ES.272 | Spring 2003 | Undergraduate
Culture Tech

U.S. Cars and Engines


Our national flower is the concrete cloverleaf.

- Lewis Mumford

The Automobiles and Engines Module is about applying our discussions of appropriate technologies and of the interplay between technology and culture to our own culture. The car is a relatively recent invention which reached its height of cultural saturation within our grandparent’s generation. Since then, while the awareness of the role of cars in society has diminished, their impact has continued to grow.

The car is actually a system of interdependent mechanical technologies, within a larger system of interdependent social technologies. In taking apart an engine, we try to gain an appreciation for the precision engineering and innovative solutions that go into it. At the same time, we attempt to take apart the cultural ramifications of the car — including how it changed food, courtship, coming of age, and the city.

Today, the car is again a subject of debate. The rise of the car has come with endless problems, and yet a number of social and political forces have ensured its adoption. With the rise in gas prices, greater awareness of global warming, and the advent of new communication technologies, people are changing how they use cars and public transportation. At the same time, as we develop better planning technology, cities are re-thinking how to place limits on this technology.


17 Early history of the automobile

Flower, Raymond, and Michael Jones. “The Self-Propelled Dream.” Chapter 1 in 100 Years on the Road: A Social History of the Car. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 1981, pp. 8-19. ISBN: 9780070327849.

Cowam, Ruth Schwartz. “Automobiles and Automobility.” Chapter 10 in A Social History of American Technology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 224-232. ISBN: 9780195046052.

18 Engine design and engineering

Bryant, Lynwood. “The Origin of the Automobile Engine.” In Rochlin, Gene I. Scientific Technology and Social Change: Readings from Scientific American. San Francisco, CA: W. H. Freeman, 1974, pp. 106-115. Originally published in Scientific American 216 (1967): 102-112. ISBN: 9780716705000.

Revell, Inc. “How an Auto Engine Works: An Illustrated Guide to the Visible V-8 Engine Assembly Kit.” Des Plaines, IL: Revell, 1987.

19 Suburbanization Jackson, Kenneth T. “The New Age of Automobility,” (optional) “Suburban Development between the Wars,” and “The Baby Boom” and the Age of Subdivision." (required) Chapters 9, 10 and 13 in Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1985, pp. 157-171, 172-189 and 231-245. ISBN: 9780195036107. (PDF)
20 American rites of passage

van Gennep, Arnold. The Rites of Passage. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1960, pp. 2-4, 10-11, 26 and 191-194.

Licht, M. “Some Automotive Play Activities of Suburban Teenagers.” New York Folklore Quarterly 30 (March 1974): 44-65.

Pettifer, Julian, and Nigel Turner. “The Car and Courtship.” In Automania: Man and the Motorcar. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1984, pp. 180-199. ISBN: 9780316703710. (optional)

21 Fast food and American culture

Reiter, Ester. “Modern Times in the Hamburger Business.” Chapter 6 in Making Fast Food: From the Frying Pan into the Fryer. Montreal, Canada: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1996, pp. 111-129. ISBN: 9780773513877.

Witzel, Michael Karl. “Birthplace of the Hamburger,” “Hamburger Architecture,” “Splendor of the Soda fountains,” “Immoral Sodas and Sundaes,” (required) “Bob’s Big Boy Burger,” “The Trouble with French Fries,” “From Fish Brine to Ketchup,” “Story of the Coca-Cola Classic,” and “The Story of Carbonated Water.” (optional) In The American Drive-In. Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1994. ISBN: 9780879389192.

22 Scientific thinking, Zen, and motorcycles

Pirsig, Robert. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1974, Ch. 8 and Ch. 29, pp. 89-98, 347-353 (required) and 296-319 (optional). ISBN: 9780553148527.

23 Cultural change and progress

Cottrell, W. F. “Death by Dieselization: A Case Study in the Reaction to Technology Change.” American Sociological Review 16 (June 1951): 358–365.

Sharp, Lauriston. “Steel Axes for Stone-Age Australians.” Human Organization 11 (Summer 1952): 17-22. (optional)



The lab for the car module is to take apart a single-cylinder go-cart engine, and put it back together so that it works. These are precision instruments with a large number of parts, so students must be careful to catalog and keep safe everything as they disassemble it, but also to understand how each part of the engine works both individually and as a part of the whole.

Course Info
As Taught In
Spring 2003