Throughout the history of the United States, Americans have valued and celebrated two key facets of our culture, democracy and technology. Indeed, Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were inventors as well as politicians. Even so, we seldom pause to consider how the interplay between democracy and technology helped shape our national culture and identity.
In celebration of the 300th anniversary of Benjamin Franklin’s birth and in honor of U.Va. founder Thomas Jefferson, three distinguished organizations — the Smithsonian Institution’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Department of Science, Technology and Society and the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello — are sponsoring a two-day conference at the University of Virginia in November, titled “Inventing America: the Interplay of Technology and Democracy in Shaping American Identity.”
The conference, which is free and open to the public, will begin with a panel discussion on Friday, Nov. 3, 5:30 to 7 p.m. in the Dome Room of the Rotunda. A daylong conference follows on Saturday, Nov. 4, from 9 a.m.to 3:45 p.m. in the University’s Harrison Institute/Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library.
“The conference will feature new scholarship, offering diverse perspectives on technology and democracy,” said Art Molella, Lemelson Center director. “Examining the topic from angles of American history, art history, architecture and media studies, we will explore the ways Jefferson, Franklin and their contemporaries viewed technological advancement as integral to the creation of a new form of government and how their views influenced future generations of Americans.”
Hosting the event on U.Va.’s Grounds is particularly fitting as Jefferson, who founded the University of Virginia, was well known for his interest in inventions that he hoped would advance democratic values.
Exploring ethical issues related to technology is also an important focus for the engineering school at Mr. Jefferson’s University.
“We are pleased to co-sponsor this conference,” said James H. Aylor, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science. “One of the hallmarks of this school is our interest in exploring the impact of technology on society. We don’t just create technology here – we think about how it can be used to solve problems and improve the world.”
The conference will kick off Friday evening with a panel examining how Franklin, Jefferson and other leaders in the late 18th century thought about and used technology to establish America as a democratic republic. Two sessions will be held Saturday morning. The first will examine how individual inventors, such as Thomas Paine and Samuel F.B. Morse, wove politics and invention together in the course of their careers. A second morning session will consider how Americans combined art and technology to illustrate democratic beliefs and values. In the final session on Saturday afternoon, panelists will discuss how technology has shaped the practice of democracy and how communications technologies have changed the way that political campaigns and elections are conducted.
All three of the organizations sponsoring the conference have extensive expertise in the area of society and technology. In addition to the Lemelson Center, the University of Virginia engineering school’s Department of Science, Technology and Society (www.tcc.virginia.edu) seeks to advance understanding of the social and ethical dimensions of science and technology. Working with other groups at U.Va., STS is developing a major teaching and research initiative that will explore the interaction of technology and democracy. The Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies (www.monticello.org) promotes the international study of Thomas Jefferson in three ways: by building a network of scholars, teachers and resources, by helping to define new areas of investigation, and by applying new technologies to Jefferson scholarship.
“The ‘Inventing America’ conference will foster and disseminate multidisciplinary scholarship relating to the life, era and legacy of Thomas Jefferson, a key role for our Center,” says Smith Center director Andrew O’Shaughnessy.
For a conference schedule and further information on the program, visit invention.smithsonian.org/events. For other information, including directions to the Harrison Institute and parking availability, please call Vanessa Pace at (434) 924-3425.
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