Messaging Gendered Lessons About Maintenance: Farm Equipment, Domestic Appliances, and University Expertise

One of the issues we have been thinking a lot about in The Maintainers is the creation and diffusion of maintenance best practices, or put another way, *innovation-in-maintenance*. Today, we are re-posting one of our favorite papers from the Maintainers II conference, Amy Sue Bix's "Messaging Gendered Lessons about Maintenance." Bix is the author of Inventing Ourselves Out of Jobs?: America's Debate Over Technological Unemployment, 1929–1981 and Girls Coming to Tech!: A History of American Engineering Education for Women, two books that everyone should be reading given contemporary debates about robot-driven unemployment and women in the tech world. In "Managing Gendered Lessons about Maintenance," Bix shows how Land Grant universities diffused maintenance thinking and practices to ordinary citizens and how thoroughly gendered those lessons were.

Histories of technology have often explored innovation at U.S. universities – early computers developed at Penn, Harvard, and elsewhere; masers at Columbia, new crop varieties, medical devices, and more. That invention focus hides another history, universities’ vital role in teaching, investigating, and promoting maintenance. In particular, maintenance became institutionally essential at land-grant schools, given their mission emphasizing public economic and social well-being. As a case-study, this paper shows the historic significance of maintenance in Iowa State teaching, research, and extension. As broadly true of late-nineteenth and much twentieth-century education, the culture of maintenance expertise displayed a clear gender divide. Principles of education credited both men and women with the ability to master important technical questions, but in distinctly separate spheres of knowledge and work. Given the short time here, I focus on two sets of examples: how Iowa State taught, investigated, and popularized maintenance knowledge for men in farm mechanization, and for women in textile care.

Established in 1858, the Iowa State College of Agricultural and Mechanic Arts expanded under the 1862 Morrill Act. Trustees aimed to train young men as “successful, intelligent and practical farmers and mechanics” and to help young women “acquire by practice a thorough knowledge of the art of conducting a well-regulated household." Under state legislation and 1914’s Smith-Lever Act, the school mounted an increasing range of extension activities targeted to men and women statewide.

Maintenance lessons represented a central component of teaching in Iowa State’s core colleges – agriculture and engineering for men, home-economics for women. Jay Davidson, who headed the Department of Agricultural Engineering for over thirty years, prioritized concrete knowledge and hands-on experience. 1923’s curriculum included “practical farm mechanics,” teaching “use of farm shop tools in repair and maintenance of equipment.” Other courses covered farm carpentry, advanced forge work, plus the ”operation, adjustment, and care” of farm motors, gas engines, tractors, horticultural machines, and dairy equipment. Davidson wrote, “The average undergraduate… cannot expect… to become a skilled mechanic… [but] a fair knowledge of good practice… will enable him to perform many important mechanical operations of the farm.” In his 1920 textbook, Farm Machinery and Farm Motors, Davidson wrote, “Many instances are on record where farmers have kept tools in constant use by good care for more than twice the average life of the machine…. Sentiment ought to be such that the man who does not take good care of his machinery will be placed in the same class as the man who does not take good care of his livestock.” Davidson advised future farmers to protect machinery by painting it, storing it under shelter, and setting up a tagging system to track necessary repairs. He argued that even the smallest farms should invest in a shop, to save time by doing onsite repairs, since ”a delay of a few hours means a loss of many dollars in wasted crops.” Davidson listed thirty tools – saws, chisels, planes, and forging apparatus – that he recommended all farmers own.

Across campus, Iowa State home-ec courses positioned women as intelligent, informed technology users. As I describe elsewhere, female faculty required students to literally take apart refrigerators and stoves, learning to repair wires, replace fuses, and handle kitchen appliances with self-reliant confidence.  My case-study here traces a different home-ec focus, caring for clothing. Louise Peet, Helen Van Zante, and other staff taught students to understand and apply scientifically-based knowledge of laundering textiles. Peet’s multiple-edition text Household Equipment explained the ingredients and action of different detergents, bleaches, and fabric softeners.  It covered solutions for yellowing, graying, and other problems of doing laundry in water with high alkalinity, turbidity, discoloration, dissolved minerals, or pH imbalance. Exercises asked students to “compare lingerie washed and dried by hand to some done in the automatic washer and dryer,” to “set up a method of laundering curtains, drapes, bedspreads, blankets, and rugs,” and to “discuss how to reduce service needs on a washer and dryer.”

In both the ag-engineering and home-ec programs, faculty and grad students conducted extensive research on maintenance issues. For example, a 1960 master’s thesis by Stephen Marley documented multiple equipment failures on an Iowa case-study farm: manure-spreader breakdowns, self-unloading wagons that refused to unload, hay machines that failed to tie bales, and more. For her 1951 home-ec master’s thesis, Velma Williams performed 160 test washes to gauge the effectiveness of rinsing cloth once vs. twice, in hard vs. soft water, and at different temperatures.

Extension programs translated maintenance-related research into terms ordinary Iowans could use. Ag-engineering experts set up state-fair demonstrations, short-courses, and other programs to talk about issues and ideal practices in farm-equipment operation, care, and repair. Outreach by Iowa State home-ec faculty and extension agents included a radio program, “The Homemakers’ Half Hour.” Broadcasts during World War II emphasized the patriotic value of making clothes last “for the duration.” Given the lack of silk stockings, one show advised listeners to make the best of cotton hosiery by learning the best washing and drying techniques. With shortages of elastic, experts told women to use mild soap and lukewarm water in “taking good care of the girdles you have, [to] make them last longer.” Wartime suggestions to “exercise extra care in handling” felt hats advised patting them on, rather than tugging at the brim.

Postwar extension continued praising attention to maintenance as signifying a virtue,  responsibility. A series of 1960s conferences sought “to assist homemakers to increase their knowledge of how to use resources wisely, in application of principles related to clothing care.”  A 1965 two-day “Home Laundry Conference” featured talks on fabric labels, equipment service, and water-quality problems. Announcements promised attendees, “There will be a mountain – well, not quite – of detergents, bleaches, softeners, whiteners and starches… [to] help you decide ‘which is best for me.’” The National Cotton Council and companies such as Sears, Monsanto, and Maytag set up displays, appreciating the publicity opportunity. In a style show for “wash and wear garments,” 4H girls modeled identical blouses, skirts, and jackets, one set new and the other repeatedly worn, “to show [whether] the garments have stood washing well.”

 Speaking at a 1966 “laundry management conference,” Iowa State professor Jane Saddler called for reorienting “thinking in care of clothing.” Americans “expect garments [to] maintain their original size, shape…color and texture,” she said, “but most clothing [is] not purchased with the idea of how to retain appearance.” Too many women “have not developed skill in ironing, nor are they much interested in doing so,” she complained, though conceding that “often garments are so constructed that pressing them is difficult.”  Saddler said that caring for clothes “requires knowledge of the textile – fiber content, yarn, fabric structure, finishes, and how the garment is made. One also needs to know about laundry aids and appliances,” especially as multicomponent fabrics, foam laminates, and flame-retardant material made care harder.

Extension publications represented a resource for Iowans to consult as needed, giving specific steps to remove sweat, oil, ink, paint, rust, mildew, grease, tea, chocolate, blood, lipstick, and more.  One pamphlet advised, “Stains are like some people, they grow stubborn with age… [so] tackle [one] the moment it occurs… Stains are like people in another way; they become contrary if you give them the wrong treatment….  If you pour boiling water through [berry stains], they quickly disappear, but if soap is used, they are… almost impossible.”  Professors Jane Farrell and Sara Kadolph wrote specialized bulletins on preserving wedding gowns and antique quilts. Drawing on ISU research, a 1984 pamphlet on “What to do when clothes are soiled with pesticide” advised double-rinsing, line-drying to avoid contaminating the dryer, and running an empty hot-water cycle to clean the washer before resuming normal use.

Twenty-first-century Iowa State has continued to prioritize maintenance as worthy of attention both inside and outside classrooms. Every spring, the Ag-Systems Tech Club offers routine lawnmower service, and every fall, the same student group changes snowblower sparkplugs, oil, and filters. Such traditions highlight the long history of maintenance as part of land-grant institution service, teaching, and research. Maintenance-related college work both reflected and reasserted gender boundaries; male ag-engineering majors learned to trouble-shoot farm machinery, while female home-ec students learned laundry strategies and clothing care. But though they addressed different audiences, male ag-engineering and female home-ec experts shared key principles. Both groups insisted that the modern pace of technological change made the challenge of maintaining farm and home equipment ever more complex. Both groups viewed questions surrounding maintenance as important enough to deserve sustained scientific study in academic labs. Both groups prioritized translating that knowledge into practical advice, both for undergraduate classes and a state-wide general audience.  Glory, celebratory headlines, and big grant money might increasingly go to biotech, computer advances, and pursuit of other high-profile innovations. Yet from the mid-nineteenth-century to today, land-grant schools such as Iowa State maintained a faith in the study and promotion of maintenance.

Flipping the Script on How We Talk about Maintenance

In The Maintainers, we continue to be interested in companies working in the maintenance and repair space. Over the last few years, we've found a number of interesting young firms that are using digital technologies to transform maintenance practices. Today's blog post is by Jes Ellacott, a writer and content specialist with Fiix, a maintenance management software company that is revolutionizing how thousands of organizations worldwide schedule, organize, and track maintenance. For this piece, she sat down with Marc Castel, CEO of Fiix to understand the disconnect between how most people view maintenance, and the reality of the industry at this point in time.


“The case for maintenance it seems to me is overwhelming,” said Larry Summers, a Harvard economics professor and former Secretary of the Treasury, in a discussion at the Brookings Institute this past January,

He cites the American Society of Civil Engineers, which estimates that poorly maintained roads cost car owners an extra $2.3 billion in the State of Massachusetts alone. This extrapolates to over $100 billion for the United States as a whole.

“It is inconceivable to me that fixing that is not an investment with an extraordinarily high rate of return,” says Summers.

It is inconceivable. And yet, despite knowing that prevention is cheaper and deferred maintenance is a massive debt burden, there is still very little incentive to maintain.

“All of the incentives for all of the actors are against maintenance. Nobody ever named a maintenance project, nobody ever got recognized for a maintenance project, nobody ever got blamed for deferring maintenance during the time while they were in office. And so all of the incentives are to defer maintenance,” says Summers.

We see examples like this again and again. Strikingly few incentives to run maintenance, and a disconnect between failing to maintain something and the repercussions when it finally breaks down.

Professors Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel of The Maintainers point to an undervaluing of maintenance in favour of shinier, newer innovation as the root cause of this pervasive run-to-failure mentality, and pose one central question: How do we raise the profile of maintenance and maintainers in a world that would much rather replace than repair?

Maintenance has an image problem

Part of the problem comes down to how we talk about maintenance. All too often maintenance is seen as the thing that happens after something breaks, and maintainers are seen only as the people who carry out the repairs—not very much thought is given to all the work it takes to keep everything running.

