Tenner, Edward 1944-

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TENNER, Edward 1944-

PERSONAL: Born August 1, 1944, in Chicago, IL; son of Irving (a professor) and Evelyn (a social worker; maiden name, Talmadge) Tenner. Education: Princeton University, B.A. (history), 1965; University of Chicago, A.M., 1967, Ph.D., 1972. Hobbies and other interests: Swimming, walking, bird watching, traveling.

ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 201 East 50th St., New York, NY 10022-7703. E-mail—[email protected].

CAREER: Senior research associate, Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, National Museum of American History. Editor for publications at the Institute for Advanced Study, Rutgers University, and Princeton University, 1975-91; Council of the Humanities, visiting lecturer, 1990; independent writer, editor, and speaker, 1991—; Institute for Advanced Study, visiting scholar, beginning 1991; visiting researcher at Princeton University's department of geological and geophysical sciences, and researcher for the university's English department. Has also served as a consultant for the Exxon Education Foundation Advisory Board.

MEMBER: Lemelson Center, National Museum of American History (Smithsonian Institution), Society for the History of Technology, History of Science Society, Society for Social Study of Science, American Historical Association.

AWARDS, HONORS: Junior fellow, Harvard Society of Fellows; Wadsworth Prize, Harvard Magazine; Guggenheim Memorial fellowship, 1991; Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars fellow, 1995-96.


Tech Speak; or, How to Talk High Tech: An Advanced Post-Vernacular Discourse Modulation Protocol (humor), Crown (London, England), 1986.

Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences (history of technology), Knopf (New York, NY), 1996.

Our Own Devices: The Past and Future of Body Technology, Knopf (New York, NY), 2003.

Contributor to periodicals, including Harvard Magazine, Newsday, Princeton Alumni Weekly, U.S. News & World Report, Technology Review, Raritan Quarterly Review, American Heritage of Invention and Technology, Designer/Builder, and Wilson Quarterly. Editorial board member, Raritan Quarterly Review; member of advisory board, Knowledge, Technology and Policy; contributing editor, Wilson Quarterly and Harvard Magazine. Why Things Bite Back has been translated into five languages.

WORK IN PROGRESS: Histories of the handshake and the top hat.

SIDELIGHTS: Edward Tenner, wrote Jackson Lears in a New Republic article, is "an American original, a historian of technology with an unparalleled fund of knowledge about ordinary things—from baby bottles to Barcaloungers—and how they work (or do not work) in everyday life." In his books Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences and Our Own Devices: The Past and Future of Body Technology, Tenner explores the unintended consequences of technological advances. "Few historians have a better grasp of the ironies of technological progress," continued Learns, "or of the capacity of the material world to resist human manipulation, than Tenner."

Why Things Bites Back is a revealing look at the down side of scientific advancements that were meant to improve people's lives. The many examples Tenner gives of technology gone awry range from the obvious, such as the loss of jobs from the computer revolution, to the less so, such as how changes in agriculture may have led to more people needing to wear eyeglasses, how the development of chemicals used to break up oil spills actually results in killing more aquatic life, and how pesticides used to fight fire ants have caused their populations to explode by killing off other insect species unintentionally. As Edward Goldsmith described the book in an Ecologist review, "Its thesis is that our technological efforts to manage the world of living things are not working out too well. At first, they may seem magically successful, but then comes what Tenner calls their 'revenge effect' which at best transforms acute problems into chronic ones, at worst gives rise to all sorts of new problems, often more serious than whatever problem was targeted in the first place."

On rare occasions, admits Tenner, this revenge effect can have good results, such as when the Titanic disaster led to the creation of the International Ice Patrol. But people need to be more aware of the downside of science, the author insists, because trusting in it too much can have serious repercussions. "The growth of engineering as a profession has made a new type of error possible: overconfidence in the safety of a new design," writes Tenner. But Why Things Bite Back is, in the end, optimistic, according to Phillip Johnson in Amicus Journal, who noted that "Tenner believes that technological benefits do, on balance, outweigh technological burdens. Indeed, he is at bottom an optimist about progress. But he is saying that despite quantifiable improvements in health and safety, the anxiety and stress caused by technology's side effects are well-founded, and inescapable."

Reviewers of Why Things Bite Back found much of interest within its pages. "Whether you're a Luddite, a technophile, or a curious observer, this wide-ranging book, written in a literate and lucid style, will have you rethinking the conventional optimism that surrounds technological changes," asserted Martin H. Levinson in Etc.: A Review of General Semantics. However, New Statesman reviewer David Papineau wondered why Tenner "mentions global warming only in passing.... And he says nothing about overpopulation, which is surely the paramount example of things getting worse because they have got better." Nevertheless, other reviewers felt Tenner discusses sufficient examples to make his point. "Tenner covers an impressive range of 'revenge effects,'" wrote John Adams in Scientific American, "and shows convincingly that unintended and undesired consequences are the norm whenever new technologies are introduced."

Tenner's next book, Our Own Devices, though not as much an indictment on technology as his previous work, readdresses the effects of technology on people's lives. Specifically, he focuses on how science has changed human's bodies and physical behavior. "The new book might have been called 'Why Things Bite Back II: The Return of the Professor,'" according to David Pogue in the New York Times Book Review. "Once again, a recurring theme is how each new development affects us in unforeseen ways, and once again, Tenner proves himself to be a walking database of lively trivia, statistics and historical anecdotes." Some examples of unforeseen side effects include how chairs have had a negative impact on the human spine, how rubber baby bottle nipples have led to poorer nutrition for infants, and how the keyboard has had a negative impact on personal communications, music, literature, and the arts, while also leading to the demise of the art of handwriting. While Pogue was somewhat disappointed that Tenner did not extrapolate further as to how today's technologies might affect people tomorrow, the reviewer concluded that Our Own Devices "makes illuminating reading." A Publishers Weekly critic added that "Tenner's erudite yet approachable style and his way with telling details keep his potentially obscure subject from becoming dry and boring."

