053: Robert MacDougall, 35


Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman

53: Robert MacDougall, 5-14-07

Basic Facts

Teaching Position: Assistant Professor, Department of History and Associate Director, Centre for American Studies, University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario.
Area of Research: Post-Civil War United States, with a special interest in the histories of American technology and business in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Education: PhD in History, Harvard University, June 2004.
Major Publications: MacDougall is currently working on the book manuscript The People’s Telephone: Networks, Corporations, and Two Nations, 1876-1926, based on his PhD dissertation. His book manuscript is a comparative history of the
Robert MacDougall JPGtelephone industry in the United States and Canada from the 1870s through the 1920s, and the way the dueling networks of that era’s information revolution embodied competing arguments about the ideal organization of the economy and society.
He is also the author of numerous scholarly articles including: “The Wire Devils: Pulp Thrillers, The Telephone, and Action at a Distance in the Wiring of a Nation,” American Quarterly 57:3 (September 2006); “Long Lines: AT&T’s Long-Distance Network as an Organizational and Political Strategy,” Business History Review 80:2 (Summer 2006); “The All-Red Dream: Technological Nationalism and the Trans-Canada Telephone System,” chapter in Unfinished Business: The Making and Unmaking of Canadian Nationalism in the Twentieth Century, Adam Chapnick and Norman Hillmer, eds., Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007; “The People’s Telephone: The Politics of Telephony in the United States and Canada,” Enterprise and Society 6:4 (December 2005), among others.
He is also interested in the phenomena of “pseudoscience” and “antiscience” in America, and the changing place of technological expertise in a democratic nation, and has written the journal article “Strange Enthusiasms: A History of American Pseudoscience,” 21stC 3:4 (Winter 1999) on the topic.
Awards: MacDougall is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including among others:
Krooss Dissertation Prize Nominee (Business History Conference) 2005;
Cliopatria Award for Best Weblog Post (Historical News Network) 2005;
Cabot Fellowship for Innovation in Teaching (Harvard University) (Declined) 2004-2005;
John E. Rovensky Fellowship in Business and Economic History (University of Illinois) 2003-2004;
David Packard Fellowship (Harvard University) 2002-2003;
H.B. Earhart Fellowship (H.B. Earhart Foundation, Ann Arbor, Michigan) 2001-2002;
Indiana Historical Society Doctoral Fellowship 2001-2002;
Charles Warren Center Research Grants (Harvard University) 2000-2001;
Center for Middletown Studies Research Grant (Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana) 1999-2000;
Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada Doctoral Fellowship 1998-2000;
Commendations for Excellence in Teaching (Harvard University) 1997-2003;
Henry Adams Fellowship (Harvard University) 1995-1997;
Queen’s Medal for Highest Grades in History (Queen’s University) 1995.
Additional Info:
MacDougall was a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow, Visiting Scholars Program at American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Cambridge, Massachusetts 2004-2005.
MacDougall writes for the blogs “Cliopatria,” and “Old is the New New”

Personal Anecdote

I’m afraid I haven’t won a Pulitzer, met Henry Kissinger, or been asked to write for The West Wing. One thing I have done, for whatever it’s worth, is visit almost every drive-through tree, roadside mystery spot, and death car museum in the United States. In the summer after college, I and two friends drove across the continent and back, covering 10,000 miles and visiting 25 states in search of strange museums, forgotten tourist traps, and other bits of offbeat Americana.

“It must be nice to have a job that lets you drive around the country for a month,” said the border guard when we crossed over from Canada. “What do you boys do for a living?” “I’m a musician,” said my buddy Derek. “I plant trees,” said Pete. I had the best answer: “I’m a historian.”

It was a historical research trip, of sorts. I hadn’t heard the phrase then, but we three Canadians were looking for what author Greil Marcus dubbed “the old, weird America,” that unruly country of cranks and confidence men, mystics and medicine shows that lies under the surface of America’s more familiar past. In the decade since, I’ve filled in many of the gaps—48 states down, Alaska and Mississippi to go—and I find that without making a conscious choice to do so, I have continued exploring the old, weird America in my work. I am drawn to the back roads of American history, to its oddities and strange enthusiasms, to the pasts Americans do not immediately recognize as their own.

