Knowledge and the Appropriation of Technology

It is striking how profoundly we have come to integrate technological artifacts into our lives and how commonplace these devices appear to us now. There were times when they were entirely new. Just think of indoor water taps replacing public wells, or electric light bulbs supplanting kerosine lamps and gas fixtures. Here I consider how new technologies associated with engineered water supplies became a part of standard household practice in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Specifically, I explore the role that knowledge played in the process in Los Angeles. This city offers a thought-provoking glimpse into the “appropriation of technology” around 1900.

I view LA as a city where people had to come to terms with new technologies in a remarkably short amount of time. As the city’s growth accelerated at the end of the nineteenth century, residents had to adjust their everyday routines to newly built infrastructures practically overnight, even if they had not just recently migrated from a rural area. Water was crucial in this semi-arid region, and only the introduction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913 to bring water from afar spurred the city’s boom.

My work focuses on the everyday use of water infrastructure—pipes, water taps, bathtubs, showers, yard sprinklers, and more—as a series of processual appropriations in urban life. The premise of such an approach is that the use of infrastructure was something that people needed to learn. Moreover, the resulting processes had historical significance. In adopting infrastructure, city residents fashioned their habits and norms as they reshaped their everyday lives. In the end, they negotiated what it meant to be human in the age of technology.

Learning how to deal with infrastructure was anything but a one-way process. When residents habituated themselves to the proper use of new devices, changing their behaviors in the process, they did not simply do what the producers expected of them. Instead, they started using infrastructure in their own way. They transformed its scripted use and even manipulated its functioning. There is plenty of archival evidence testifying to the creativity, productivity, and dynamism of Angelenos in this process. How they actually integrated infrastructure into their lives was the subject of constant deliberations and led to adaptations by water authorities and consumers alike.

Take, for example, the numerous water-saving campaigns in dry years and during prolonged heat. The municipal utility urged consumers to save water by constraining household consumption. Such attempts to familiarize users with new conceptions of rational demand, however, were apparently doomed to failure because people continued to insist on using water as they deemed necessary, whether on their lawns or in their kitchens, washrooms, and bathrooms.

Knowledge played a decisive role here. In fact, I suggest that the history of knowledge can serve as a vehicle for exploring the appropriation of infrastructure. The use of water taps or electrical appliances such as water heaters, cooking stoves, and washing machines required specific how-to knowledge. Therefore, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power sought to disseminate new bodies of knowledge. They published handbooks and manuals, which they distributed among households together with the water bills.

One set of instructions detailed how to read the water meter: “The best method of reading is from low to high. First read the dial marked ‘10’; then the one marked ‘100’ and continue in the order shown by the figures on the outside of each dial.”[1] Consumers needed to learn to read the meter so that they would better understand their water bills and refrain from filing complaints with the municipal utility. There was also a large body of more general advice for city residents on how to use water in the home economically or how to irrigate plants and vegetables effectively.[2]

A particularly fascinating medium for disseminating knowledge was children’s books. LA had several publishing houses for such works, many of which were designed to playfully teach children about using infrastructure properly from early in their lives.[3] Children could learn about the origins of the city’s water supply in Owens Valley, about the Los Angeles Aqueduct as an engineering masterpiece, and in particular about the necessity of sanitary practices. These “Little Journeys into Water and Power Land” were intended to help children—and adults—gain proficiency in the use of technology, which lay at the core of LA’s self-representation as a site of urban modernity. For example, one advised water consumers to travel to important sites to learn more about the city’s water supplies. The foldable cover image from 1923 shown here comes from such a travel guide, one that offered very specific suggestions on what to see and do during an automobile outing on one of the highways linking the countryside to the city.[4]

In my research, I explore how these publications anticipated the typical user and what they did to influence his or her behavior. Two fields of knowledge intersected here, the system’s functioning and its role in public health.

The municipal utility aimed to educate consumers on the infrastructure itself by familiarizing them with basic engineering knowledge that ranged from the functioning of the aqueduct to the distribution of water in the city. Statistics also played a role. In particular, handbooks and manuals emphasized engineering knowledge related to the lines that connected private houses to the city’s water system. They also instructed consumers on how to find leaks in their pipes and fittings. With regard to toilet bowls, the handbooks recommended, “Bend a piece of stiff paper and hold it against the bowl beneath the inlet, allowing the water to run down the curve. The quantity of water escaping will be surprising at times, especially if there are several toilets leaking likewise in the same building.”[5] Advising users to repair leaks themselves, the manual sought to foster individual responsibility for the good working condition of toilet facilities.

The most important field of knowledge to disseminate, however, involved public health. In the second half of the nineteenth century, public health advocates regarded water contamination as a decisive factor in disease. For these social reformers, it was vital that people become familiar with the risks of bodily wastes. Publications issued by the city’s health officer presented knowledge about the proliferation of disease agents and the need for corporeal hygiene. Efforts to sanitize LA led the municipal water utility to launch campaigns to improve residents’ living conditions. A prominent example was the campaign urging people not to drink water directly from the open ditches still present in turn-of-the-century LA but to boil water distributed this way instead. Even in 1917, the Department of Water and Power warned, “The water which appears as perfect in its clarity, its tastelessness and its cold sparkle, may be the most deadly in the number of typhoid bacteria that it carries.”[6] The idea behind such efforts was to disseminate knowledge in order to regulate everyday life habits.

