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Wires, Weapons, & Washing Machines: A Global History of Technology & Society in the Long 20th Century - HIS00125M

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  • Department: History
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Richard Brown
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2020-21

Module summary

Artificial intelligence, online shopping, algorithms, robots, drone warfare, driverless cars – we are constantly told that we live in a high-tech world where technological innovation will inevitably change the ways we live. But is that actually true? Throughout human history people have made grand promises about the changes new technologies would bring: nuclear power was supposed to bring limitless cheap and clean electricity, insecticides were supposed to end world hunger, robots were supposed to steal our jobs (and they still might). Technology has certainly shaped human history – but not always in the ways we might expect.

In this module we will explore history of technology between the late 19th and late 20th centuries, a time when it has been claimed that the world underwent several ¿technological revolutions’, and think critically about the role it has played in recent history – not just in Britain, but globally. After an introductory session in which we consider different ways of thinking about how ‘technologies’ interact with the world, we explore a number of case studies, ranging from the significance of the telegraph in the British Empire, to Second World War scientific battles, to the promises and problems of postwar nuclear power. Through exploring these past innovations, we will examine the interactions between technologies and major historical themes, such as gender, imperialism, power and politics. The focus throughout is on technologies in their historical contexts: what meanings they had to people of the time and how this could change; how these historical and social contexts helped to drive technical developments in particular directions; and the impact that these technologies had on the world, socially, economically, and politically.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching cycle
A Spring Term 2020-21

Module aims

The module aims to:

  • Develop skills of source analysis and interpretation;
  • Assess a range of source material and relevant secondary works; and
  • Develop students’ powers of evidence-based historical argument, both orally and in writing.

Module learning outcomes

After completing this module students should have:

  1. Developed an understanding of the role science and technology has played in the global history of the Long 20th century.
  2. A critical appreciation of the relationship between technology and society, understanding how technologies have not only shaped the world, but were also shaped by the world.
  3. A command of ideas and debates in the scholarly literature about how technologies develop and their role in historical change.
  4. The ability to analyse a range of primary source materials in order to think critically about the impact of technology in a variety of historical contexts.

Module content

This module will be co-convened by Dr Richard Brown and Dr Thomas Lean.

Teaching Programme:

Students will attend eight weekly two-hour seminars in weeks 2-9.

The provisional outline for the module is as follows:

  1. Overview session: Technology and the world.
  2. Empire: how the telegraph shaped British imperialism.
  3. Gender: the domestication and gendering of household technologies.
  4. War: the myth of the winning weapon.
  5. Information: computers and prophesies of the future.
  6. Nuclear weapons: the global politics of nuclear weapons development.
  7. Nuclear power: clean energy or the shadow of Chernobyl?
  8. Conclusion session: Technology and the future.




Task Length % of module mark
Essay 4,000 words
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

Students will complete a 2,000-word procedural essay for formative assessment, due in week 6 of the spring term, for which they will receive an individual tutorial. They will then submit a 4,000-word assessed essay for summative assessment in week 1 of the summer term.

For further details about assessed work, students should refer to the Taught Masters Degrees Statement of Assessment.


Task Length % of module mark
Essay 4,000 words
N/A 100

Module feedback

Following their formative assessment task, students will receive written feedback consisting of comments and a mark within 10 working days of submission. All students are encouraged, if they wish, to discuss the feedback on their procedural work during their tutor’s student hours. For more information, see the Statement on Feedback.

For the summative assessment task, students will receive their provisional mark and written feedback within 20 working days of the submission deadline. The tutor will then be available during student hours for follow-up guidance if required. For more information, see the Statement of Assessment.

Indicative reading

For term time reading, please refer to the module VLE site. Before the course starts, we encourage you to look at the following items of preliminary reading:

  1. MacKenzie, Donald, and Wajcman, Judy, (eds). The Social Shaping of Technology. Buckingham: Open University Press, 1999.
  2. Edgerton, David. The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900.  London: Profile Books, 2011.
  3. Hecht, Gabrielle. Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2012.

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.