“The taste for strangeness does not suit the favorite flavors of history in the United States,” writes Robert Darnton. We tend to like more familiar history, well-worn tales in which we see flattering outlines of our present selves. “The familiar past,” writes Sam Wineburg, “entices us with the promise that we can locate our own place in the stream of time and solidify our identity in the present.” Weird history, on the other hand, requires confronting our own subjectivity: was the past strange in itself or is it simply strange to us?

My affection for the old, weird America is probably most obvious in my history blogging and in my nascent research on American cranks and pseudoscientists, but my work on the history of technology and business is also about recognizing the unfamiliarity of the past. Telephones and corporations, the chief subjects of my current book, are not strange to us now. I am interested in the historical moment when they were.

The technological systems that structure our lives were not pre-ordained by the logic of technology or the market. They are the product at every step of human choice. Without recognizing that telephones and corporations have human histories—and that they once seemed quite strange, in ways both exciting and alarming to ordinary Americans—we cannot see the ways in which these systems could have been different or think about how we might make them different now.

The weird past need not be an unusable past, and its study can be more than a new kind of geeky antiquarianism. Strange history helps us to see the ways the present is strange: the things we take for granted, the choices others have made for us, the injustices we don’t protest. The old, weird America is an alternate history, not one that takes off from a historical turning point into an imaginary future, but one that snakes back from our present into a hidden past that also was. It offers an inoculation against the shrunken horizons of the present. It reminds us that America is older, bigger, and stranger than we know.


