I've taught in the University of Texas History Department since 1985. My main field is the history of science, and my research focuses on the development of electrical science and technology in the 19th century, particularly in Britain. My most recent book, Imperial Science: Cable Telegraphy and Electrical Physics in the Victorian British Empire, was published in 2021 by Cambridge University Press; the paperback edition (at a much more affordable price) came out in December 2022. In it I examine the early history of cable telegraphy, including the famous Atlantic cables of 1858 and 1865–66, and trace how the cable industry shaped British work in electrical physics, culminating in James Clerk Maxwell's formulation of his theory of the electromagnetic field. My next project will be a biography of Maxwell. Given his importance—most physicists rank him just behind Newton and Einstein—and the fact that the last full-scale biography of him appeared more than 140 years ago, I figure he's about due.
In 2015 I was elected a Fellow of the American Physical Society in recognition of what the APS called my "groundbreaking work on the history of electromagnetism in the nineteenth century and the relationship between physics and technology." In February 2018 I had the honor of delivering the George Sarton Memorial Lecture in the History and Philosophy of Science at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. My lecture, sponsored by the History of Science Society, was on "Imperial Science: Victorian Cable Telegraphy and the Making of 'Maxwell's Equations.'" My article based on the lecture appeared in the July 2018 issue of the Proceedings of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.
I grew up in Walla Walla, Washington, and earned bachelor's degrees in both History and Physics at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1979. I studied with Professor Tom Hankins, who gave me an excellent start in the history of science. From UW I went on to graduate school at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where I worked with Russell McCormmach and Robert Kargon and received my PhD from the History of Science Department in 1984. After a year on a postdoc at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, working with Barney Finn on the history of cable telegraphy, I came to UT as an assistant professor in 1985. I was later promoted to associate professor and then to full.
My first book, The Maxwellians, was published by Cornell University Press in 1991; it appeared in paperback in 1994 and was reissued in 2005. A Wikipedia article about it includes some brief quotes from reviews, which I'm happy to say were pretty favorable. You can also find a nice recommendation of it on Shepherd.com. A Portuguese translation was published in 2015 by Editora Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais in Brazil as Os Seguidores de Maxwell. My second book, Pursuing Power and Light: Technology and Physics from James Watt to Albert Einstein, appeared in 2010 in the Johns Hopkins University Press series of Introductory Studies in the History of Science. I've also published more than twenty articles on electrical theory and practice in the 19th century. You can find links to the publishers' webpages for my books and to PDFs of my articles at the top of this page under the "Publications" tab, and links to recordings of various of my talks and interviews, as well as some online articles, under the "Talks and website articles" tab.
For a change of pace, I'm working on an article (to be titled "Fat Men, not Little Boys") on the development and use of the first atomic bombs during World War II. Christopher Nolan's film Oppenheimer (which is very good and much more historically accurate than most Hollywood biopics) has stirred up a lot of interest in the history of the atomic bomb, to the point where the 92nd Street Y in New York has invited me to give a short online course on the subject in January and early February 2024. I'm afraid you have to pay to listen in, but you can find the link here.
I've also developed a side interest in the electrical history of the Austin area, which turns out to be unusually rich. Pieces I've written on the rise and fall of the Austin Dam in the 1890s, Austin's original electric streetcar system, and the city's much-loved "moonlight towers" can be found under the "Talks and website articles" tab above. In 2018 Mat Hames and his crew from Alpheus Media filmed me talking about the old Austin Dam and the moonlight towers for the documentary series "Power Trip" they were making with Michael Webber, a UT engineering professor who is a well known expert on energy issues (and a former student of mine). PBS broadcast the first installment of the series in April and May 2020, giving viewers a chance to watch me declaim about electrical history while standing beneath the moonlight tower in Hyde Park. I appear in the episodes "Water," "Cities," and "War"; you can find them on Amazon Prime and Apple. Mat later interviewed me for a film, "Lighting a Brighter Future," he made to mark the 125th anniversary of the founding of Austin's municipal electric utility, now known as Austin Energy; it was released on YouTube in October 2021.
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