“Maintenance is the lifeblood of our entire civilization. Everything needs to be maintained, and it takes all kinds of resources to do it. But who’s out on the rooftop shouting about it? Nobody, until the power grid collapses,” says Marc Castel, CEO of Fiix

Castel says that the way to change how we see, value, and reward those that keep our society working is not to pit maintenance against innovation, but to align the two by highlighting how the maintenance industry is leveraging today’s most cutting-edge technology.

He looks to AI as just one example here. In the past, predictive maintenance was based on very thin data and educated guesses. Now, more and more maintenance organizations are leveraging AI to map trends and match patterns to known outcomes, in order to accurately predict failures.

“The maintenance industry has been an early and enthusiastic adopter of AI because the industry generates an insane amount of structured and unstructured data, which is perfect for AI and deep machine learning,” says Castel.

“So instead of saying the maintenance guys are keeping the lights on so my computers can run and do interesting science, we’re actually saying that the interesting science is supporting the maintenance guys in keeping the lights on,” he says.

Suddenly, the antiquated imagery of maintainers is replaced by a new image—that of tech-savvy people using cutting-edge technologies to solve complex data problems, so they can accurately predict failures well before they ever happen. The latter is certainly a more compelling and realistic image in our tech-focused world. It also highlights the potential of predictive and preventive maintenance (rather than painting maintenance as a solely reactive concept) and invites a new breed of maintainers to engage in exciting, well-paid careers that play critical roles in society.

It’s a small tweak, which might seem woefully simple at first. But as Larry Summers pointed out, financial incentives have so far failed to woo policymakers and businesses to the side of prevention. So maybe flipping the script on how we talk about maintenance, and focusing on how maintainers are using today’s most exciting new technologies will be the key to driving home the overwhelming case for maintenance.

A Letter to POTUS on Infrastructure

Today, we are excited to republish something originally posted in January 2017 over at the Strong Towns blog, "A Letter to POTUS on Infrastructure," by Charles Marohn. When we first read Marohn's letter, we found it both shocking and insightful, particularly in describing how the United States' federal system (of federal, state, county, and local governments) currently leads to perverse infrastructure problems. As Marohn writes, "For nearly every American city, the ongoing cost to service, maintain and replace [infrastructure] exceeds not only the available cash flow but the actual wealth that is created." Charles Marohn is an engineer, city planner, and Founder and President of Strong Towns, an organization that advocates for a model of development that allows America's cities, towns and neighborhoods to grow financially strong and resilient. He is the author of Thoughts on Building Strong Towns — Volume 1 and Volume 2 — as well as A World Class Transportation System and the host of the Strong Towns Podcast. Learn more at


Dear Mr. President,

I am writing you on behalf of our Board of Directors and our membership regarding a potential surge in federal infrastructure spending. At Strong Towns, we have developed a unique understanding that allows us to speak with a level of clarity on this issue. Our supporters have no financial interest in whether or not more federal money is spent on infrastructure; our mission is to advocate for ways those investments can make our cities stronger.

To borrow a real estate term, America's infrastructure is a non-performing asset. For nearly every American city, the ongoing cost to service, maintain and replace it exceeds not only the available cash flow but the actual wealth that is created.

For example, we did a deep financial study of the city of Lafayette, Louisiana. We found that the city had public infrastructure -- roads, streets, sewer, water, drainage -- with a replacement cost of $32 billion. In comparison, the total tax base of Lafayette is just $16 billion. Imagine building a $250,000 home and needing an additional $500,000 in infrastructure to support it. This seems incredible. But not only is it common, it is the default for cities across America.

This imbalance is caused by incentives we embed in our current approach. When the federal government pays for a new interchange or the extension of utilities, local governments gladly accept that investment. The city, while spending little to no money of their own, has an immediate cash benefit from the jobs, permit fees and added tax base. The only thing the local government must do is promise to maintain the new infrastructure, a bill that won't come due for decades.

Here's the catch: when we look at that bill, our cities almost always can't pay it. Cities never run a return-on-investment analysis that includes replacement costs. Cities never even compute the tax base needed to financially sustain the investment. There's no incentive to do it and every reason not to.

In psychological terms, this is called temporal discounting. The people running local governments, as well as the people they serve, have the natural human tendency to highly value free money today and deeply discount, if not altogether dismiss, the financial burden these projects will create in the future. We've been building infrastructure this way for two generations. We have created a lot of short term growth, but we've also created trillions of dollars of non-performing assets, infrastructure investments that are slowly bankrupting our cities, towns, and neighborhoods.

The fundamental insolvency of our infrastructure investments is the root cause of the pension crisis and the explosion in municipal debt. It is the real reason why our infrastructure is not being maintained. New growth is easy and comes with all kinds of cash incentives. Maintenance is difficult and has little upside. Cities with huge maintenance backlogs still prioritize system expansion because they are chasing the short-term cash benefits of new growth, even at the expense of their future solvency.

What do we do today? To paraphrase former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, we're going to make investments in infrastructure with the systems we have, not the ones we wish we had. There are ways to get better results now.

  • We need to prioritize maintenance over new capacity. With so many non-performing assets, it's irresponsible to build additional capacity. Project proposers will try to add additional capacity with their maintenance projects. If it is truly warranted, it can and should be funded locally. Cities need to discover ways to turn such investments into positive ROI projects, a process the federal government can only impede.
  • We must prioritize small projects over large. Small projects not only spread the wealth, they have much greater potential for positive returns with far lower risk. Large projects exceed their budgets more often and with greater severity -- dollars and percentage -- than smaller projects. A thousand projects of a million dollars or less have far more financial upside than a single billion-dollar project ever will. It's administratively easier to do fewer, big projects, but that is a bureaucratic temptation we need to overcome.
  • We should spend far more below ground than above. Many of our sewer and water systems are approaching 100 years old. When these core pipes fail, the problems cascade throughout the system. Technology may soon dramatically change how we use our roads and streets making investments in expansion there obsolete, but water and sewer will still flow through pipes as it has for thousands of years. We should spend at least $5 below ground for every $1 we spend above.
  • We should prioritize neighborhoods more than 75 years old. We've modeled hundreds of cities across the country and in every one the neighborhoods with the highest investment potential are the ones that existed before World War II. These are established places where small investments have a huge impact. Most investments in neighborhoods built after World War II are simply bailouts, pouring good money after bad.
  • Small maintenance projects focusing on below ground infrastructure in old, established neighborhoods have the greatest potential for positive returns. These projects will put people to work, create jobs and fix failing infrastructure as well as, if not better than, the large expansion projects currently in the shovel ready backlog. These are also the kind of projects that get private capital off the sidelines and back to work building wealth in our communities. In addition, while we understand that a surge in infrastructure spending is not going to wait for systematic reform, there are some modest -- yet transformative -- reforms we can make as part of this process.
  • Require states and municipalities receiving funds to do accrual accounting. Governments must have a real accounting of their long-term liabilities, including infrastructure, on their balance sheet. The days of fake financial statements that ignore government's long term promises needs to end.
  • Require municipalities to account for infrastructure as an accruing liability instead of a depreciating asset. Cities have an obligation to maintain infrastructure. It's improper to pretend infrastructure is an asset that loses value as it ages. Like pensions, infrastructure is an inter-generational promise that is properly accounted for as a liability.
  • Require project applicants to do a financial return on investment. Many federal programs currently require an ROI analysis, but the emphasis is on non-monetary, social returns. These are fine as secondary criteria, but infrastructure projects need to make financial sense. Municipalities must know what kind of revenue stream is needed to maintain an infrastructure investment over multiple life cycles.

Finally, we believe you should consider the channels through which federal funds are distributed. There is strong evidence to suggest that working directly with mayors to fund local projects creates the greatest potential for innovation as well as the highest fiscal returns. Money given directly to state transportation departments should have a heavy emphasis on maintenance. We would avoid funding counties and other regional entities which, we have found, tend to build the lowest-returning of all infrastructure projects. 

Thank you for your consideration. If we can be of assistance to you or your team in this matter, please do not hesitate to contact me.


Charles L. Marohn, Jr. PE AICP

Professional Engineer, Certified Planner

Founder and President of Strong Towns

"Success as 'Failure': Historians, Engineers, and Maintaining the Erie Canal"

This week, we have been thinking a great deal about the relationship between infrastructure, maintenance, and natural environments and landscapes. The historian of technology Ann Norton Greene told one of our favorite stories about this nexus at the first Maintainers conference in April 2016. Greene's story focuses on the Erie Canal, which was constructed between 1817 and 1825 and runs across the state of New York. As Greene writes, "Most people know what the Erie Canal is, but ask someone if the Canal is still in operation and chances are the answer will be no." In this way, Greene offers a long-view history of the maintenance and use of—and the forming of environments and landscapes around—an iconic infrastructure, which many people don't even realize still exists.


Americans have always been proud of creating new infrastructures, but less enthusiastic
about maintaining them; we are now at a point where most of our national infrastructure is in
trouble. Googling the phrase “infrastructure crisis” produces dozens of results. In 2013, the
American Society of Civil Engineers issued a report card on America’s infrastructure in 2013. In
sixteen categories of infrastructure, grades ranged from one B- (Good) to D- (Poor). Eleven out
of sixteen grades were in the D range, and four were in the C range (Mediocre) for an overall
GPA of D+. As a nation, maintainers we are not.

For those of us who see themselves as “maintainers,” the stakes are high. We cannot get
out of this mess doing the same things that got us into it; for historians, this means being looking
at how historians have written about infrastructure—what they focus on, how they talk about it
and whom they write for—and doing what we can to change it. We often cede the field to
popularizers who emphasize innovation and invention, promote technological determinism, and
marginalize maintaining in American history.

I offer the Erie Canal as an example of how this happens. The Erie Canal is one of the
most successful infrastructures in American history—yet ends up being described as a failure in
the historical literature. How did success become failure?

Most people know what the Erie Canal is, but ask someone if the Canal is still in
operation and chances are the answer will be no. I have posed this question to professional
historians, grad students, undergraduates, relatives, history buffs, casual acquaintances, and,
most recently, my guitar teacher. When I ask why they said no, more often than not they answer,
“because of the railroads.” When I say that the Erie Canal is still in operation, they are surprised,
and sometimes incredulous. “Why?” they ask. “What for? It’s obsolete.” They believe this
because all the literature tells them so.

An overview of Erie Canal history:
The Erie Canal was constructed by the State of New York between Albany on the
Hudson River and Buffalo on Lake Erie. It replaced slow, laborious, and expensive overland
travel with a fast, cheap, and direct water route between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean.
It provided access to the Ohio River valley and the upper Midwest, opening those regions for
settlement and development. It funneled commerce away from Lake Ontario and Montreal to
New York City, leapfrogging that city ahead of its seaboard rivals in size and importance. It
created an urban industrial swath across upstate New York, accelerated agricultural decline and
industrial growth in New England, and promoted the development of Northern sectional identity
along an east-west axis. The Canal was an immediate financial success, and toll revenue
recouped the cost of construction within twelve years.