By Robert MacDougall

  • Historians typically turn to the story of the railroads to explain how large managerial corporations emerged in the United States, but the history of the telephone may tell us more about how and why those institutions gained wide popular support. At a moment in American history when an economy populated by modest local firms was giving way to one dominated by sprawling national corporations, the universal telephone network served the advocates and architects of the new order as a symbol and spectacle of integration and consolidation. … The national long distance network was not profitable—it would not be for many years—but it was instrumental in consolidating control of the Bell companies and the telephone industry in general, and in helping to convince Americans that the nation-spanning corporation was not an enemy but a friend. — Robert MacDougall in “Long Lines: AT&T’s Long-Distance Network as an Organizational and Political Strategy,” Business History Review 80:2 (Summer 2006).
  • “The most common label for these kinds of practices and beliefs is “pseudoscience,” though David Rothman, professor of history and of social medicine and director of Columbia’s Center for the Study of Science and Medicine, warns against careless use of that term. “It’s a retrospective judgement on the losers,” he says. “It renders those who pass the verdict smug.” Indeed, it’s worth remembering that theories we might scoff at today were once embraced by Americans from all walks of life. Phrenology, the divining of personality by reading the contours of the cranium, “had very respectable followers,” says Rothman. Such worthy skulls as Andrew Carnegie’s, Thomas Edison’s, and Walt Whitman’s were phrenologically surveyed. (Whitman’s flattering head-reading was central to his self-portrait in Leaves of Grass.)
    Spiritualism–communication with the dead through a psychic medium–also captured the imagination of the educated and the unwashed alike. William Lloyd Garrison, Horace Greeley, and James Fenimore Cooper were among thousands of antebellum Americans who frequented seances to witness table rapping and oozing ectoplasm.1 Mesmerism, electric medicine, creationism, and the water cure all joined them in the stew of popular beliefs.
    Why was nineteenth-century America so welcoming to these beliefs? A combination of historical circumstances provided both motivation and opportunity for pseudoscience to flourish. “In the eighteenth century, people were convinced that if you examined the book of nature it would lead you to God,” says Philip Kitcher, professor of philosophy at Columbia, and author of Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1982). Most believed science and the scriptures to be harmonious. The scientific developments that destroyed that harmony–the explosion of geological time, Darwin’s Origin of Species–came as a terrible blow. The universe “no longer looked at all Providential,” Kitcher says. “By the middle of the nineteenth century, you could only hold onto the literal truth of Genesis if you were prepared to engage in pseudoscientific maneuvering.” — Robert MacDougall in “Strange Enthusiasms: A History of American Pseudoscience,” 21stC 3:4 (Winter 1999)
  • Plymouth versus Jamestown! They’re the Beatles and Stones, the Betty and Veronica of colonial U.S. history: where does America’s “national narrative” begin? Frankly, I’m not sure we have to choose. If the Pilgrims and Puritans were a pious clutch of religious zealots, Jamestown was a kind of get-rich-slow scheme, a dot-com start-up where half the techies starved before hitting on the colony’s (cough cough) killer app. Surely American history displays a family resemblance to both forebears?
    But if I had to make a choice, I’d plant my flag a hundred and fifty miles south of Jamestown, on the real first English settlement in the New World: the lost colony of Roanoke. (Let’s not talk about Frobisher’s ill-advised attempt on Baffin Island in 1578.) In 1584, more than twenty years before Jamestown, Sir Walter Raleigh planted a hundred or so men on Roanoke Island, off the North Carolina coast. Raleigh’s men toughed it out for a year before all but fifteen of them caught a ride back to England with Sir Francis Drake. A return expedition in 1587 brought more colonists, this time with women and children, led by the artist John White. (Soon after arrival, White’s daughter delivered the first English child born in the Americas.) White himself returned to England for still more settlers and supplies, but a certain Spanish Armada interfered with his return trip, and when English ships finally returned to Roanoke in 1590, the colony’s ninety men, seventeen women, and eleven children had vanished without a trace. Or almost without a trace: the word “CROATOAN” was famously carved into the bark of a tree near the lost colony’s gate.
    Like many I expect, I first learned of Roanoke as a kind of ghost story. I don’t know which lurid kiddie book I read it in, but I do remember having the distinct impression that “Croatoan” was the name of some slavering forest monstrosity, and not, as it turned out, a nearby Cherokee tribe. The fate of the lost colony remains unknown, but the best guesses say they either got killed by the Powhatans, set out on foot for the Chesapeake Croatoan JPGand died en route, or went native, interbreeding with the Indians. Whatever became of them, there’s a nice lesson there for American history about hubris, failure, and the great unlikeliness of the American experiment.
    In Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom, Roanoke is not a creepy campfire tale but a tragic road not taken. While Raleigh’s ships were settling Roanoke, his friend Drake was buckling swash up and down the Spanish Mainósimple piracy, Morgan admits, “but on the scale that transforms crime into politics.” Morgan makes much of Drake’s alliance with the Cimarrons, black and Indian slaves escaped from the Spanish. Drake was not above slaving himself, but he made common cause with the “Maroons” and threatened New Spain with a general uprising of its Indian and African labor. As Drake sacked Santo Domingo, Cartagena, and San Augustin, he liberated, or collected, some three hundred Indians and two hundred “Negroes, Turks, and Moors,” whom he planned to deposit at Roanoke to enjoy English-style liberty and serve as a rallying point for New Spain’s oppressed natives and slaves. “Perhaps it could never have come to pass,” Morgan writes, “and perhaps no one really intended that it should.” Nevertheless, for him, Roanoke represented “a dream in which slavery and freedom were not yet married, a dream in which Protestant Britons liberated the oppressed people of the New World.”
    Less reputable historians have pushed the Roanoke story further. For my man Kenneth Hite (writing in jest) and Peter Lamborn Wilson (writing in earnest), Roanoke was a magickal working by the occult imperialists of the School of Nght, an alleged circle of Elizabethan atheists and adepts said to include Raleigh, poet Christopher Marlowe, magus John Dee, andóhow great is thisóone Lord Fernando Strange. Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Wilson says, was propaganda for their imperial aims. The lost colony, Hite proposes, represented an “alchemical marriage” between the “Red King” Powhatan and the “White Queen” Elizabeth to establish a Golden Empire. “The Old World can keep its maternally-inclined wolves and its giant-killing Trojan refugees,” Hite writes. “Occult conspirators built the United States on a foundation of High Weirdness indeed.”
    Of course, sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn’t. What matters most for Wilson (aka the neopagan Sufi anarchist Hakim Bey) is that Raleigh’s plans didn’t succeed. “The very first colony in the New World chose to renounce its contract with Prospero (Dee/Raleigh/Empire) and go over to the Wild Men with Caliban,” he writes. This makes Roanoke the first of Wilson / Bey’s anarchist ideal of “temporary autonomous zones”:
    They dropped out. They became “Indians,” “went native,” opted for chaos over the appalling miseries of serfing for the plutocrats and intellectuals of London. As America came into being Ö Croatan remained embedded in its collective psyche. Out beyond the frontier, the state of Nature (i.e. no State) still prevailedóand within the consciousness of the settlers the option of wildness always lurked, the temptation to give up on Church, farmwork, literacy, taxesóall the burdens of civilizationóand “go to Croatan” in some way or another.
    Ron Sakolsky’s Gone to Croatan: Origins of American Dropout Culture similarly celebrates Roanoke as the taproot of an American dropout counterculture including pirate utopias, glister societies, Great Dismal Maroons, rogue Quakers, Antinomians, Levellers, Diggers, “tri-racial isolates,” black Islamic movements, and hippie communes.
    It’s all more than a bit dodgy, historically speaking, and certainly nothing I’d stake my tenure decision on. But then I wouldn’t stake my hopes of tenure on the legend of the first Thanksgiving either, or the tender tale of John Smith and Pocahantas. We’re talking about founding myths here, usable pasts. And the lost colony is a myth to conjure with, pun intended. It’s a scare story to help cure historical hubris. It’s Morgan’s dream of American freedom without American slavery. It’s the original old, weird America: a founding myth of sufficient strangeness to suggest that America once was and ought to be more than just a corporation or a pious city on a hill. — Robert MacDougall in “Cliopatria Symposium … Jamestown 2007”

