James McDonald

Research Historian | Investigative Disambiguator

“I am a generalist and a puzzle-solver—I approach every historical research question with interest, curiosity, and determination.”

Work at HAI

At HAI, James has worked on archival and interpretive projects, but can predominantly be found using his diverse background to conduct historical research in digital and physical archives. With a keen interest in solving puzzles and fostering appreciation for the past, he endeavors to explicate complex historical subjects and identify hidden thematic interrelations. 

James is a meticulous researcher who has specialized in the study of the intersection of technology and culture, but whose curiosity extends to a wide spectrum of historical research questions.

Some of his areas of expertise include:

  • Technology
  • Railroads, transportation, and mobility
  • Agriculture and food history
  • Consumption, consumerism, marketing, and advertising
  • Risk and safety
  • Public health
  • Invention and innovation
  • Business, political systems, and policy
  • Colonial American Finance
  • Music and popular culture
Path to HAI

Before joining HAI in 2019, James’ work included managing telephone systems and resource databases in emergency call centers; establishing digital information resources for a foreign relations think-tank; creating virtual 3D worlds for a NASA subcontractor; training, support, and project management for a leading creative agency; identifying and implementing knowledge management systems for an international non-profit; museum exhibit fabrication; instructing college students; translating and interpreting; theatrical carpentry and electrical work; and composing and performing music. In all of its permutations, James’ career has been about finding or creating connections and sharing knowledge.

James’ academic path began at the University of Maryland, where he received his BA in German Language. He studied and lectured at the Ernst-Moritz-Arndt Universität in Greifswald, Germany. In 2015, James turned his long-time interest in history into a vocation, returning to the University of Maryland to obtain a master’s degree in the History of Technology, Science, and the Environment. James has presented papers at academic conferences such as the Agricultural Historical Society meeting, the Society for the History of Technology meeting, and the D.C. History Conference. He was awarded a SHOT/NSF travel grant in 2019. James has published extensively in railroad history periodicals and is in the leadership of two railroad historical societies.