Teaching STS: Challenging Technological Determinism in Caliente, NV

If you were raised on STS in America, then it is likely that you read about the death of a train town named Caliente, NV. This is:

Death by Dieselization: A Case Study in the Reaction to Technological Change
W. F. Cottrell
American Sociological Review
Vol. 16, No. 3 (Jun., 1951), pp. 358-365
(article consists of 8 pages)
Published by: American Sociological Association
This is not a bad read, and easy for instructors to challenge on the grounds of “technological determinism” on two accounts:
1. the town did not die because of the out-of-control technological advance of locomotives, and instead the government-military complex invested heavily in diesel locomotoves as part of mid-century war time efforts (potentially even linking technological advance with patriotism such that any resistance to the technology was seen as anti-American).


2. the town did not die because of the out-of-control technological advance of locomotives because like so many towns of this age and this sort, it had a uni-dimensional economy such that the town was susceptible to new technology that challenged the source of their economic security.
I like to emphasize on the account during steam train advances, however, as they are even more telling about this “technological determinism” that seems so easy to swallow for students. Sure, Cottrell shows how Caliente, NV, was run asunder by the advent and subsequent quickened spread of diesel trains on the American landscape.


However, during advances to the steam train, and I am referring to low-tensile boilers as compared to high-tensile boilers (and this is somewhat simplistic of train buffs, so please forgive me), it was towns like Caliente, NV, that gained the most! A student and I created this set of PowerPoint slides to explain this (you’ll have to download it to see the animation — the small white dots are “towns” set every 100 miles from the port town): check it out here (note, you’ll have to download it to see the cool animation).


As some of you know, I work in Altoona, PA, which was once a heart of the Pennsylvania Rail Road. Altoona, to some extent, suffered a similar death as Caliente, NV, to use Cottrell’s words.