Profile profile for stephensc

Carlene E. Stephens


M.A. University of Delaware, Hagley Fellow

B.A. Muhlenberg College

Research Specialties: 
  • History of U.S. science and technology
  • Cultural history of time
  • History of robots and automatons
  • History of acoustic recorded sound



Current Projects:

Manuscript in progress:

  • History of the electronic wristwatch

Exhibitions in progress:

  • Elephants and Us:  Considering Extinction, opened November 2019
  • Time and Navigation: the Untold Story of Getting from Here to There, opened at the National Air and Space Museum, March 2013

Collections project:

  • "Hearing History:  Saving Sound Recordings from Alexander Graham Bell's Volta Laboratory 

Past Projects:

Exhibitions at the National Museum of American History:

  • "Hear My Voice": Alexander Graham Bell and the Origins of Recorded Sound (opened January 2015), curator
  • Looking Ahead: Robots on the Road? (opened November 2008), curator
  • On Time (opened November 1999), chief curator and project director
  • Science in American Life (opened April 1994), deputy chief curator
  • Inventing Sound Recording: Emile Berliner, the Gramophone, and the Disk Record (opened 1988), curator
  • Inventing Standard Time (opened 1983), curator and project manager
  • The Clockwork Universe (opened 1980), principal assistant
  • 1876 (opened 1976), participating assistant
  • A Nation of Nations (opened 1976), participating assistant

At the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, Harvard University (January to June 1989):  

  • The Most Reliable Time:  Clockwork Technology and Astronomy in 19th-Century America, guest curator


Awards, Honors, and Special Recognition: 
  • Smithsonian Scholarly Studies grant, 1985, 2003, 2012
  • Dibner Award, Society for the History of Technology for On Time, 2001
  • Huntington Fellowship, 2003 and 2012
  • Smithsonian Women's Committee Grant, 2016
  • Grammy Foundation Grant, 2011 and 2016
  • Save America's Treasures grant, 2019
Professional Affiliations: 
  • Society for History of Technology (Executive Council, 1997–2000)
  • History of Science Society
  • IEEE Ultrasonics, Ferroelectrics and Frequency Control Society
  • IEEE Robotics and Automation Society
  • Institute of Navigation


“Une brève histoire, en huit épisodes, de la publicité horlogère aux États-Unis,” Régis Huguenin and Gianrico Bernasconi, eds., L’heure pour tous, une montre pour chacun:  un siècle de publicité horlogère (Neuchâtel, Switzerland:  Éditions Alphil and Musée international d’hologerie, 2019.


Time and Navigation: The Untold Story of Getting from Here to There. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 2015.
“Time in Place: Cold War Clocks and the American West,” in Volker Janssen, ed., Where Minds and Matters Meet:  Technology in California and the West .  Pasadena, Calif.: University of California Press, 2012.           
On Time: How America Has Learned to Live by the Clock. Boston: The Bulfinch Press/Little, Brown, 2002.

Book that accompanies the NMAH exhibition of the same title.

“Engineering Time: Inventing the Electronic Watch” with Maggie Dennis. British Journal for the History of Science (2000): 477–497. The article has also been published in translation in the Journal of the Horological Institute of Japan, thanks to the efforts of Kouji Kubota at the Seiko Institute of Horology.

History of the earliest quartz watches made in Switzerland, Japan and the United States. The full text of this article has been posted on the Web site of the IEEE’s UFFC Society.

“From Little Machines to Big Themes: Clocks, Watches and Time at the National Museum of American History.” Material History Review (Fall 2000): 44–58.

Essay on the history of collecting and exhibiting timepieces at the Smithsonian Institution.

“Evidence of Technology’s Past: The Collections of the National Museum of American History” with John Fleckner. In Clio in Museum Garb: The National Museum of American History, the Science Museum and the History of Technology. London: Science Museum Papers in the History of Technology, 1997.

Essay on the relationship of object and archival collections at the Smithsonian Institution, with special emphasis on recent collecting.

“Revolution on Your Wrist,” with Maggie Dennis and Amanda Dillon. Increase and Diffusion Web site. 1997.