Tenner once told CA: "When I was six or seven, I wrote my first real essay, lamenting the decline of the wide, splashy ties in my father's closet and calling for their revival. Writing was what I always wanted to do for a living. It took me decades to become a real writer, but the detour was also the scenic route: it gave me the materials, the ideas, the techniques and the networks that made my new career possible.

"In humanities graduate school, I prepared to fill a projected college teacher shortage that soon proved nonexistent—a vivid early lesson in the value of expert predictions. When I changed from teaching history to acquiring and editing science books, I discovered what I really enjoyed: not refining a single specialty but reading into many different ones and connecting their ideas and findings with my own. Like other scientific editors I had to find men and women whose knowledge, taste, and good will could guide me. Their friendship and advice helped sustain me when I went independent.

"Understanding the patterns of the present in a historical way is a challenge. When I wrote Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences I started with the question of why technology so often seems to be self-defeating despite the many gains it has brought. To reach my answer—that it tends to convert catastrophic problems into chronic ones—I monitored (and still follow) dozens of publications from scientific and medical journals to daily newspapers and commercial ephemera. I retained material from them not only on my immediate subjects but on dozens of others that might eventually become essays or books on their own. Then and now, I try to combine dense documentation with a personal outlook and distinctive style. One of my editors called the result the 'investigative essay'; I like the phrase.

"I've been looking at the history of headgear, footwear, seating, lighting, and other everyday objects—even bowling balls—to better understand how technology, values, and design work together, and sometimes against each other. And I'm still wondering about neckties."



Tenner, Edward, Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences, Knopf (New York, NY), 1996.


Amicus Journal, winter, 1997, Phillip Johnson, review of Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences, p. 43.

Booklist, April 15, 1996, Gilbert Taylor, review of Why Things Bite Back, p. 1400; June 1, 2003, Vanessa Bush, review of Our Own Devices: The Past and Future of Body Technology, p. 1720.

Computer Shopper, December, 1996, Chris O'Malley, review of Why Things Bite Back, p. 498.

Development & Change, June, 2000, Robbie Robertson, review of Why Things Bite Back.

Ecologist, September-October, 1998, Edward Goldsmith, review of Why Things Bite Back, p. 319.

Economist, July 20, 1996, review of Why Things Bite Back, p. S11.

Electronic News, March 10, 1997, Grace I. Zisk, "Books in Review."

Etc.: A Review of General Semantics, spring, 1997, Martin H. Levinson, review of Why Things Bite Back, p. 111.

Foreign Affairs, March-April, 1997, Eliot A. Cohen, review of Why Things Bite Back, p. 179.

Futurist, July-August, 1997, Andy Hines, review of Why Things Bite Back, p. 53; November-December, 2003, review of Our Own Devices, p. 59.

Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 2003, review of Our Own Devices, p. 599.

Library Journal, May 15, 1996, Gregg Sapp, "Book Reviews: Science & Technology," p. 82; June 15, 2003, Wade M. Lee, review of Our Own Devices, p. 97.

Magill Book Review, Philip McDermott, review of Why Things Bite Back.

New Republic, April 26, 2004, Jackson Lears, "The Resurrection of the Body: Medicine and the Pursuit of Happiness in America."

New Statesman, June 21, 1996, David Papineau, review of Why Things Bite Back, p. 48.

New York Times Book Review, August 18, 1996, Dick Teresi, "Not with a Whimper but a Bang"; July 6, 2003, David Pogue, "Smothered by Invention."

People Weekly, October 13, 1986, "Edward Tenner's Post-Vernacular Discourse Modulation Protocol Teaches You to Talk High Tech," p. 134; May 20, 1996, Mark Bautz, review of Why Things Bite Back, p. 32.

Print, January-February, 2004, Steven Heller, "Edward Tenner, Philosopher of Everyday Things."

Publishers Weekly, April 15, 1996, review of Why Things Bite Back, p. 57; May 19, 2003, review of Our Own Devices, p. 65.

School Library Journal, November, 2003, Paul Brink, review of Our Own Devices, p. 174.

Science, August 23, 1996, Langdon Winner, review of Why Things Bite Back, p. 1052.

Science News, July 12, 2003, review of Our Own Devices, p. 31.

Scientific American, October, 1996, John Adams, "Mistakes Were Made."

Social Studies, January-February, 1997, Ronald H. Pahl, review of Why Things Bite Back, p. 42.

Time, May 20, 1996, Julian Dibbell, "Everything that Could Go Wrong," p. 56.

Washington Post Book World, June 22, 2003, Jonathan Yardley, "Tales of Machines and Men and How They Interact to Their Mutual Benefit," p. 2.

Whole Earth, summer, 1997, J. Baldwin, review of Why Things Bite Back, p. 58.

Wilson Quarterly, summer, 1996, Jackson Lears, review of Why Things Bite Back, p. 86.


Edward Tenner Home Page,http://www.edwardtenner.com(May 18, 2004).

Princeton University Web site,http://www.princeton.edu/ (May 18, 2004), Jennifer Greenstein Altmann, "Unique Approach Opens Up Realm of Research."*

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