About Robert MacDougall

  • “Robert MacDougall’s ‘Turk 182’ brilliantly traversed time and genres to illuminate the abiding fascination with Automata. His use of varied sources, erudition and clear affection for the subject-matter highlights it as the best post of the year.” — Judges comments when Robert MacDougall was awarded the 2005 Cliopatria Award for the best blog post.
  • “A fantastic teacher. Knowledgable, interesting and very helpful.” “Rob has a bright, bright future. Why a Canadian would take so kindly to U.S. history I am uncertain, but we are blessed to have him.”…
    “Robert MacDougall is a dedicated teacher. He goes out of his way to be available to his students … and to instruct and encourage in any way he can. Bravo!”…
    “One of the best teachers I’ve had. He’s knowledgable, nice, helpful, approachable. His comments are insightful and his explanations clear.”
    “Overall Great Prof! If you have a chance to take a course with him do it. He’s young… but he is extremely helpful and gives great feedback on essays!”…
    “Awesome prof. So knowledgeable!”…
    “Rob is a great guy. This class was awesome and really interesting to take. If you can take one of his classes I would definitely recommend it!”…
    “Professor MacDougall did an excellent job leading the class on a thorough, interesting and exciting exploration of America from the Puritans to the present. He left no stone unturned it seemed.”…
    “Professor MacDougall has done an excellent job this year. … One of his greatest strengths lies within his talented ability to respond to student writing. In this sphere, Prof. MacDougall has been vastly superior to any other professor here.” — Anonymous Students

Posted on Sunday, May 13, 2007 at 8:36 PM

Leave a comment


  1. Great history for Robert MacDougall… Honestly, I didn’t know him until I read this article…

    Thanks for sharing his story…

  2. congratulations for this blog. wow! impressive and very informative specially on students and for those who are interested in history, news and political updates.


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