The Black Androids and the Technological Underground
This talk explores Black technological experience in 19th and early 20th century America through a history of the "black androids" — automata in the form of black humans. From the 18th century onwards, hundreds of black androids were produced, purchased, and displayed across four continents. In the United States, these machines formed part of a culture of minstrelsy concentrated along Broadway Street in New York City. Using the technologies of the time — steam, mechanics, electricity — these American androids portrayed Black people in pastoral, leisurely, and non-technological roles, supporting the myth of Black technological disingenuity. The androids’ surface, however, masked how those same technologies featured centrally in the lives, imaginations, and self-identities of Black New Yorkers. The talk examines that duality: how the technologies that drove the androids' racist depictions also figured crucially in Black technological experiences, agency, and selfhood in 19th and early 20th century New York. From 19th-century steam-men and railway sabotage plots, to electrical workers and the Harlem Renaissance, the talk asks what a descent into the technological undergrounds might reveal about race and machines, about the challenges of history, and about the role of Black experiences in challenging our conceptions of technology and pointing us towards new approaches.
Edward Jones-Imhotep is an award-winning historian of science and technology. He is Director of the University of Toronto’s Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology (IHPST). He is a co-founder of Toronto’s TechnoScience Salon, a public forum for humanities-based discussions about science and technology. Jones-Imhotep’s research focuses on the historical intersections of science, technology, and modern culture. He is particularly interested in the historical “behaviors” of technologies — including malfunctions, breakdowns, and failures — and in the place of those behaviors in the culture, politics, and economics of modern societies. His first book, The Unreliable Nation: Hostile Nature and Technological Failure in the Cold War (MIT Press), won the 2018 Sidney Edelstein Prize for best scholarly work in the history of technology. A current book project — Unreliable Humans/Fallible Machines — investigates how people from the late-18th to the mid-20th centuries saw machine failures as a problem of the self: a problem of the kinds of people that failing machines created, or threatened, or presupposed. A new long-term research project — The Black Androids and the Technological Underground — explores black technological experience in New York from 1830 to 1930 through the history of the black androids, automata in the form of black humans.