In addition to its political and economic effects, the canal in of itself was a spectacular
physical achievement—the original canal was 363 miles long, forty feet wide and four feet deep,
dug with picks, shovels, plows, scrapers, human muscle, and draft animals. It comprised a farflung
infrastructure that included eighty-three locks, eighteen aqueducts, and more than 350
culverts, plus towpaths, feeder canals, canal basins, side cuts, cross bridges, waste weirs, escape
hatches, weigh locks, and some innovative engineering solutions.

Heavy traffic lead to the original Erie Canal being widened, deepened and straightened
during the 1840s and 1850s, and the system expanded with the construction of nine lateral canals
that extended a canal network across upstate New York. This version is called the Enlarged Erie.
In the early 20th century, between 1905 and 1918, the state rebuilt the Erie Canal as a Barge
Canal, larger, deeper, and re-routed to utilize rivers and lakes. It handles both recreational and
commercial traffic, though the latter peaked in the 1970s.

The Erie Canal has been in continuous operation for 191 years, and the vast majority of
the literature addresses the first thirty years. Every year, more new books tell the story of the
Erie’s invention, construction and immediate impact. A quick scan of Library of Congress
holdings shows ten books on the building of the canal in the last five years (many of them for
juveniles—in the way that older technologies get infantilized). In the last ten years there have
been two popular trade histories about the construction of the Erie Canal, Peter Bernstein’s
Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation (2005) and Gerald T.
Koeppel’s Bond of Union: Building the Erie Canal and the American Empire (2009).
The politics, construction and success of the first Erie Canal make a great story, one that
has all the components of our favorite stories—it has a quest (build an impossible canal) heroes
(young Americans) older wise men (DeWitt Clinton) obstacles and setbacks (money, politics,
natural forces and geography) a higher power (an invincible can-do American spirit of progress)
and happy resolution. It is, in short, Star Wars.

In contrast, there is virtually no literature about the canal after 1860. In the postbellum
period, the “gateway” role of the Erie Canal diminishes, and it drops out of the national narrative.
It becomes a different kind of story. But for most historians, it becomes merely a technological
artifact, a mode of transportation. The Canal then falls victim to what Robert Fogel named “the
hegemony of the railroads” as default explanations of historical change in the nineteenth century.
Historians write that the Canal lost business to the railroads, couldn’t compete, and got put out of
business. The canals, which had been such a good idea earlier in the century, were now a terrible
idea—the Erie Canal represented a sad or foolish adherence to an obsolete technology. Mark
Twain once wrote that the surest way to convey misinformation is to tell the strict truth, and this
applies to saying that the railroads put the Canal out of business. The railroads certainly hurt the
Canal—but it did not necessarily have to hurt the Canal. The relationship between the railroads
and the Erie Canal was complicated, highly contingent, complementary, and surprising. There is
a lack of symmetry in how the Canal and the railroads are viewed. The Canal is described as
corruptly managed, poorly constructed, and poorly maintained—in contrast of course to the
railroads, those paragons of business and engineering virtue.

In short, the maintenance of a far-flung riparian infrastructure composed of several
hundred miles of canal and dozens of small structures, has become a story of failure. Too many
histories promote the value that the flip side of innovation is obsolescence.
The problem is that the politics, construction and success of the first Erie Canal make a
great story, one that has all the components of our favorite stories—it has a quest (build an
impossible canal) heroes (young Americans) older wise men (DeWitt Clinton) obstacles and
setbacks (money, politics, natural forces and geography) a higher power (an invincible can-do
American spirit of progress) and happy resolution. It is, in short, Star Wars. But after the victory
celebration, the Rebel Alliance has got to get down to some serious governing. It is too easy to
come up with images of invention and innovation—the photograph of the driving of the golden
spike in the transcontinental railroad comes to mind. What we need to provide are images of

My image is David Whitford. David Whitford worked as an engineer on the Erie Canal
system from the 1850s into the twentieth century, and he kept a diary every day for most of the
years, so we know something about what he did. He grew up on a farm near Saratoga Springs,
and came to Syracuse in 1852, as a young man in his early twenties, to work in the Canal office
apprenticing on the job. Sometimes he is out in the field, putting down stakes, taking
measurements--of towpaths, bridge abutments, muck, and excavations—and sometimes in the
office calculating the amounts and costs of materials needed. There is a rhythm to it—lots of
fieldwork, followed by days in the office turning field notes and measurements into plans and
estimates. Water, appropriately, is the theme of Whitford’s diaries and the annual reports of the
State Engineer –engineers spend their time trying to keep the right water contained in the Canal,
and the wrong water out of the canal. The work is constant, with projects lasting a long time.
The engineers move around the area a lot. Whitford will leave home early on the train, take a
steamboat up one of the finger lakes, travel by horse and buggy to a site on the Canal, walk back
down the Canal checking the condition of towpath and locks on the way, and catch a ride home
on a freight train.

Whitford’s movements remind me that the Erie Canal system was not just a technological
artifact, but part of an envirotechnical system. The Canal created a new landscape, a new second
nature, and was in complementary relationship with roads and railroads. This suggests to me that
we might want to frame the issue of maintaining by using environmental history methodology
and focusing on preservation of landscapes. Thinking of infrastructures in terms of technology
opens the door to powerful cultural ideas about technology—determinism, “one best way”,
innovation and obsolescence--that all work against maintaining. But people don’t believe that
landscapes become obsolete; Americans get landscape preservation, they don’t see environments in terms of innovation.

My concern is large-scale physical infrastructures, and there are other kinds of
maintaining for which this methodology would not necessarily work—software systems for
example. Which reminds me that we should think about how to keep the concept of
“maintaining” from becoming a simple opposite to “innovation.”

The Reliability Challenge: Maintenance in the Broader Context of High Reliabilty Organizations

Today's blog post is by Paul R. Schulman, a Senior Research Fellow at University of California, Berkeley's Center for Catastrophic Risk Management. Paul originally wrote these ideas in response to Andy Russell's and Lee Vinsel's New York Times op-ed. We found Paul's reflections, which draw on work he and his colleagues have been doing for years, to be really insightful and they have been informing our thinking and wider projects ever since.

Professors Andy Russell and Lee Vinsel raise an important point in their July 22 New York Times Sunday Review article, "Let's Get Excited About Maintenance!" Maintenance attention and financing may indeed be a distant priority in many organizations compared to innovation, with its exciting promise of new services and the achievement of market advantages over competitors.

But undervaluing maintenance is really a piece of a larger problem: a weak commitment to reliability -- in services, in maintenance work itself and, most importantly, in avoiding catastrophic failure in key infrastructures on which we are increasingly dependent. My colleagues and I at the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at the University of California, Berkeley have been studying lapses in reliability across many organizations for many years. But the undervalue of reliability is not simply a result of the romance of innovation in these organizations. (In fact a number of them are not too excited about innovation either.)

One problem we have seen widely in play is that reliability doesn't have a measurable value in comparison with competing values in modern organizations. Reliability is in essence about the failures and accidents that don't happen. How do you measure that value in comparison with a new building or a new technology that can be seen and that adds something new to capacity, output or sales? It might be argued that prevention of a costly failure is the value of reliability -- the dog that doesn't bark is providing a valuable silence. And, of course people and organizations do buy insurance against a future accident. But insurance does not prevent accidents -- it may even make them more likely in some cases. And insurance payments, over what turn out to be uneventful years, are often retrospectively seen as a wasted investment.

This is one reason why investments in reliability, including preventive maintenance, are often difficult to make in organizations. The careers of executives are not likely to be advanced by their committing organizational funds to prevention. Can they point proudly and claim credit from customers or shareholders for something that didn't happen? Was it guaranteed to happen without those funds; was it absolutely prevented by spending them?

Even regulatory agencies face this dilemma when contemplating approving rate increases in public utilities on behalf of safety. Rarely does the public support higher service rates to reduce the likelihood of an accident. Yet retrospectively, after an accident, the public will condemn the regulator for laxness in its oversight responsibility. Reliability investments, including maintenance, only probabilistically reduce failures and accidents. If one happened, would the public be satisfied that the agency at least delayed the accident or made its occurrence less likely? Ironically post-failure investments in rebuilding, restoring or replacing are far easier to sell because their value added is so much clearer and determinate than that of prevention.

But under-investing in reliability is about more than perverse incentives. There are also cognitive and organizational challenges to enhancing reliability and safety. Cognitively, there are abundant examples in research on accidents, of a root or even proximate cause being that of "representational error" -- the misperception, misunderstanding or mis-specification by people in supervision, maintenance or even among operators of the systems they are working with. This also applied to their appraisal of risk. In a surprising number of accident reports someone in a key position refers to the failure of the system in words to the effect of: "I had no idea it could do that." 

Other major challenges to reliability are organizational. One classic review of a variety of catastrophic accidents by organizational analyst Barry Turner bears the title: "Causes of Disaster: Sloppy Management". Poor communication and poor decision-making processes have been linked to many catastrophic accidents. Further, reliability in service or safety, is becoming less and less a property of single organizations.  Many modern infrastructures and technical systems are really networked systems. Their reliability is no longer under the exclusive control of single organizations -- their management and their operators. Their reliability is dependent upon essential inputs from other organizations, and their service or product outputs are the reliability inputs of downstream organizations. There are now many players among diverse organizations with their own cultures, interests and, often, proprietary information. 

It turns out that we do not really know how to manage well for reliability as an inter-organizational property. We don't even know how to regulate for it. Many regulatory organizations silo regulation among separate divisions and departments based upon separate utilities and the organizations that own them. They are not equipped to understand or regulate interconnected infrastructure risk.

The reliability challenge is widespread in its effects, and there are no simple answers to it. In those few organizations we have studied that have made exceptional commitments to reliability and safety a few things appear in common. First, they are managing or regulating technical systems with such catastrophic potential (nuclear power, nuclear weapons or commercial aviation) that public dread of their failure provides a strong social, political, social and regulatory foundation for high levels of reliability. Secondly, we have observed a distinctive role among key people in a variety of operational and maintenance settings in these organizations. We have come to term them "reliability professionals". These individuals internalize a responsibility for things turning out right, even beyond their official job descriptions. They are generally very good at pattern recognition and in combining formal deductive principles with experiential knowledge. They often follow what psychologist Gary Klein has called "recognition-primed" decision-making, fitting incoming information about a problem into previously experienced situations while at the same time being very sensitive to differences or anomalies in current conditions.  In this way reliability professionals are always on guard against representational error.

Factors such as these help to create and sustain a culture that countervails against laxity and error in organizations, and makes it less likely that people will short change prevention efforts, and more likely that the organizations will make substantial investments in reliability and safety, even if these yield only probabilistic returns.

