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Accident Prone

A History of Technology, Psychology, and Misfits of the Machine Age

Accident Prone

A History of Technology, Psychology, and Misfits of the Machine Age

Technology demands uniformity from human beings who encounter it. People encountering technology, however, differ from one another. Thinkers in the early twentieth century, observing the awful consequences of interactions between humans and machines—death by automobiles or dismemberment by factory machinery, for example—developed the idea of accident proneness: the tendency of a particular person to have more accidents than most people. In tracing this concept from its birth to its disappearance at the end of the twentieth century, Accident Prone offers a unique history of technology focused not on innovations but on their unintended consequences.

Here, John C. Burnham shows that as the machine era progressed, the physical and economic impact of accidents coevolved with the rise of the insurance industry and trends in twentieth-century psychology. After World War I, psychologists determined that some people are more accident prone than others. This designation signaled a shift in social strategy toward minimizing accidents by diverting particular people away from dangerous environments. By the 1960s and 1970s, however, the idea of accident proneness gradually declined, and engineers developed new technologies to protect all people, thereby introducing a hidden, but radical, egalitarianism.

            Lying at the intersection of the history of technology, the history of medicine and psychology, and environmental history, Accident Prone is an ambitious intellectual analysis of the birth, growth, and decline of an idea that will interest anyone who wishes to understand how Western societies have grappled with the human costs of modern life.

336 pages | 46 halftones, 1 line drawing | 6 x 9 | © 2009

History: General History, History of Technology

History of Science

Sociology: Occupations, Professions, Work


Accident Prone traces the birth, growth, and decline of an idea: that of accident proneness. John Burnham writes with the confidence, authority, and insight of a preeminent historian. This book is a work of great reason and originality that promises to advance the social history of science, medicine, and technology and will engage anyone interested in how Western societies have understood and grappled with the human costs of modern technology—from home and workplace injuries to the carnage all too common on the world’s highways.”

Jeffrey K. Stine, Smithsonian Institution

“Based on massive research in the literatures of several nations and from a range of disciplines, Accident Prone is a pioneering effort in an area about which little has been written. It will make a major contribution to the growing field of the history of accidents and societal risk perception.”

Joel A. Tarr, Carnegie Mellon University

"Thoughtful. . . . A good academic book for academics."

Times Higher Education

Table of Contents



Chapter 1. Before Accident Proneness

Chapter 2. German Origins

Chapter 3. British Origins

Chapter 4. Preparing the Way: Transport Operators

Chapter 5. The Streams Come Together in the Late 1920s and Early 1930s

Chapter 6. Consolidation and Development, 1930s–World War II

Chapter 7. How Psychiatrists Did Not Adopt and Medicalize Accident Proneness

Chapter 8. The Mid-Twentieth-Century High Point

Chapter 9. Eclipse of the Idea Among Experts

Chapter 10. Bypassing Accident Proneness with Engineering



Brief Bibliographical Note


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