Web site article exploring the shift from pocket watches to wristwatches in the early 20th century, and the subsequent shift to electronic timekeeping in the 1970s.

“Science and its Stakeholders: The Making of ‘Science in American Life,’” with Arthur Molella. Athlone 6 (Exploring Science Museums 1996): 95–106.

Essay on the battles involved in presenting the history of science in an exhibition at the National Museum of American History during the “culture wars.”

“Naturwissenschaftliche Bilding ist Kein Luxus: Die Austellung ‘Science in American Life’ in Washington.” with Arthur Molella. Translation by Andrea Lucas. Kultur & Technik 4 (1995): 51ff.

Key themes and objects in NMAH exhibition Science in American Life for a German audience.

"Videohistory at Waltham Clock Company, Waltham, Massachusetts: An Evaluation." In Terri Schorzman, ed., The Smithsonian Videohistory Project: A Handbook, 1993.

Essay on the experience and utility of recording operating machinery and employee interviews for documenting technical, nonverbal thinking.

"The U.S. Topographical Engineers and Their Scientific Instruments: A Research Opportunity." Rittenhouse 4 (February 1990): 61–63.

Research note describing records at the U.S. National Archives rich in information about the use of instruments during the mid 19th-century.

"Clockwork History: Monumental Clocks and the Depiction of the American Past, 1875–1900" with O'Malley, Michael. Bulletin of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors 32 (February 1990): 3–15.

Describes the 19th-century phenomenon of very large clocks depicting scenes from American history, with special emphasis on one in NMAH’s collections.

American Clocks with Otto Mayr. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American History, 1990.

Highlights booklet containing photos and descriptions of twenty of the most interesting clocks in the collections of the Smithsonian.

"Astronomy as Public Utility: the Bond Years at the Harvard College Observatory." Journal of the History of Astronomy 21(1990): 21-36. Reprinted in Owen Gingerich and Michael Hoskins, Two Astronomical Anniversaries: HCO & SAO (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, 1990), pp. 21–36.

Article about the period between 1839 and 1865, when the observatory provided the U.S. federal government with observations for determining basic latitudes and longitudes and offered the local community a time service.

"The Impact of the Telegraph on Public Time in the United States, 1844–1893.” IEEE Technology and Society Magazine 8 (March 1989): 4–10.

Describes the use of the telegraph and development of special technologies for sending time signals for commercial, industrial and community purposes.

"The Most Reliable Time': William Bond, the New England Railroads, and Time Awareness in 19th-Century America." Technology & Culture 30 (January 1989): 1–24.

Describes the growth of a time service and a standard time for New England in the mid-19th century in response to the needs of regional railroads and the availability of reliable time from the Harvard College Observatory.

"Partners in Time: William Bond & Son of Boston and the Harvard College Observatory." Harvard Library Bulletin 35 (Fall 1987): 351–384.

Outlines the interlocking interests of a Boston watch and clock firm with the Harvard College Observatory in the mid-19th century.

"A Place for Public Business: The Material Culture of the Nineteenth-Century Federal Office” with Steven Lubar. Business and Economic History, Second Series, 15 (1986): 159–173.

Describes office furnishings and machines developed in response to the growing needs of an expanding federal bureaucracy.

"Schreib- und Rechenmaschinenschätze der Smithsonian Institution." Translation by Hartmut Keil. Historische Bürowelt 10 (July 1985): 7–10.

Survey of historically significant typewriters and calculators in Smithsonian collections for a German audience.

"Before Standard Time: Distributing Time in 19th-Century America." Vistas in Astronomy 28 (July 1985): 113–118.

Brief survey of time signals distributed by telegraph, with special emphasis on the Harvard College Observatory.

Inventing Standard Time. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American History, 1983.

Booklet that accompanied a temporary NMAH exhibition of the same name.

"“Time in Place: Cold War Clocks and the American West,” .  in Volker Janssen, ed., <em>Where Minds and Matters Meet:  Technology in California and the West</em>.  Pasadena, Calif.: University of California Press, 2012.