Professors Russell and Vinsel admirably raise an important issue in citing the lack of excitement and the neglect of maintenance in many organizations. The larger problem of discounting reliability, however, should also be the subject increasing attention and social urgency.

Why Aren’t the Wrenches Turning on Preventive Maintenance?

This week on the blog we are returning to a piece that Tom Arnold delivered at our Maintainers II conference. Tom is the CEO and co-founder of Gridium. Buildings use Gridium software to fine-tune operations, including energy management and maintenance operations. In his talk, Tom taught us something we have never been able to forget: according to Gridium's analysis of hundreds of thousands of building work orders, only about 2% of effort went into preventive maintenance. That is, nearly ALL action was reactive. Tom also offers thoughts about some incentives that encourage this reactive mindset and behavior. We walked away from Tom's talk feeling that, in many organizations, what's needed is a whole new way of looking at things, a cultural shift—a tough task that requires real leadership.

Gridium software for buildings.png

2% of the day is for preventive maintenance

Fixing is an essential part in the art of maintenance, but the true goal is to preserve an asset from failure and decline. Drifting off of spec is a nearly gravitational force in mechanical systems, and operators are faced with two choices to get back on track. Bail water and be done quickly, or take some time and improve top-line capacity.

Professor John Sterman at the MIT Sloan School of Management calls this the capability trap, where a building operator needs to constantly balance better-before-worse or worse-before-better tradeoffs. Faced with a diverse collection of mechanical systems slowly drifting off of spec, and needing repair, building operators often find themselves stuck in a trapped cycle. Consumed by running around fixing things, there is little to no time left to invest in capacity improvement, in preventive maintenance.

We see this in the data.

Buildings use Gridium software to fine-tune operations. Two ownership groups–with a combined portfolio spanning 200 buildings–asked us to review their operations data from 208 thousand historical work orders. For every 98 corrective maintenance tickets, a rare two preventive maintenance tickets were completed!

Deferred maintenance compounds at 7% a year

Keeping a building in tip-top shape has a positive effect on profitability. Research shows that preventive maintenance is worth $0.33 a square foot with a return on investment of 545%.

Larry Summers, formerly the United States Treasury Secretary and President of Harvard University, finds that deferred maintenance backlogs compound at 7% a year, and that the U.S. should spend $1 trillion over the next ten years on maintaining current infrastructure assets.

In buildings, where chillers cost about $350,000 to replace, the math is just as stark. Across 200 thousand work orders, the average completion time is 17 days with an average direct cost of $350.  

Most building budgets are wrong

Building operations budgets are getting squeezed: teams are forced to downsize, work harder, and for longer. How much will the building cost? It’s an important question, with an even more important answer.

Stanford University benchmarked its portfolio to develop guidelines for an accurate life cycle cost analysis of its buildings. The guidelines include a review of energy, mechanical, electrical, and structural systems and building envelope and siting/massing factors. Over a 30 year period, we can expect a building to cost nearly as much in maintenance, service, system replacements, and utilities as its initial project cost. In fact, utilities will end up representing about 30% of the total cost of ownership.

These budget variances are particularly conspicuous in our cities’ financial statements. Despite cities in the U.S. spending, on average, $173 per capita–$0.09 per dollar of revenue–on maintaining their public works and physical assets, deferred maintenance budgets are ballooning. The Federal government is carrying a deferred maintenance liability on its property, plant, and equipment of nearly $200 billion, and estimates pin total deferred maintenance in the U.S. at over a trillion dollars.

At the intersection of time and data

The main bait in the capability trap, of needing to choose between better-before-worse or worse-before-better operational paths, is limited time. Research at Texas A&M University shows that facilities managers with easy access to the right data about their buildings systems can reduce work order completion time by 8.7%.

When building operators ask their teams “How can we be more productive, more efficient?” they’ve started on the right path. It’s up to technology firms to have some of the answers for them, and up to all of us to recognize the importance of these questions and understand the costs and paybacks.



Davis, M., and R. Coony, S. Gould, and A. Daly (2005). Guidelines for Life Cycle Cost Analysis. Stanford University Land and Buildings.
Day, J. (1979). World Class Maintenance. Alumax.
Gridium Inc. analysis and research on preventive maintenance software.  
Koo, W. L., and T. Van Hoy (2000). Determining the Economic Value of Preventive Maintenance. Jones Lang LaSalle.
Jawadekar, S. (2012). A Case Study of the Use of BIM and Construction Operations Building Information Exchange (COBie) for Facility Management. Texas A&M University.
Sterman, J. (2013). Stumbling towards Sustainability: Why organizational learning and radical innovation are necessary to build a more sustainable world—but not sufficient. Leading Sustainable Change.
Summers, L. (2017). The case for a proper programme of infrastructure spending. The Financial Times.

Maintenance in progress?

Daan Kolkman recently defended his PhD thesis in sociology at the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom. Currently, he is involved in setting up the Jheronimus Academy of Data Science, a joint project by the Dutch universities of Tilburg and Eindhoven. 


‘If sociologists had the privilege to watch more carefully baboons repairing their constantly decaying social structure, they would have witnessed what incredible cost has been paid when the job is to maintain, for instance, social dominance with nothing at all, just social skills.’ Latour (2005, p. 70)


Those interested in maintenance stress the importance of the work that is necessary just to keep things going. They direct our view from spectacular innovations to the mundane and everyday efforts that often occur out of sight. This represents an exciting alternative lens of inquiry which is very valuable in advancing our understanding of socio-technical systems. In this post, I contend that studies of maintenance should not be restricted to what happens once systems break down, but can also address the initial embedding of new services and products. Such a broader conceptualization of “maintenance” can help highlight, amongst other things, how non-experts are central to the success of even highly technical innovations.

The excerpt above is from “Reassembling the Social”, written by French sociologist Bruno Latour. It introduces the idea of decay as the status quo. Left undisturbed, a hot cup of coffee and the room it sits in will become the same temperature. Without any outside intervention, this process is irreversible. The coffee never spontaneously heats up, just as the social standing of a shunned baboon never recovers without struggle; energy and effort are expended to restore temperature and renew relationships. Once we accept decay as an inescapable fact of live, it becomes hard to overlook just how important maintenance is.

Maintenance, however, is not only necessary once things cease to work or break down. Rather, the mundane activities of maintenance are what make most things function to begin with -it is the very stuff our society is made of. It is only after the efficiency of the steam engine was improved, the operating costs were reduced, that the technology was mature enough to facilitate commercial exploitation. It was not the initial technological feat of the steam engine itself, but its subsequent societal embedding as a steamboat that made it successful.

Over the past three years, I have studied this process of embedding. More specifically, I focused on the adoption and use of computer models in government. Despite the quite narrow focus of that study, it offers insights that may be useful beyond the domain of information systems.

First, a bit of background. Computer models represent a special class of information systems. They can be defined as a collection of algorithms that someone can use to learn about some societal system. Examples of such systems include the climate, the economy or the housing market. Although the use of computer models in government is hardly new, recent years have seen a sharp rise of interest in using models to inform the policy making process. This should not be surprising, given the impressive accomplishments of machine learning in particular, and data science more generally.

However, scholars that develop computer models have observed a gap in the potential usefulness of computer models and their actual use in practice. Why are organizations failing to make use of these new, exciting, and powerful tools? In answering that question I spent a fair chunk of my time reading the academic literature and engaging with other scholars. However, I also directed my efforts towards studying eight cases of model adoption and use in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. I developed a clear picture of each case by reading computer model specifications, interviewing policy analysts, using the computer models myself and, yes, observing people developing and using these models in practice. This allowed me to inquire into and to some degree experience first hand how the process of embedding unfolds in practice. What is it that the people that develop, use and interpret these computer models do?

Sure, part of the work they engage in is technical. The development of a computer model involves at the very least some data collection, data wrangling and programming. Once a working version of a model is completed, it will be validated against historical data, subjected to sensitivity analysis or other tests, before it used in the first place. Work on a computer model tends to be ongoing and iterative in nature, it is regularly updated to incorporate new data or theoretical insights. This also involves some technical maintenance work like version control, error-checking, a system for raising and processing support tickets, etcetera.

However, one of the key findings of this study is the surprisingly large amount of time that goes into embedding computer models in an organization. Although the skilled technical work required for making computer models should not be underestimated, much more effort is directed towards activities that you will not find in any modeling or data science textbook.

While amongst experts, computer models may serve as a vehicle for open discussion and structure debate, this breaks down in contexts where non-experts are involved. To them, computer models may be virtually incomprehensible and operate more like black boxes. In order for computer models to be effective in informing the policy making process, they have to be understood, trusted and relevant to experts and non-experts alike. This presents a challenge especially because since computer models are technical and the intended user-base may neither have the required technical knowhow, nor the time (and perhaps patience) to develop the required skills.

A conceptual model of air quality (Gamas et al., 2015)

A conceptual model of air quality (Gamas et al., 2015)

 As a consequence, experts have to invest time to explain their model in simple terms to a non-expert user-base. Their efforts may include more formal activities, like drafting presentations, creating model documentation and model tutorials, and organizing events like training sessions. Often these will include some visual representation of the model's mechanics, like the above sketch of an air quality model. In more informal, direct interaction with non-expert users, experts attempt to explain the mechanics of the model in plain English and respond to questions that are posed by these users. Over time, non-experts may develop a basic understanding of the computer model.

This understanding in itself is not enough, since non-experts have to be convinced of the credibility of a computer model. Although experts amongst themselves may use the outcomes of analysis to ascertain and communicate the quality of a model, the outcome of, say, a sensitivity analysis may mean little to those with no statistical training. In effect, experts have to resort to other ways of demonstrating the quality of a computer model. For example, they may use historical data to illustrate the model's predictive capacity or open-source the model to convey confidence. Non-expert users may evaluate the model in relation to information from other sources, like media outlets, trusted agencies or other models. Especially when a model present a less favorable outcome in comparison, users are likely to resist adoption and challenge its use.

It is only after plenty of users have a basic understanding of the model, what it can give them and no longer contest its validity that it can begin to inform decision making. This, again, is no trivial matter. Users will have existing ways of informing policymaking and the model may not easily fit within their existing working practice. For instance, policymaking can move quite fast at times and in order to accommodate this a model has to have a decent runtime and facilitate visualizations. Considering the ever-changing scope of the political agenda, the model has to be flexible enough to incorporate new thinking.

What lessons can to be learned from this research on models for the study of maintenance and innovation more generally? First and foremost, it demonstrates that the everyday and mundane activities that are associated with maintenance take place not only in order to fix something once it has broken down. Rather, such activities are engaged in on an ongoing basis and form the very foundation of what it is that makes an innovation useful. The process of initial embedding requires considerable effort and determines whether an innovation will succeed or not. Even for very high-tech innovations, the non-technical efforts may be as – if not more – important than the technical work in facilitating this embedding. By conceptualizing maintenance in a broader sense, we can begin to understand not only the work required for things to remain operational, but also the large amount of non-technical work that goes into making innovations work in the first place.



