Prof. Lee Vinsel to Present at History of Technology Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark

Prof. Lee Vinsel (Assistant Professor, Science and Technology Studies) is presenting his research at the upcoming Society for the History of Technology conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, on October 4-7, 2012. Prof. Vinsel's paper, "Bodies at Unrest: Impact Biomechanics as a Regulatory Science", examines the history of the automobile in the United States to explore the moral implications of technology and its risks.

Below is his abstract:

In 1939, E. S. Gurdjian and Herbert Lissner, two professors at Wayne State University, began dropping dried skulls from varying distances onto “rigid and padded surfaces” and studying the resulting cracks. Gurdjian, a surgeon in the Detroit area, was both fascinated and dismayed by the mechanics of concussion, a biological phenomenon that was poorly understood at the time. Realizing that he knew little about the study of forces, he eventually came to work with Lissner, an engineer who specialized in materials testing. Together the men began applying the tools and methods of materials testing, including the ubiquitous strain gauge, to the biomechanical properties of bodies. Within a few years, they had constructed a laboratory within a repurposed elevator shaft, where they “dropped” human cadavers and living non-human animals and studied the effects of impacts. In the process of these studies, these men joined a national—and international—community of scholars in universities (e.g. Cornell, UCLA), branches of the military, and private firms that contributed to emerging field of impact biomechanics.  Over time, scholars destroyed numerous human cadavers and killed many non-human animals, including dogs, pigs, rabbits, guinea pigs, and pregnant baboons, in their quest to improve their understanding of injury and safety.

This community eventually formed around the Stapp Car Crash Conferences, organized for the first time by Col. John Stapp in 1955.  Stapp was famous for using rocket sleds to experiment on himself, reaching over 630 miles per hour in under five second and subjecting himself to over 40 g’s in one test. At the Car Crash Conferences, scholars from around the world would gather to deliver presentations and observe crash tests and biomechanical experiments. In the early 1960s, safety advocates, including Ralph Nader and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, spurred on the drive towards federal automotive safety standards. Studies in impact biomechanics made significant contributions to these standards. Federal regulations “built” these studies into things.

Yet, few haves examined how the military-industrial complex and animal testing have influenced these developments in safety. As Langdon Winner has taught us, the ontology of technology is deeply infused with politics, but I argue that technologies also bear the traces of past destruction and death, which, following Jacques Derrida, I describe as “hauntology.” I contend that we must keep this phenomenon in view when considering our moral relationship to technology.

This paper is based on published academic journal articles, periodicals, and materials from university (e.g. Wayne State and UCLA) and federal archives. 

For more information on Science and Technology Studies, visit the Program page.