Michael Helms is a full-time information technology professional and a part-time student at North Carolina State University, where he is majoring in history. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and has been an AHA member since 2012.
Alma mater: BA, North Carolina State University, 2018
Fields of interest: My main area of study is the history of the American firearms industry, with a focus on the development of cartridge-load arms in the 1850s and 1860s.
What do you like the most about where you live and work? My wife and I had long dreamed of living near the Gulf Coast and Louisiana’s storied history and breathtaking beauty made it a natural fit for both of us.
What projects are you currently working on? My current project involves rewriting my honors thesis as a full-length book. My 2016 thesis considered the rise of Smith & Wesson as an exemplar of modern American enterprise, with its manifold intersections into the rise of the industrial revolution, advances in precision manufacturing, the incidental development of mass-distribution, and dramatic changes in how intellectual property laws were increasingly being wielded monopolistically by large corporations.
The tandem growth of urban America was also creating new markets for these firearms, and my research attempts to understand the industry’s meteoric rise over such a relatively short span of time. My research also attempts to bridge the very separate disciplines of the academic historian and the antiquarian/gun collecting communities by blending the intense internal focus of the collecting communities with the broader external view that academic historians are trained to examine. I draw inspiration from the work of historians such as Alfred Chandler Jr., David Hounshell, Donald Hoke, Zorina Khan, Arcadi Gluckman, Herschell Logan, Ralph Flayderman, and Charles Pate.
What’s the most fascinating thing you’ve ever found at the archives or while doing research? I wrote my junior honors thesis on the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in Alamance County, North Carolina, in 2012. While researching the North Carolina Adjutant General’s Civil War-era records, I discovered some writings on the back page of the correspondence book that captured the sundry musings of the junior officers tasked with transcribing his correspondence. It was a wonderful reminder that there is no substitute for working with the physical artifacts themselves and for exploring them thoroughly.
Another wonderful discovery was a Smith & Wesson employee roster from 1863. The immediate value of having the employees’ names was unquestionable; closer scrutiny of the document showed that it also detailed the company’s management structure, which was highly organized and hierarchical and consistent with Chandler’s theory of professional management in the rise of the modern enterprise.
What do you value most about the history discipline? Learning to be a historian has been enormously helpful to my career in information technology. Two decades in corporate America has taught me the importance of being able to critically analyze and synthesize large volumes of information, and to present those conclusions in well-reasoned prose. As historians we spend a lot of time talking about the social and civic benefits of being historically well-informed and trained to think critically about sources but we do not spend enough time talking about the vocational benefits empowered by a history degree.
Why is membership in the AHA important to you? Being a member of the AHA helps me stay connected. My full-time job and being a part-time distance education student are not conducive to networking. I have very much enjoyed being able to connect with other like-minded historians through my association with the AHA.
AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, AHA Today features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series.