Gamas, J., Dodder, R., Loughlin, D., & Gage, C. (2015). Role of future scenarios in understanding deep uncertainty in long-term air quality management. Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association, 65(11), 1327-13.


Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social-an introduction to actor-network-theory. Reassembling the Social-An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, by Bruno Latour, pp. 316. Foreword by Bruno Latour. Oxford University Press, Sep 2005.

“Getting it going and keeping it going”: on-the-road maintenance of colour television outside broadcasts

 This post is by Nick Hall, a postdoctoral research in the Department of Media Arts, Royal Holloway University of London. The post was written during an unfolding research activity, and represents early notes and first impressions – without footnotes or further references. Nick can be contacted at or @NickXHall


"Outside broadcasts were survival. It was all about ‘getting the gear working and keeping it working’. At least half a day was spent driving, one day rigging, another day rehearsing, another day derigging, and another driving home. It was just a couple of hours making the show!" – BBC outside broadcast camera operator Robin Sutherland

Last week, my attention was caught by a photo posted on Twitter by the BBC journalist Christian Fraser. From a rescue ship somewhere in the Mediterranean, Fraser was reporting on the European migrant crisis. In the foreground, BBC News location engineer Ultan Molloy reaches into what looks like a suitcase. Look closely, and you can see a laptop computer inside the case. Beyond it sits what looks like a smaller laptop, but is actually a small satellite transmitter. Fraser’s tweet explains:

The photo shows a small team, on a boat in choppy waters, preparing to mount a live broadcast which will be beamed live around the world and on the internet.

There are lots of pictures like this on Twitter, but you have to look carefully for them. Such material is generally not tweeted by the corporate accounts of broadcasters, which tend to post publicity stills and images of the “on-air talent”. Instead, these insights into the technical realities of television production are the preserve of what might be called “behind-the-scenes Twitter”: an informal community of reporters, camera operators, field producers, technicians and gallery directors who – like so many of us do – share moments of their professional life, however mundane, via Twitter.

As a historian of television, I am fascinated by these tweets, and the online conversations that arise from them. It is in these conversations that you learn how television – especially news and current affairs television – is produced and brought to air. The same day last week, I watched one of Christian Fraser’s live reports from the Mediterranean, and became frustrated as the signal from ship to shore became weaker. The image froze and the audio distorted. Then I looked again at the photo he had tweeted, and remembered how remarkable it was that any video or audio could be fed live to London from the deck of a ship on a rolling sea.

But I’m interested in yesterday’s television, not today’s. I currently work on a research project called ADAPT (the acronym stands, slightly awkwardly, for “the adoption of new technological arrays in the production of broadcast television”). The aim of the project, which is funded by the European Research Council and based in the Department of Media Arts at Royal Holloway, University of London, is to examine how people used technologies to make television in the past. Our methodology, conceived by the project leader, Prof. John Ellis, is innovative, challenging, and highly rewarding. Instead of researching exclusively from interviews or by examining paper records, we seek out working examples of obsolete technologies, and we reunite these artefacts with veteran television personnel. Then we ask our TV veterans to once again use an old camera, or cut film on an old film editing table: in other words, to make television as it was made in the past.

This week we’re carrying out one of these exercises, and that’s why Christian Fraser’s tweet caught my eye. Our focus this week has been outside broadcasts – but not the small-team, film-anywhere (even on a ship on an uncertain sea) digital satellite outside broadcasts of today. We are interested in the BBC’s colour outside broadcasts of the late 1960s and 1970s. These required a much bigger team and a much bigger piece of equipment: in this case, a truck, a generator and heavy television cameras. In the 1970s, outside broadcasts also needed a heavy-duty electrical supply and either fixed lines or ground-based microwave telecommunications lines back to London.

BBC Colour Mobile Control Room ‘North 3’ outside Northop Hall Hotel, North Wales.

BBC Colour Mobile Control Room ‘North 3’ outside Northop Hall Hotel, North Wales.

So we have borrowed a vintage BBC outside broadcast truck, known as “North 3”, and we are spending the week with a veteran crew of ex-BBC technicians and engineers – now aged in their 70s and 80s – to recreate the working practices of a 1970s darts competition. It is an exercise calibrated to recreate, through detailed simulation, the working practices behind an everyday, non-spectacular, piece of live British sports television. The whole exercise is being filmed in great detail via a rig of 12 miniature fixed cameras. All of the participants are fitted with wireless lapel microphones so that we can listen to, and record, their conversations.

In a makeshift production gallery, producer Amanda Murphy watches camera feeds of the historical re-enactment, while Royal Holloway media student Amy Clark (foreground) makes a detailed log of events.

In a makeshift production gallery, producer Amanda Murphy watches camera feeds of the historical re-enactment, while Royal Holloway media student Amy Clark (foreground) makes a detailed log of events.

Compared with Ultan Molloy’s magic digital satellite suitcase, the outside broadcast unit we’re making use of is a behemoth. It’s a behemoth with a storied past. Brought into use by the BBC in the late 1960s, it’s an example of what’s known as a “Type 2 Colour Mobile Control Room”. It started its life with the call-sign CMCR9, and throughout the 1970s, it roamed across the UK helping to link the BBC in London to wherever and whatever the BBC in London wanted to show its viewers. Horse-racing at Ascot? Send CMCR9! Football in Manchester? Get on the road! Variety show in Birmingham? Make good time on the motorway – the broadcast is tomorrow. As with all pieces of industrial equipment, OB truck downtime is a waste of money. CMCR9 was constantly busy, moving from assignment to assignment, sitting idle as infrequently as possible. As one of our participants remarked: “As [presenter] Sue Barker said ‘goodnight’, wires were pulled out, OB wrapped and the truck was on the road to Scotland for the Open golf. It would set off overnight and be at St Andrews the next day.”

Our truck ended its life as a servant of the BBC’s North West Region – hence its final and current callsign, “North 3”. Thereafter it was sold by the BBC and, after several changes of ownership, ended up rotting (parts of North 3 were made out of wood) in a damp aircraft hangar in South West England. Eventually television history enthusiast, equipment preserver and restorer Steve Harris found it, bought it, and painstakingly restored it. Today, thanks to the efforts of Steve and a large team of volunteers whom he has assembled, North 3 is mostly in working order.

North 3 is a “museum piece”, but it’s not a museum piece. A museum wouldn’t so enthusiastically agree to let a team of researchers power it up and scramble all over it – and nor should they. In fact, the Science Museum owns one of North 3’s contemporaries. The paperwork that would be required before our team could touch their artefact, let alone run power through it or use it to re-enact an outside broadcast, is mind-boggling. For fun, read Policy and Procedures for Selecting and Operating Historic Objects from the Collections of the Science Museum: a fearsomely-titled bureaucratic document designed, quite rightly, to make sure that our soldering irons (or somebody else’s) don’t accidentally set fire to such an important example of national engineering history.

North 3, owned by a private enthusiast, is a very different story. Found in a state of significant decay, its life is one of constant repair, renewal, and maintenance. Harris and his friends and colleagues have spent time and labour reinstating original equipment (or close substitutes, replicas, or functional equivalents). Because North 3 can be operated, the routine maintenance it must undergo closely approaches the sort of care and attention that was needed when it was being regularly used during its working life.

Maintaining communications: Brian Summers replaces the cue light bulb on a vintage Pye PC80 television camera.

Maintaining communications: Brian Summers replaces the cue light bulb on a vintage Pye PC80 television camera.

When we arrived in North Wales on Monday, Steve Harris and his colleagues Steve Jones and Brian Summers were hard at work on North 3, repairing things with soldering irons. At one point, as equipment was being loaded into another van ready for our week’s shooting, we heard a cheer. The cause for celebration was that the team had managed to reinstate a cue-light system – fixing a faulty connection between switches on the truck and the tiny lightbulbs atop each of the cameras. These are the small, uncelebrated jobs which amount to the restoration of a big, complex piece of heritage technology.

They are also the small, uncelebrated jobs which made up the everyday work of outside broadcasting. As we know well by now, histories of technology are often clouded by heroic stories. We hear about the firsts and the failures. We hear about the achievements of pioneers, ‘against all odds’. These flaws are sometimes too easily blamed on the historian: when we write about recent history, basing our accounts on interviews with people who recall their own careers, it’s difficult not to return to these stories. These are the stories that people remember, by telling them and retelling them. We cannot force people to remember what they’ve forgotten.

The heroic, memorable, stories come up again and again. They are thrilling to listen to and fascinating in their detail. Our television veterans have stayed with us at a hotel where North 3 has been temporarily stationed. During the day, we have interviewed them and filmed them rigging and equipping a temporary studio. In the evening we provide a meal and afterwards, in the bar, they share war stories. The stories invariably gravitate towards Royal weddings and prestigious sports events (FA Cup Finals are memorable, lower-league meetings between mediocre football clubs are not). One evening a small group crowded around a laptop to watch a bootlegged edition of the BBC’s Seaside Special, featuring ABBA. Would an episode with less famous musical stars have been remembered as clearly? I suspect not.

Despite these stories, the reality of BBC outside broadcasts during the 1960s and 1970s – and in the years since – was mostly coverage of mundane, everyday programming. Weekend sports were a major preoccupation of BBC outside broadcast teams. A look at the schedule for Grandstand almost exactly forty years ago (15 May 1976) shows one fixture that might be remembered today – an international football match between England and Scotland. Everything else has probably been forgotten. Even the runners might have forgotten this rather dull-sounding athletic fixture:

1.35: The AAA Olympic Trial Marathon: In this race at Rotherham, the first three out of a field of over 400 qualify to represent Great Britain in Montreal. Ron Pickering reports on Ian Thompson's attempt to win his sixth marathon in a row. Organised by the AAA in association with the Provincial Insurance Company.

The afternoon’s schedule also included live tennis and highlights of the week’s boxing. Each of these would have required an outside broadcast unit like North 3, with a full production and engineering crew.

If these moments of television have been forgotten, then the maintenance involved has been forgotten twice over. Formal histories have taken little notice of the realities of driving vehicles from location to location, rigging and fixing cables, and finding workarounds for the thousands of problems which might threaten to knock an essential outside broadcast off the air. And these stories are not eloquently told by museum exhibits. An outside broadcast truck implies a great deal of everyday maintenance, but the unfamiliar eye is more likely to overlook this in favour of seeing the vehicle as a means to an end: a vessel through which a television signal briefly travels, on its way to transmitters screens in homes and pubs.

My modest – and probably not very original – suggestion here is that museums are excellent preservers of artefacts, but not very good preservers of maintenance. That is where the value of restorers and enthusiasts like Steve Harris becomes most obviously evident. Through the act of restoration, they preserve maintenance activities. You cannot bring an outside broadcast truck back to life without repeating the many everyday tasks – lubrication, soldering, replacing worn parts – which characterised the artefact’s original life. Some museums restore and operate some of their artefacts (for example: the Science Museum owns trains which sometimes run on the mainlines) – but regular restoration and operation of artefacts is the exception, not the rule, in the museum context.

