of the rapidly commercializing landscape of post-Erie Canal New York and is under contract with the University of Chicago Press. She is also interested in the transatlantic history of moon farming.