The Unreliable Nation

From Inside Technology

The Unreliable Nation

Hostile Nature and Technological Failure in the Cold War

By Edward Jones-Imhotep

An examination of how technological failures defined nature and national identity in Cold War Canada.





An examination of how technological failures defined nature and national identity in Cold War Canada.

Throughout the modern period, nations defined themselves through the relationship between nature and machines. Many cast themselves as a triumph of technology over the forces of climate, geography, and environment. Some, however, crafted a powerful alternative identity: they defined themselves not through the triumph of machines over nature, but through technological failures and the distinctive natural orders that caused them. In The Unreliable Nation, Edward Jones-Imhotep examines one instance in this larger history: the Cold War–era project to extend reliable radio communications to the remote and strategically sensitive Canadian North. He argues that, particularly at moments when countries viewed themselves as marginal or threatened, the identity of the modern nation emerged as a scientifically articulated relationship between distinctive natural phenomena and the problematic behaviors of complex groups of machines.

Drawing on previously unpublished archival documents and recently declassified materials, Jones-Imhotep shows how Canadian defense scientists elaborated a distinctive “Northern” natural order of violent ionospheric storms and auroral displays, and linked it to a “machinic order” of severe and widespread radio disruptions throughout the country. Tracking their efforts through scientific images, experimental satellites, clandestine maps, and machine architectures, he argues that these scientists naturalized Canada's technological vulnerabilities as part of a program to reimagine the postwar nation. The real and potential failures of machines came to define Canada, its hostile Northern nature, its cultural anxieties, and its geo-political vulnerabilities during the early Cold War. Jones-Imhotep's study illustrates the surprising role of technological failures in shaping contemporary understandings of both nature and nation.


$35.00 X ISBN: 9780262036511 312 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 48 b&w illus.


  • Jones-Imhotep weaves together highly original archival research and big issues: the global ionosphere, the Cold War, the polar North, national identity. If you want to sample the very best of today's historical writing on science and technology, read this book.

    Donald MacKenzie

    Professor of Sociology, University of Edinburgh

  • In The Unreliable Nation, Edward Jones-Imhotep traces how experts struggled to adapt military technologies to the exceptional environments of the Canadian North, while those same technologies changed how people perceived the formidable Arctic settings. A fascinating study of how nature, technology, and national identity became braided together during the Cold War.

    David Kaiser

    Germeshausen Professor of the History of Science, MIT

  • In this fascinating study of northern radio signals, Edward Jones-Imhotep shows a keen eye for cultural history, national self-concept, and technological developments. It is an absolutely terrific contribution to our grasp of technology, a study thoroughly embedded in the project of modern nation construction, at once a cultural-political history and a deep inquiry into radio, radar, and ionosopheric science.

    Peter Galison

    Joseph Pellegrino University Professor in History of Science and of Physics at Harvard University


  • Winner of the Society for the History of Technology's Sidney M. Edelstein Prize, 2018