The working nature of restored vintage technology adds a new dimension to re-enactment activities such as the one that I have been involved in this week. You can attempt to re-enact old ways of working with museum artefacts, but if a button or switch is not in the right position, or part of the equipment does not work, then there is no quick way to fix that problem. When working with a team of equipment restorers, that limitation fades away. In the past week, Steve Harris and his colleagues have managed to restore the ‘talkback’ system, which links the director to the camera operator via headphones, to working order. Countless other, smaller, tasks of maintenance have been carried out. Soldering irons and screwdrivers have been busy. As we have filmed our veteran outside broadcast crew rigging a set and preparing to “go live”, we have brought tasks of maintenance into to the foreground.

What I have noticed, however, is that maintenance hides. Andy Russell’s initial, playful, description of ‘Maintainers’ included “introverts” in its short list of those who might be considered “maintainers”. The people with whom we have worked this week generally do not have introverted personalities. Nevertheless, I have noticed that tasks of maintenance are accompanied by an introverted physical posture and a level of concentration that might be mistaken for an introverted personality. When things break, they must be fixed. The work of fixing essential things and solving everyday problems involves bodies turned into machines, shoulders hunched over soldering irons. The concentration required makes it difficult for historical investigators to ask questions, because doing so involves interrupting this concentration.

‘Introverted postures’: Steve Harris, Brian Summers and Steve Jones carrying out repair and maintenance on vintage television equipment.

‘Introverted postures’: Steve Harris, Brian Summers and Steve Jones carrying out repair and maintenance on vintage television equipment.

In our research activities this week, and on the ADAPT project more broadly, we are continuously developing a model of restoration, maintenance and simulation as an historical research methodology. It is challenging: finding working artefacts with cooperative owners, and willing participants, costs a great deal of money and time. (Our work has required a substantial research grant – ADAPT is funded by the European Research Council.) Working with ‘veterans’ necessarily constrains research to technologies which were used within living memory. Finally, when a broad definition of maintenance includes attention to infrastructures, standards, and other big systems, it’s worth noting that North 3 – though unwieldy – is not ‘big’ like a power station or city sewerage system; nor is it abstract and ungraspable, like a codec, or a workplace norm.

If bringing maintenance into the foreground means trying new approaches and historical techniques, then perhaps doing so on a relatively limited scale is a good place to start. After several months of planning we have spent a few days examining in detail a truck-sized assembly of technological systems and arrays. We now have two tasks: firstly, to make the video and audio we have captured available to a wide audience, so that others who are interested in the systems behind outside broadcasting can use it to animate and inform their own historical research projects. Secondly, to consider how this new methodology can be scaled up and translated to bigger, more difficult, technological systems.


Further Reading

Further information about the restoration of North 3 can be found at Steve Harris’s website.

Full details about the ADAPT project can be found at the project website, Videos of past simulations can be found on the project’s YouTube channel.

The ADAPT project tweets at @adaptTV and Nick Hall tweets at @NickXHall


Hugh D. Lester has providing planning, design, or consulting for over fifty jurisdictions, including the design of three of the four largest jails in the United States. He is currently a doctoral student in Sociotechnical Systems at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. He can be contacted at

Figure 1: Cool Hand Luke (Warner Bros. Entertainment, 1967)

Figure 1: Cool Hand Luke (Warner Bros. Entertainment, 1967)

What we've got here… …is failure… …to communicate. Some men… …you just can't reach.

 This is what was running through my head as I toured a penal farm in Mississippi. Could anyone blame me? As lead designer for a national justice firm—teaming with a local architect to design its replacement—I’d never seen conditions of confinement that bad.

Flash forward six years and a Bureau of Justice Statistics email arrives enumerating the lowest incident jails for sexual harassment and abuse in the United States. To my shock and amazement, my Mississippi facility is hands down the best. It’s not an unconditional pardon, but a reprieve; a stay of execution.

Jail designers seek the optimum balance between safety, security, and maintainability without compromising detention operations. While jail design is important, policies, procedures, and post orders determine the extent to which officers remain mobile versus fixed, how units are staffed, how regular or random visual cell checks are, and how frequently they are conducted. Orientation to issues like staff-detainee communication, proactive goal-directed engagement versus tacit acceptance of negative outcomes, and other factors critical to safe, secure, and constitutional conditions of confinement is also traceable to policies, procedures, and post orders.

The Mississippi project taught me that institutional culture is the primary driver of outcomes, not architecture. Factors beyond my control had forced me to design a jail that would only have positive outcomes if the organization actively pursued them. Whether they do… …was—and still is—completely beyond my control.

Design for maintenance—in the traditional sense of the word—can improve security and safety, but design (for maintenance) of organizational culture is even more critical if negative outcomes are to be mitigated.

Furthermore, the larger culture needs to be transformed. Issues faced by jails should be 'top of mind' with the public. Public information campaigns that stress the legal requirement to provide safe, secure and constitutional detention would serve to counteract typical depictions of jails in popular culture—as places of violence, rape, death in custody, and the like—instead of the prevailing reality of boredom, lives squandered, and failure to 'turn people around' due to lack of resources.

Given adequate resources and robust organizational culture, prevailing security-centric mindsets might be transformed into a culture of care and custody that would have a chance of changing hearts and minds. It happened in Mississippi before I even arrived. It could happen elsewhere.

Nonetheless, there’s no escaping the need to provide maintenance access in jails. Almost every jailbreak story involves desperate men shimmying through impossibly small pipe chases after hours of patient work defeating that first security barrier—the one between the cell and the chase. The cell remains the most interior security zone in any jail, and is square one with respect to the safety and security of facilities. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, but we long ago gave up the practice of chaining prisoners to the wall of their cells.

Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville, in their report On the Penitentiary System of the United States and its Application in France (1833) described one Ohio prison as a place where, “…prisoners of every variety of character [were] indiscriminately associated, [the prisoners,] as might naturally be expected, [spent much of their time] in mutual contamination and in devising plans of escape.” [1]

Later prison reformers, such as the Boston Prison Discipline Society, argued that “There are principles in architecture, by the observance of which great moral changes can be more easily produced among the most abandoned of our race… Other things being equal, the prospect of improvements in morals depends, in some degree, upon the construction of buildings.” [2] While this sentiment represents significant overreach, the public’s default to deterrence via punitive conditions of confinement is misguided. Rehabilitation must be built upon humane conditions of confinement and high expectations for both detainee and staff behavior. Certain conditions help create that foundation.

Safe, secure, and constitutional detention occurs when a jail assures … that both staff and detainees are safe…” and that “…both its physical plant and policies and procedures…” conform to constitutional standards. [3] The ‘secure’ test is clear. Being ‘safe’ requires not only that staff are safe from detainees, but that detainees are safe from each other, and from staff. [4] This is profoundly difficult for jail designers.

For conditions of confinement to be ‘constitutional,’ they need to be backed up by case law. In a typical instance, correctional practices challenged in Rhodes v. Chapman, 452 US 337 (1981) were declared unconstitutional by the District Court, but were then reversed by the Supreme Court, establishing case law legitimating the original practice. [5] French v. Owens, 777 F.2d 1250 (1985) established the totality of the correctional environment as the prime determinant of whether conditions of confinement violate the eighth or fourteenth amendments. [6] For jail designers, the American Correctional Association (ACA) physical plant standards for jails guarantee conformance to professional standards of care, as these are supported by case law.

ACA standards only require "a view of the cell front," [7] so security within the unit, not within the cells, is the professional standard of care. Staff stations cannot generally be located to maximize views into all the cells accessed from a dayroom. Cell fronts vary widely in their percentage of opacity versus transparency and views into cells are less than optimal. As a matter of fact, maintenance access directly impacts this issue, especially in the case of the ubiquitous Y-shaped chase.

With Y-shaped chases, cell doors alone provide views. Even when these doors are extensively glazed, views are compromised. Maintenance impacts operations because detainees must be locked down in their cells, since chases are accessed from the dayroom side. Not so with rear chase designs. Access is outside the secure perimeter, and can occur at any time without impacting jail operations. Resulting cell fronts [Figure 4] provide much better views into cells. Unfortunately, unit footprints increase, increasing costs. In any case, cell design for maintenance access is a telling factor.

Operational breakthroughs in inmate behavior management [8] build upon advances in jail design, at least where they are implemented and can be sustained. In one Mississippi jail, though, organizational culture is transcendent. No matter what happens, I know my design either enabled—or failed to inhibit—those outcomes, and that makes all the difference.



[1] Roberts, John W. 1996. Reform and Retribution: An Illustrated History of American Prisons. Baltimore, Md.: United Book Press, 81.

[2] Rothman, David J. 1995. Perfecting the Prison: United States, 1789-1865. In The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society, Ed. Norval Morris & David J. Rothman. New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 117.

[3] Lester, Hugh D. 2004. Correctional Facility Architecture: Past, Present, and Future—Part I. American Jails, 18(3): 28.

[4] Ibid, 28.

[5] Thomas, Clarence. 2009. Dissenting Opinion: Hudson v. McMillian (1992). In Prison, Ed. Noel Merino. Farmington Mills, Mi.: Greenhaven Press, 76.

[6] Selke, William L. 1993. Prisons in Crisis. Bloomington, In. and Indianapolis, In.: Indiana University Press, 36-40.

[7] American Correctional Association, Division of Standards and Accreditation. 1991. Standards for Adult Local Detention Facilities, 3rd Edition. Washington, D.C.: St. Mary’s Press, 32.

[8] Hutchinson, Virginia. 1980. Managing Inmate Behavior in Jails. Corrections Today, 67(5): 28-30.

[9] Warner Bros. Entertainment. 1967. After beating Luke to the ground, the Captain delivers the quote "What we got here is failure to communicate." Retrieved 5/6/16.

[10] Lester, Hugh D. 1998-2016. Photographs for Figures 2, 3, & 4.


Office Communications as Innovation and Maintenance

Today's post is by Nicole Contaxis, a National Digital Stewardship Resident at the National Library of Medicine (NLM), where she is a working on a project preserving software developed at the NLM. You can read other reflections she's written on her blog.

Prioritizing maintenance in the history of technology can be framed as a response to the overwhelming emphasis on “innovation” in popular histories and conceptions of technology. This reactionary framing can present issues, particularly because “innovation” is used so often that it can lose nearly all sense of meaning, as this event demonstrates. When one uses “maintenance” as a counterpoint to such an amorphous term, it is easy to get lost in the weeds. Does repair, for example, fall under maintenance? Or, is repair only undertaken when maintenance fails?

