University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota: Department of Mechanical Engineering


Jennifer Alexander

Associate Professor

Office: 325D Mechanical Engineering
Phone: 612-626-7309


Ph.D. 1996, History, University of Washigton
M.A. 1990, B.S. 1988, History, University of Wyoming


I am a cultural historian with a special interest in modern industrial Europe. I believe historical study offers a tool for uncovering and critically examining the technological orthodoxies that increasingly dominate life in advanced societies, and it is from Europe that these technological orthodoxies have grown. By nature I dislike orthodoxies. While they create complex and powerful technological systems, they also impose dogmas and require conformity. The great orthodoxies that come first to mind were religious: the Catholic Church supposedly so threatened by Galileo, or strict protestant practices in Reformation Geneva under John Calvin. Modern society moved away from those orthodoxies into an orthodoxy of science and the power of free inquiry, and, more recently, into an orthodoxy of technology. The orthodoxy of technology expects conformity not at the level of knowledge or understanding, but at the level of what people do in everyday life. They must build, buy, and use more and more things and, to make that possible, they must behave in an industrial way, keeping themselves under constant scrutiny, watching the time, assessing their talents, always planning for their role in the workforce and workplace of the future. History gives a way to analyze and critique this orthodoxy. I have devoted my recent work to examining the orthodoxy of efficiency, a central component of modern industrial society. My recent book, The Mantra of Efficiency: From Waterwheel to Social Control (Johns Hopkins 2008) examines how people appealed to efficiency in order to extend to other people the dogmas of control that are commonplace and acceptable with machines. Mantra of Efficiency was awarded the 2010 Edelstein Prize of the Society for the History of Technology for outstanding book in the field.

My current book project, “Technology and Belief”, examines the intersection of technology and religion. The historical relationship between science and religion has been extensively studied, but similar work on the history of technology and religion has been sparse. I have begun research on connections between theologians and engineers who were part of ecumenical programs at the World Council of Churches in Europe following the Second World War. At the moment I am analyzing the contributions of prominent theologian Walter Eichrodt and Jacques Ellul, lay theologian and celebrated critic of technology Jacques Ellul. Ellul has for some time been a controversial figure in the history and philosophy of technology. This project investigates the juncture of technological and theological orthodoxies in a time of political and social tension.

I am also preparing another book manuscript, “Sport and Work”, which analyzes the growth of the international human biomechanics movement in the period from 1925 through 1960. It was during this period when eminence in the field switched from German researchers to American ones, largely as a result of German defeat in the Second World War. The history of biomechanics is little understood, and its connections to both labor productivity and sports performance have not yet been investigated. The history of human biomechanics shows how technological research was connected to personal experience, because it influenced how managers, coaches, athletes, and working people understood their bodies, and, more fundamentally, how they moved. It is a history of the intersection of technology and the personal body.

Undergraduate Teaching

HSci 1714/3714, Stone Tools to the Steam Engine
HSci 1715/3715, Waterwheels to the Web
HSem 3530, Honors Seminar, From Golem to Robot to Cyborg: Artificial People in History
HSci 3401, Ethics in Science and Technology

Graduate Seminars:

Theories of Technological Change (Fall 2009) syllabus (pdf)
The Iron Maiden: Technology, Coercion, and the Body (Spring 2008) syllabus (doc)
Industrial Revolutions to 1850 (Spring 2006) syllabus (pdf)
Technology and Religion: Historical Encounters (in development)