JHI Circle of Fellows Spotlight—Breanna Lohman

March 14, 2024 by Sonja Johnston

Bree Lohman is a PhD Candidate specializing in the history of technology, computing, and the environment in Cold War North America. At the University of Toronto, she is based at the Institute of the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology. Her dissertation explores the emergence, maintenance, and decline of the SAGE nuclear defense infrastructure in Canada and the United States. Her fellowship research project is titled The Ends of the World: An Environmental History of Nuclear Defense Infrastructure. Bree is one of our 2023-24 Chancellor Jackman Graduate Fellows.

What are your main research interests?

My main research interests stand at the crossroads of three fields: the history of computing, the history of the environment, and the history of warfare. My dissertation, Ends of the World, yolks these historical subfields together by undertaking an environmental history of American military computation. The central artifact of this study is the SAGE air defense system—a castle parapet of the Cold War. Scholars of various stripes have demonstrated how SAGE served as 1) a model for future military systems, 2) an agent of technology diffusion, 3) a paradigm for programming and computer interfacing, 4) a template for applied research partnerships between research institutions and the state, and 5) a discourse of total defense. However, one of the most critical and unsettling innovations of SAGE has yet to be fully historicized within the scholarly literature: What were the ecological, and economic, impacts of this infrastructure within the communities where it was embedded? My work begins with the view that the most profound and enduring impacts of this geopolitical apparatus of national security was, in the first and final analyses, was local. While the impacts of such a vast system were uneven and differential, my dissertation underscores that legacies of SAGE are marked by lasting environmental harm and economic depression: PCBs leaching into Arctic soil, radioactive slag sedimented within national preserves, and declining employment as installations were shuttered.

What project are you working on at the JHI and why did you choose it?

I am pursuing two chapter-length projects at the JHI: 1) the advent and development of real time computation with the SAGE air defense system, and 2) the remediation of the DEW, or Distant Early Warning, Line, a radar system ringing the Arctic Circle that was ‘plugged into’ SAGE. My interest in these projects developed during graduate internships I completed at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, and, later, the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley. As I toured exhibit spaces at these two museums, I became increasingly interested in uncovering the hidden histories of the artifacts on display, which was absent from the exhibit signage. As I conducted research in various archives, I was led in unexpected directions as the parameters and foci of the project changed.

How has your JHI Fellowship experience been so far?

I have immensely enjoyed my time at the Jackman Humanities Institute. While I look forward to the talks every Thursday, it is the serendipity of drop-in conversations that has been my most cherished part of the fellowship. Over the course of the past academic year, I have cultivated friendships, developed new academic interests, and fostered a newfound appreciation for puzzles—a shared pastime at the JHI.

Can you share something you read/watched/listened to recently that you enjoyed/were inspired by?

I was recently introduced to the work of Wim Wenders by a colleague at the JHI, who invited a group of us to watch Perfect Days TIFF Bell Lightbox after work. Wender' is a deeply evocative film about finding joy within an austere life, and I heartily recommend it.