Defining the parameters of maintenance is not easy, but perhaps not entirely necessary. By allowing for more flexible conception of maintenance, we can include more people and more activities in our conversations about technology and technology history. It may chafe some to work without clear boundaries, but it can create a more inclusive discussion. The conference which spurred this blog was itself refreshing because of the breadth of topics and speakers. Regardless of how one chooses to define or not define maintenance, it is also clear that the demarcation between maintenance and innovation may rely more on context than it does on the actual piece of technology.

To explain what I mean, I will use office communications and organization as a case study. Several start-ups have tried to “innovate” office communications and organization. Slack, for example, has been heralded as an innovative solution for office communication and has been covered by news organizations like the Wall Street Journal and Fortune Magazine. Yet, one of the talks at The Maintainers Conference, given by Ellan Spero titled," 'A Card for Everything, Miss Whittle!' - A Maintainer's Approach to the Organization of Academic-Industrial Research at the Mellon Institute for Industrial Research," outlines the practice of office communication as "maintenance." What is so different about these two scenarios that they can be viewed and defined so different?

First, allow me give some background on Miss Whittle and the Mellon Institute for Industrial Research, as taken from my notes on Spero's talk. Lois Whittle worked in the office of the Mellon Institute for Industrial Research before it merged with the Carnegie Institute of Technology to become Carnegie Mellon University. She devised a system for organizing the fellowship agreements at the Mellon Institute that enabled efficient communication across a complex organization. Effectively, Miss Whittle was doing the same type work- and published on it in the Journal of Industrial Chemistry - as Slack.

There are several obvious differences between these two situations. The first is the historic time period. Miss Whittle worked mostly in the early part of the 20th century, and she worked with different mostly with index cards, not computers. The second is gender. Miss Whittle is a woman and Slack's founder and CEO is male. I don't want to downplay either of these differences, and there is a lot to be said about the term "innovation" as it relates to race, gender, and class.

However, what I see the main boundary of maintenance and innovation is control - control over the shape and future of the company and the technologies being created. The entire purpose of Slack is the streamlining of office communications. Miss Whittle's work was ancillary to the work of the Mellon Institute. Although both situations deal with office communication and organization, Slack is in control of its product and how it can be used. Miss Whittle responded to a need within a company, and Miss Whittle did not have control over how her technique would be used over time or even if it would be used. With control, Slack is able to put out its technologies as a product to be bought and sold. Not only can Slack market its product as “innovative,” it can also appear more valuable because it has the capacity to make more capital that can be explicitly tied to the technology. Any monetary gains from Miss Whittle’s work would have been more difficult to measure.

Value can obviously be calculated through a variety of means that do not tie directly to capital, but doe to the particular shape of technology companies today, capital produced by a technology and its value can be easily conflated. As a concept, “innovation” seems inextricable from the complete from of the current technology market, much like "disruption," as you can read more about in this New Yorker article. Miss Whittle, which clearly an important member of the Mellon Institute staff, had nothing to sell.

The boundary between innovation and maintenance seems dependent on context more than the nature of the technology created. The reason why a piece of technology is deemed innovation or maintenance has little to do with the technology created and much more to do with structures in which that technology was created and was/is used.

Creating a Factory-based Repair System in a Chinese Industrial Enterprise, 1961

Today's post is from the historian Philip Scranton, formerly the University Board of Governors Professor, History of Industry and Technology, at Rutgers University—Camden. Phil gave an excellent paper at The Maintainers conference, titled "Fixing Holes in the Plan: Maintenance and Repair in Communist Europe, 1945–1970," which you can read here.

What follows is a translated article on the organization of repair services at a communist-era machine-building plant, taken from Kung-jen Jih-pao (Workers’ Daily) [6 April 19, 196l, page 2].  By early 1961, the People’s Republic of China was experiencing a multi-dimensional crisis. It resulted from planners’ overconfidence (repurposing a great deal of agricultural land to industrial uses, after a huge harvest in 1958), an abrupt schism with the USSR (triggering the withdrawal of thousands of Soviet engineers and technicians working on industrial and infrastructure projects) and a series of floods and droughts that ruined both food and cotton crops. State managers imported millions of tons of grain to address famine conditions, and as early as 1959, instituted nationwide “campaigns” for conserving materials, repairing articles and reducing waste, to deal with narrowed supply chains. The Workers’ Daily essay here reproduced details how this “social services movement” was experienced at a major machine-building plant in the capital. The involvement of families was simplified in part because expanding PRC enterprises funded construction of dormitories, in order to retain workers, given that Beijing’s population was growing faster than its housing stock. My best guess is that the plant employed at least 1000 people.   (Phil Scranton, 26 April 26, 2016)


In response to public demand, the Hsing-ping Machinery Factory in Peiping has instituted repair services among the families of its employees and is intensively developing the project, which has been quite successful so far. As of now approximately one-half of the families that had joined the social services movement are participating in the repair service activities.

During the month of February, services rendered to the employees and their families include, over 3,000 pieces of garments, repaired and newly made; over 3,000 pieces of clothing and bedding, renovated and cleaned; l60 pairs of shoes repaired, 500 odd vehicles, including automobiles[i] and handcarts; 160 pieces of household ware, such as basins, [cooking] pots, and water pots. The repair service charges are generally 10-20% lower than market charges.[ii] At a time when the [living] standard of the people has been raised, certain consumer goods are insufficient to supply demands, and the capacity of repair service in society is inadequate, any effort to increase production, to provide facilities for the masses' use, to promote economy in spending and consumption, and to minimize the chore of the families of employees is bound to win the good will and praise of the employees and their families.

The mentioned factory had in 1958 organized the families of its employees to participate in production activities, but for some time it was not clear what was being done in that setup. Some families aimed at making more money, They moved to wherever they could get better pay, and were not consistently content with the work of the instituted repair service. In view of the situation described above, the party commissar during the past year has been engaged in some well planned thought-reform and political work. By means of reports, group discussions, and visits to the homes in teams, he extensively propagated the meaning of the repair service activities. He also publicized facts about some of the employees who loved and were enthusiastic about their [repair] jobs, who bore responsibility and blame, and employed every means at their disposal to serve the masses. In this way he succeeded in a short time in arousing the families of the employees to take a positive participation in the service activities.

Take the case of “Great-gent” Huang,[iii] for instance. He is the father of Huang Chen, manager of a carriage shop. Now past sixty, "Great-gent" has not been working for many years. He had been in the business of repairing carriages in the past. All his four sons being gainfully employed, he now lives a comfortable life. Upon learning that no one had joined up in that branch of the service [work on carts], he enthusiastically volunteered. He explained: "The happy days we have been enjoying since liberation were given us by the Party. Carriages requiring repair are many, but repair personnel is lacking. Since I know a little about the trade, it would be a pleasure-and happiness on my part to do something for others."

With the exception of necessary maintenance of their houses and furniture, and some other assistance, all of which are provided by the factory, all structures, such as the shoe repair shop, day nursery, and the buildings that house the twenty-two rooms comprising the dining halls and warehouses, have been constructed by the employees themselves, who did all the work, of transporting the salvaged bricks and clay, also carpentry and masonryAll the fixtures were made in a simple and humble way, under the circumstances. Some of them were made with odds and ends, and waste material. The material used for their repair work, except for the small quantity that had to be requisitioned through the service agency, all consisted of scraps, which they continue to collect and accumulate as their work progresses.

Of all the problems confronted in the development of the service activities, the most difficult one is that of know-how. In endeavoring to solve this problem, workers did their utmost to seek out latent talents from among themselves on the one hand, sent delegates to learn the trades from the experienced, and hired teachers to teach them at work on the other hand. They even taught one another while working, if feasible. This is inter-teaching, interchange of knowledge. It helps to raise the standard of quality of workmanship. To illustrate:

Lu Hsueh-I and Tsou Feng-ying of the shoe repairing division were absolutely ignorant of shoe repairing. When they started out they had bent many a nail or tack and hurt their fingers with the hammer many a time, but they firmly believed that knowledge is not inborn, and that if one is willing and determined to learn, one will know how to do things. So while they were working, they studied each situation, helped and learned from one another. At present each can repair about twelve pairs of shoes per day, as compared with two or three pairs at the beginning. In the past they could only handle slippers.  Now they are repairing leather shoes.

Since the inception of the repair service these people have been studying the requirements and demands of the masses, inviting the expression of their opinions and accordingly enlarging the scope of the service from time to time. When some families toward the end of last year made known the difficulty they encountered in obtaining metal goods locally and in the vicinity, and the inconvenience they must suffer when they had to go to the city to procure such items, the repair teams, as a body took the initiative to investigate the needs of the employees and their families. At the conclusion of that investigation, they discovered more than 2,300 water kettles, water buckets, aluminum and-other metal utensils, and about 1000 vehicles consisting of oxcarts and automobiles that were for the employees' own use, required repair. In view of the facts discovered they decided to establish new divisions for repair of automobiles and metal utensils.

For the convenience of the masses, in addition to the regular services given at the receiving station, teams were organized to go to the dormitories of the employees daily and, following preplanned division of work and addresses, ring doorbells and collect items for repair. And given the extent of the factory and public demand, they continuously improved their workmanship and improved the standard of repair services, both quantitatively and qualitatively. In one previous period when some individuals complained about the unsatisfactory ironing work of the laundry, a system of division of work was instituted by the repair service station. All ironing work was henceforth handled by Mu-Hsiu-ying, who excels in ironing, and by her assistants.

On account of proper arrangement of personnel and improved management, the time to complete a repair job has been reduced to 1-2 days, on the average, as compared with four days in the past.

JPRS (Joint Publications Research Service) Report 4893, Selections from Kung-Jen Jih-Pao, No. 4, circulated 4 August 1961, pp. 80-82, Available online at Readex:, a subscription database.

[JPRS was a Department of Commerce Cold War operation, delivering translations of millions of newspaper and journal articles, interviews, broadcasts, decrees and public documents to US policy makers, 1958-1992. Most of these materials are conserved in the Newsbank database, and are keyword searchable.] 

[i] These were chiefly US and Japanese trucks, mostly from the WWII years, not personal autos.

[ii] Yes, there was a vast private market in all Chinese cities for repair and refurbishment of personal and household goods, with pricing both customary and negotiated.. Enterprisers were not permitted to employ other workers, however, but could involve family members in their tasks.

[iii] Think “Grandpa”.

The Maintainers: a conference about keeping things working (most of the time)

This post is by Hillel Arnold, an archivist and Head of Digital Programs at the Rockefeller Archive Center. He can be reached at

You might not think a conference on maintenance would be all that exciting. But The Maintainers (April 7-9 at Stevens Institute of Technology) was not only exciting, but thought-provoking, inspiring and challenging as well.

I’m an archivist and the Head of Digital Programs at the Rockefeller Archive Center, so a large part of my job is keeping things running. Most of these things are systems that support my organization’s mission of collecting, preserving and making available archives of historic significance, but as a manager I do a lot of human maintenance as well to make sure my team is productive, moving in a coordinate way towards strategic goals, and learning and growing as we go.

