This freshman seminar investigates the history of six modern machines—the train, the camera, the radio, the mainframe computer, the personal computer, and the Internet—to trace shifting ideas about the relationship between technology and progress. Machines like these do a lot of things: they document the world; they advance scientific research; they make goods cheaper; they accelerate transportation and communication; they produce knowledge and diffuse information. Do they make the world a better place? Boosters and critics have debated this question since the Enlightenment. This hands-on seminar, in which we’ll grapple with the machines themselves, using Harvard’s Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments (CHSI) and the MIT Museum, asks students to wrestle with one of the most urgent and fundamental questions of the twenty-first century: What is the end of innovation? Students from all backgrounds are welcome, from engineers to artists. The chief work of the course is reading, listening, and watching: we’ll read essays, watch films, and listen to broadcasts. You’ll be asked to provide a response to each week’s materials before each seminar meeting. Another piece of work for this course is making: your final project will be either A) a machine of your own design (you could either build it or submit plans for it) or B) a product manufactured by a machine that we have studied (e.g., you could make a film or a podcast). Either way, you’ll also submit an essay, explaining how your machine or product makes the world a better place.
Enrollment is limited to twelve.