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Abbott Payson Usher Prize

The Abbott Payson Usher Prize was established in 1961 to honor the scholarly contributions of the late Dr. Usher and to encourage the publication of original research of the highest standard. It is awarded annually to the author of the best scholarly work published during the preceding three years under the auspices of the Society for the History of Technology. The prize consists of a check and a certificate.

Recipient of the 2023 Abbott Payson Usher Prize

Leor Halevi, Vanderbilt University

For: “What Hath Allah Wrought? The Global Invention of Prescriptive Machines for the Islamic Consumer, 1975–2010”. Technology & Culture, vol. 62 no. 3, 2021, p.741-779.

The Usher Prize committee is pleased to announce Leor Halevi as the winner of the 2023 Abbott Payson Usher Prize for his article “What Hath Allah Wrought? The Global Invention of Prescriptive Machines for the Islamic Consumer, 1975–2010.”

Halevi’s extensively researched and well written article invites readers to explore the relationships between religion and technology. It has often been assumed that the two are antagonistic, particularly in conservative religious cultures. By revisiting a traditional source of evidence for historians (patent databases) with a new set of questions, Halevi demonstrates a flurry of inventive activity targeting Muslim consumers since the last quarter of the twentieth century. These religious technologies, such as watches that announced prayer times and calculated the direction to Mecca or devices to block cellular phones during times of worship, sought to tap technological advances to enhance religiosity. Yet they did so in ways that were prescriptive, tending to discipline consumers into strict versions of Islamic practice. These machines offered some “affordances” to consumers, but more “constraints” that encouraged orthopraxy rather than flexibility (p. 744).

The committee lauds Halevi for the breadth and comparative nature of his research. His article is global in scope, tracking inventors in places including the Middle East, America, Switzerland, China, and Japan. And while it is focused on Islamic inventions, he offers compelling contrasts to other major world religions including Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, and Hinduism. The resulting article, with its helpful appendix on utilizing newly digitized patent databases, offers a wide-ranging and imaginative look at the interconnections between religion and technology.