How did users of water infrastructure actually receive this knowledge? A small but growing body of literature shows that people produce everyday knowledge in the course of their daily interactions with technological devices, whether through observation, imitation, or even trial and error.[7] Thus, they quickly know how to turn on a new garden sprinkler and understand the need to flush a modern indoor toilet. Often, such everyday knowledge is difficult to discern in the sources themselves. Nonetheless, seeking it out is worth attempting because everyday knowledge connects knowledge as a field of research to the microhistories of human experience.

There is a close connection between the experience of infrastructure and knowledge about it insofar as they mutually produce each other. Michael Polanyi talks about “tacit knowing,”[8] which he sees as the implicit and often difficult-to-verbalize form of knowledge required to handle a complex technology. We know how to use our smartphones and computers like we know how to use a language, but we may not be able to make the requisite knowledge explicit. We acquire such tacit knowledge through daily training.

Two examples from LA’s history show how tacit knowledge was gained not only through imitation and observation but also through nudging by governmental experts. The first is from 1912, when the Common Council passed an ordinance prohibiting residents from sleeping, cooking, or eating in bathrooms and water closets.[9] This rule primarily targeted poor, nonwhite, and overcrowded households. Urging people to engage in personal hygiene, it was supposed to reconfigure space in the domestic sphere (and in the technology installed there). That is, it was meant to familiarize residents with the idea that certain routines were bound to specific spaces. Closely related to such efforts in public hygiene was the attempt to civilize poor immigrants from Mexico, China, and other places. Implicitly, the ordinance buttressed the hegemonic status of white middle-class norms about the clean home.

The other example relates more to natural gas than water, but the attempt to help people gain tacit knowledge about a modern convenience remains the same. In 1918, an op-ed published by the Department of Water and Power urged consumers, “After starting your heater, instead of taking a nap, going to the grocery store or even a picture show, watch your boiler, and when the water is hot within three or four inches of the bottom, shut off the gas.”[10] It follows that people often proved distracted when using technology such as water heaters. In response, the utility urged people to pay attention to the technology’s needs. In this case, consumers had to anticipate that turning something on meant it would have to be turned off again too.

As much as this was about saving gas, however, it was also about safety. The consumer was expected to gain the knowledge needed to use infrastructure safely. Certainly, the water heater instructions presupposed a certain amount of tacit knowledge in the first place. However, this knowledge constantly had to be refined in consumers’ daily interactions with devices. The process was driven by both the utility’s distribution of knowledge in publications and the consumers’ everyday experiences with physical infrastructure. Tacit knowledge, in other words, was mutually constructed by both the producers and users of infrastructure.

Yet we should not assume that everyday life with infrastructure could take on any definite or “normal” form. How people used infrastructure remained subject to spatial and temporal variations. Moreover, LA was still very much a city in the making around 1900. Migrants were arriving in large numbers. Often, they did not stay in one place but instead continuously moved around the region. In so doing, they carried their tacit knowing about the proper use of water and power technologies from one neighborhood, street, and home to the next. This circulation of knowledge contributed to the flexibility with which people used infrastructure, forming a wide range of habits among different households, all of them profoundly intertwined with the production of knowledge.

Jan Hansen is an assistant professor (wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter) in history at Humboldt University of Berlin and a former visiting fellow at the German Historical Institute, Washington, D.C.

  1. Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) Records Center, “Electric and Water Service Rate Schedules and General Information for Consumers,” November 1, 1927, 29.  ↩
  2. LADWP Records Center, “Irrigation of the Home Garden,” Public Service Bulletin 1, no. 2 (May 1917).  ↩
  3. Even if not printed in Los Angeles, the following book is particularly telling: George M. Kober and J. A Whiteford, Muddy Jim and Other Rhymes: 12 Illustrated Health Jingles for Children, Picture Book Edition (Washington, DC: Jim Publication Company, 1919).  ↩
  4. See, for example, LADWP Records Center, “Little Journeys into Water and Power Land, Trip No. 1,” March 1929.  ↩
  5. LADWP Records Center, “Electric and Water Service Rate Schedules,” 27–28.  ↩
  6. LADWP Records Center, “Purity of City’s Water Supply,” Public Service Bulletin, 1, no. 5 (August 1917, vol. I, no. 5).  ↩
  7. See, for example, Chandra Mukerji, “Tacit Knowledge and Classical Technique in Seventeenth-Century France: Hydraulic Cement as Living Practice among Masons and Military Engineers,” Technology and Culture 47 (2006): 213–33; Ulrich Wengenroth and Matthias Heymann, “Die Bedeutung von ‘Tacit Knowledge’ bei der Gestaltung von Technik,” in Die Modernisierung der Moderne, ed. Ulrich Beck (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 2001), 106–21.  ↩
  8. Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966), 4.  ↩
  9. “Bathrooms and Water-closets Not to be Used for Other Than Toilet Purposes (Ordinance Adopted May 1, 1912),” in: Public Health Reports 28, no. 14 (April 4, 1913): 677. Special thanks to Bryant Simon of Temple University for referring me to this source.  ↩
  10. LADWP Records Center, “Meter Care Helps in Conservation,” Public Service 2, no. 4 (April 1918).  ↩
Suggested citation: Jan Hansen, “Knowledge and the Appropriation of Technology,” History of Knowledge, November 28, 2018,