Ken Alder Professor of History, Milton H. Wilson Professor in the Humanities

Ken Alder (Ph.D., Harvard, 1991) studies the transnational history of science and technology in the context of social and political change. One central theme in his work is the history of measurement—both of nature and of human beings—and the many ways that quantitative values reflect social values. The other central theme in his work is the potency of material artifacts. He has worked on 18th-century France and 20th-century America, and his new project on the history of objects carries him from ancient Mesopotamia and colonial West Africa to our own era of Chinese manufacturing and the genomics revolution.

Alder's first book, Engineering the Revolution: Arms and Enlightenment in France, 1763-1815 (Princeton, 1997; 2nd ed., Chicago, 2010), won the 1998 Edelstein Prize from the Society of the History of Technology. That book used the history of a particular artifact—the gun—to rewrite the history of the political and scientific changes that accompanied the French Revolution. His second book, The Measure of All Things: The Seven-Year Odyssey and Hidden Error that Transformed the World (The Free Press, 2002), examined the origins of the metric system in Revolutionary France. The book has been translated into 12 languages and won three "best book" prizes: the Davis Prize (History of Science Society), the Dingle Prize (British Society for the History of Science), and the Kagan Prize (The Historical Society). His most recent book, The Lie Detectors: The History of an American Obsession (The Free Press, 2007; Bison Books, 2009) examines the fraught relation between truth and justice in twentieth-century America. Alder is currently working on two projects. The first traces the history of the forensic sciences from the Renaissance to the genomics revolution to explore the shifting relationship between identification and identity. The second examines the history of “artificial beings” (aka material artifacts) from the early 21st century BCE to the early 21st century CE.

For this work Alder has been granted fellowships from the NEH/Newberry (1997-98), the American Bar Foundation (2001-02), the National Science Foundation (2008-09), and the Guggenheim Foundation (2010-11). He has been a visiting faculty at NYU, the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris, and the Ecole des Mines, Paris. He has served on the executive council of the History of Science Society and the Society for the History of Technology. In 2012 he was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. He is also a novelist, and the author of The White Bus (St. Martin's Press, 1987).

Alder currently serves as the chair (2015-17) of the History Department. Alder is the founding director of the Northwestern's science studies program, known as Science in Human Culture.

Affiliated Programs


Engineering the Revolution Book CoverEngineering the Revolution: Arms and Enlightenment in France, 1763-1815, Princeton, 1997; 2nd ed., Chicago, 2010.

The Measure of All Things Book COverThe Measure of All Things: The Seven-Year Odyssey and Hidden Error that Transformed the World, The Free Press, 2002; paperback 2004. Also published in the UK by Time Warner (2002), and in French (Flammarion, 2005), Italian (Rizzoli, 2002), German (Bertelsmann, 2003), Dutch (Ambo/Anthos, 2003), Spanish (Taurus, 2003), Portuguese (Objectiva, 2003), Swedish (Nordstedts, 2003), Norwegian (Cappelen, 2003), Chinese simple (HuaWen, 2004), Chinese complex (Owl Cite, 2005), Japanese (Hayakawa, 2006), and Hebrew (Kinnert-Zmora, 2005).

The Lie Detectors CoverThe Lie Detectors: The History of an American Obsession, New York: The Free Press, 2007. Paperback edition: Lincoln, Neb.: Bison Press, 2009. Japanese edition: Hayakawa, 2008.

Selected Articles

(for links to these articles, see Alder's website)

  • “History of Science as Oxymoron: From Scientific Exceptionalism to Episcience,” Isis 104 (2013): 88-101. Centenary edition, "Focus Section on the Future of the History of Science."
  • “Scientific Conventions: International Assemblies and Universal Standards,” pp. 19-40, in Mario Biagioli and Jessica Riskin, eds., Nature Engaged: Science in Practice from the Renaissance to the Present (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012; paperback edition [2015]). CHOICE book.
  • “Thick Things: Introduction” and “America’s Two Gadgets: Of Bombs and Polygraphs,” Isis 98 (2007): 80-83, 124-37. Guest-editor, with an introduction and essay for a Focus Section on the history of technology.
  • “It’s Not About France.” In Why France?, pp. 189-210. Ed. Laura Lee Downs and Stéphane Gerson. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006. French translation: “La France n’y est pour rien,” In Pourquoi la France? Paris: La Seuil, 2007.
  • “History’s Greatest Forger: Science, Fiction, and Fraud along the Seine.” Critical Inquiry 30 (2004): 702-16.
  • “Stepson of the Enlightenment: The Duc Du Châtelet, The Colonel Who ‘Caused’ the French Revolution.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 32 (1998): 1-18.
  • “Making Things the Same: Technological Representation, Manufacturing Tolerance, and the End of the Old Régime in France.” Social Studies of Science 28 (1998): 499-545.

Teaching Interests

  • Alder works with graduate students and postdoctoral fellows interested in the history of science and technology in a wide variety of times/places. His graduate teaching includes seminars on the objectivity question in the history of science (History 481), and on the study of material culture (History 405). In recent years, Alder's undergraduate teaching has focused on the history of modern science (History 275-2), American technology (History 325), the two cultures problem (History 101/392), and science and law (History 378).

Recent Awards and Honors

  • 2014: Distinguished Annual Lecturer in the History of the Human Sciences, History of Science Society
  • 2013-14: Visiting Senior Scholar, Department of History, New York University
  • 2012: Elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
  • 2011: Awarded the E. Le Roy Hall Prize for Teaching Excellence, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences
  • 2010-11: John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship
  • 2008-09: National Science Foundation Scholar’s Award: Program in Science, Technology, and Society