During the conference, I tweeted a lot and also took some somewhat scattered notes, but I also wanted to write in some detail about some themes I noticed running through many of the sessions. It’s simply not possible to do justice to all of the sessions and presenters; there were far too many great sessions to recap in detail here, and every speaker had something compelling and thought-provoking to contribute.

Who are the maintainers?

Perhaps the most obvious theme of the conference - as its title suggests - was an articulation of who does maintenance work. Or, as Andrew Russell (quoting Greg Downey) said, “Who does what kind of information work, when and where and why?” As one might expect, maintenance work is highly gendered, racialized and carries strong class implications. The invisible and marginalized populations of of a given society are usually the ones who maintain its systems.

Ellen Foster’s excellent paper, “Systems of Maintenance: Feminist Theory and Method,” drew on Stacy Alaimo’s conception of “trans-corporeality” - the environment is not “out there” apart from us but is actually in and of us - to bring together Mierle Laderman Ukele’s “maintenance art,” feminist hacker and fixer collectives like the Fixers Collective, arguing that individuals and groups on the margins of cultures are thinking about care and maintenance in both performative and real ways.

This theme continued in Lee Vinsel’s “The Stories We Tell, or, Mary Poppins, Maintainer,” which asked “What stories about human life with technology are morally available to us?” while reimagining Mary Poppins as a story about maintenance and maintainers (chimney sweeps, anyone?). Ellan Spero’s “A Card for Everything, Miss Whittle!” discussed the work of Lois Whittle, a staff member of the Mellon Institute for Social Research, who developed a pre-digital technology for efficient retrieval of records. Needless to say, as an archivist obsessed with record-keeping systems, this was my favorite presentation of the conference!

Almost every presenter touched on this theme. Hugh Lester’s paper (misleadingly titled “Program Manager for Life”) delved into the maintenance of jails and courthouses, while Misha Rabinovich and Caitlin Foley’s “Maintenance Art and Extreme Sharing” used humor in an insightful and incisive way to expose the inequities surrounding maintenance work.

What needs to be maintained?

Many of the presentations were case studies of maintenance work (or, in some cases, a lack thereof) on specific pieces of infrastructure or technologies. This covered a broad range of historical and contemporary topics, from steamboats and the Erie Canal to space missions and Microsoft Windows. Although my own experience with maintenance is based largely on digital technologies, I found the historical perspective both enlightening and challenging. Ideas of “obsolete” technologies, progress and maintainability echo pretty strongly across time.

That said, the session that spoke most directly to me was called “Maintaining the Digital.” Overall, this session challenged canonical ideas of software as something immaterial, ephemeral, but with easily defined boundaries and few social or political implications. Nathan Ensmenger took these themes on most directly in “When Good Software Goes Bad: The Unexpected Durability of Digital Technologies,” demonstrating how software is composed of many interlocking pieces (drivers, user applications, backups, updates, virus scans) and also how it has a fundamentally human component. Stephanie Dick and Dan Volmar’s excellently-titled “GOTOHELL.DLL: Software Dependencies and the Maintenance of Microsoft Windows” talked about the challenges of maintaining Microsoft Windows, a phenomenon with with many of us are all too familiar. They too laid out a conception of software as material, relational, and grounded in process and practice. The last two papers in this panel, Greg Bloom’s “The Tragedy of the Directories: Towards the Maintenance of Community Resource Data as a Digital Public Good” and Bradley Fidler’s “The Dependence of Cyberspace: Political and Technical Maintenance of Internet Resources,” talked about the political implications of software, making a case for the centrality of open data standards to maintainability and questioning the internet origin narrative narrative which depicts the internet as a place of decentralization and freedom.

The Big Takeaways

This was not a conference that lent itself to easy summarization; there were simply too many good ideas from too many perspectives for it all to be summed up in a couple of sentences. That’s not going to stop me from trying though.

First, the study of maintenance and maintainers helps us see the invisible. It shows us how wealth and power are unevenly distributed along lines of race, gender and class. And it exposes infrastructure we take for granted, upon which the daily routines of our lives rely.

In addition, archivists and allied information professionals have a lot to offer to a conversation about maintenance from their perspective as practitioners. There’s a rich history of thought in archives about the visibility and invisibility of marginalized populations, not to mention an ongoing discussion in the profession about our own relative invisibility. In a sense, archivists are maintainers of records, information, relationships and memory; let’s make our voices heard!

Maintaining Space

Today's blog post is written by Yulia Frumer, a historian of science and technology, focusing especially on East Asian history, and an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University.

Still in a post-Maintainers euphoria, I keep thinking about how the notion of maintenance plays out in my own field of expertise—the history of Japanese science and technology.

"Non - innovator" is a common epithet direct at the Japanese by Westerners. Numerous times my interlocutors or my students have repeated some version of the claim that the Japanese "didn't invent anything new, but just improved on things they (and it is always 'they') copied from others." We can counter this stereotype by demonstrating that Japanese scientists did, in fact, invent and innovate, and that they have historically been robbed of recognition (see scholarship by James Bartholomew, for example). Or, we can dismantle the priority of innovation altogether and focus on the notion of maintenance.

 One of the topics that came up in the coffee break discussions during the recent Maintainers Conference was the intended object of maintenance — should we focus on “things” that are being maintained or look at the maintenance of bodies in relation to their material environment? After all, we are not only tweaking the “things” that need repair or adjustment, but also changing our own movements and habits to smooth our use of “things.” However, whether we maintain “things” or “bodies,” we do so within a particular space. So here I would like to talk about space-maintenance in Japan.

In Japan, the maintenance of space is much more visible than in other countries. Space in Japan is scarce. In Tokyo, a 250sq foot apartment is not called a “tiny house,” it’s called a “house.” Even a tiny space, that may look like it is barely enough to park a car, can be used to shoehorn a building.

The notion that “Japan is small” is ubiquitous in Japanese popular culture. “Fuji in Red,” one of the episodes of Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (1990), describes the explosion of nuclear reactors located on Mt. Fuji. As masses of people are trying to flee the scene, one of the protagonists exclaims, “Japan is so small, there is nowhere to escape to.” (It is worth watching the rest of the episode by the way). A similar sentiment is expressed in Japan Sinks (1973, 2006), in which citizens of Japan flee the land crumbling underneath their feet until it nearly disappears. Minoru Kawasaki’s parody of Japan Sinks goes even further. In Everything but Japan Sinks (2006), Japan is the only place left above water after the rest of the world has sunk into the sea, and people from all over the world try to squeeze on to the Japanese islands.

What makes Japan feel so small is not the space itself, but the population density (6,158 people per square km in Tokyo). For such a multitude of people to cohabitate, the space itself must be rigorously maintained. And again, maintaining “space” means maintaining “things” and “bodies” in space.

Let’s start with maintaining things. If you live in a 250 sq. feet apartment, you do not have a lot of storage space, or cupboard space, or even living space. Instead, you move things around to change the function of the space — unrolling the futon in the evening turns the room into a bedroom, rolling it up and storing it in the closet turns the space into a living room. (Of course, we are talking about a Japanese futon, not the bulky American version that is rarely folded up and put away.)

The problem is not only how to make everything fit into a small space, but how to make things fit and still leave them accessible and usable. Keeping an apartment in Japan is like a perpetual game of Tetris, except the blocks never disappear, even when they are neatly arranged. There is plenty of merchandise designed to assist you in maintaining your space — vacuum storage, inner shelves, wall hooks, etc. But constant attempts to live in small spaces has also given rise to a whole genre of life hacks — creative modifications and uses devised to maintain a variety of things within your space. Should we call it innovative maintenance?

And as I mentioned before, maintenance of space also requires the maintaining of bodies. Anybody who has visited Japan probably remembers the yellow lines running along the streets and train platforms. Although they are usually identified by their color (in Japanese too, they are called “yellow lines”), color is probably their least useful aspect for their intended primary users—the blind. The lines, in fact, are not only yellow, but also textured, and thus they allow the visually impaired to feel the pavement with their canes. The texture tells the blind whether they are approaching an intersection or a dangerous edge, or guides them to an entrance or an exit. Thus, the lines are a great example of spatial infrastructure that allows visually impaired people to function within a potentially hostile (to them) space.

This creates the impression that the placement of the yellow lines is a purely benevolent act. And indeed, providing access to the blind was the main objective behind modifying all public spaces in Japan. But as the name “yellow line” implies, the beneficiaries are not the blind alone. In addition to the marginal use of yellow lines as signs (when a train approaches the station, people are asked to retreat “behind the yellow line”), maintaining blind bodies in communal spaces allows everybody to function with minimal disruption. In a country where trains arriving 17 seconds behind schedule are considered late and websites advise you which door of the train to enter in order to make a given transfer, any disruption in the flow of bodies creates a problem. It took you additional two seconds to take your subway ticket out of your pocket? —Grumble. You try to walk the wrong way against a throng of people? —You might end up in the ER. No wonder that those who commit suicide often choose to get their revenge against society by disrupting train service during rush hour. In this situation, a blind person wondering around, or (god forbid) falling onto the train tracks, is not only a pitiful sight — it is a disruption in the time-space necessary for the proper functioning of society. Maintaining blind bodies within this space by means of yellow lines, on the other hand, facilitates the flow of other bodies, and shapes the choreography of these other bodies surrounding the potentially disruptive yellow line.

Maintenance of space through constant movement of things and bodies is only visible when space is limited. Any apartment needs organization, and Japan is not the only country to create infrastructure for the blind. Yet in Japan it is not enough to organize your apartment once, as there is no one proper place for many things that move with the shifting of the function of the space. Similarly, without maintaining awareness through meaningless-to-the-blind coloring of the infrastructure, the lines might help the physically impaired, but not the rapid flow of bodies. Space maintenance is not a one-time act, but a continual process.  

Introducing The Maintainers Blog

The Maintainers conference and related publications have been a big and unexpected success, spurring conversations around the globe. Several conference attendees as well as complete strangers have encouraged us to keep the conversation going. One of the ways in which we'll be doing this is by creating this blog. Over the coming weeks, we will be putting up several kinds of blog posts, including reflections from conference attendees, meditations on the meanings and methods of maintenance studies, and guides for further reading.

We want this to be an open and fruitful conversation. In this spirit, we strongly encourage you to send proposals for posts—though in all likelihood we will not be able to accommodate every proposal. We are especially keen to hear from practitioners, that is, real Maintainers who are out there in the world keeping things going. We are also particularly interested in increasing the geographical and national diversity of the conversation. How do these issues look from different places and different perspectives around the world? But any idea for a post is worth considering. Proposals can be sent to

Tomorrow morning, Yulia Frumer, a historian of Asian science and technology and professor at Johns Hopkins University, will get a conversation started by reflecting how themes of maintenance play out in her research in Japan.