Michael O'Malley

Michael O'Malley

Michael O'Malley


19th and 20th century US, cultural history, history of technology

Michael O'Malley is the author of Keeping Watch: A History of American TimeFace Value: the Entwined History of Race and Money in America, and The Beat Cop: Chicago's Chief O'Neill and the Creation of Irish Music. Keeping Watch explores the transition from natural to mechanical sources for time, and the invention of standard time and daylight saving. Face Value is a history of the ways Americans argued about race when they argued about the subject of money and value. The Beat Cop is a biography of Francis O'Neill, an immigrant who rose to be chief of the Chicago Police and who was obsessed with defining and collecting Irish folk music. The book discusses political authority and culture-making. O'Malley is also co-editor of a collection of essays, The Cultural Turn in US History: Past, Present, and Future.


His most recent book, The Color of Family: History, Race and the Politics of Ancestry, looks at how authority over identity has shifted from community, to state and federal administrative records, to commercial genealogical companies, like Ancestry.com, linked to DNA databases. It partly examines the surprising fact that the State of Virginia has declared him to be "colored."

Book cover

From the Press: 

"A zealous eugenicist ran Virginia’s Bureau of Vital Statistics in the first half of the twentieth century, misusing his position to reclassify people he suspected of hiding their “true” race. His whole dubious enterprise was subject not just to changing concepts of race but outright error, propagated across generations.

This is how Michael O’Malley, a descendant of a Philadelphia Irish-American family, came to have “colored” ancestors in Virginia. In The Color of Family, O’Malley teases out the various changes made to citizens’ names and relationships over the years, and how they affected families as they navigated what it meant to be “white,” “colored,” “mixed race,” and more. In the process, he delves into the interplay of genealogy and history, exploring how the documents that establish identity came about, and how private companies like Ancestry.com increasingly supplant state and federal authorities—and not for the better.

Combining the personal history of O’Malley’s own family with the broader history of racial classification, The Color of Family is an accessible and lively look at the ever-shifting and often poisoned racial dynamics of the United States."

The book is in process for publication by the University of Chicago Press and should be out in 2024.

He is currently working on a book about the relationship between music and machines, focusing on the aesthetic taste for uniformity in modern music--drum machines, pitch correction, and dynamic range compression.

O'Malley helped establish the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at GMU, and was one of the early pioneers in the use of digital media. He has published and presented on web design for historians and remains active in the field.

With Matt Karush, he was awarded $150, 000 from the NEH for Hearing the Americas, a website that annotates and explores the first two decade of recorded music in the New World


Current Research

I'm working on a book about the relationship of music and machines. It;s focused partly on the aesthetic preference of uniformity in tempo, and partly on the way machine music evokes nostalgia for the absent musician and the pre-mechanical past

Selected Publications

The Color of Family: History, Race and the Politics of Ancestry. Forthcoming 2024 with the University of Chicago Press 

The Beat Cop: Chicago's Chief O'Neill and the Creation of Irish Music, University of Chicago press 2022

Face Value: The Entwined History of Race and Money in America (Chicago 2012)

With James Cook And Lawrence Glickman, The Cultural Turn in US History: Past, Present, and Future (Chicago 2009)

Keeping Watch: A History of American Time (Viking/Penguin edition 1990: Smithsonian press edition 1995)

In Progress:

"The Mechanics of Nostalgia," a book on the history of the relationship between machines and music. Research in progress


Selected Articles and Book Chapters

"Money and the Everyday: Paper Money, Nationalism and Community in the Antebellum US," in Federico Neiburg and Nigel Dodds ed, A Cultural History of Money in the Age of Empire (London, 2019)

"The Ten Dollar Founding Father: Hamilton. Money, and Federal Power," in Renne Romano and Clair Bond Potter eds., Historians on Hamilton (new Brunswick, NJ 2018)

"Dark Enough as It Is: Eddie Lang and the Minstrel Cycle," in Journal of Social History, Volume 52, Issue 2, Winter 2018, Pages 234–259, https://doi.org/10.1093/jsh/shy024

With Roy Rosenzweig, “Brave New World or Blind Alley: American History on the World Wide Web,” in Journal of American History, (June 1997)

“Specie and Species: Race and the Money Question in 19th Century America,” and “Response to Nell Irvin Painter,” both in American Historical Review 99 (April 1994)


Selected Digital publications

“Free Silver and the Constitution of Man: The Money Debate and Immigration at the Turn of the Century,” in Common-Place (Vol. 06, No. 03, April 2006)

With Roy Rosenzweig and the American Social History project, Who Built America? V. II (CD-Rom edition) December 1999

Courses Taught

History 389: Magic, Illusion, and Detection
History 389: The American History of Money
History 610: History and Memory
History 626: Technology and Culture
History 629: The Gilded Age and Progressive Era


BA Temple University, 1981

PhD. University of California, Berkeley, 1988

Dissertations Supervised

Jeri E. Wieringa, A Gospel of Health and Salvation: Modeling the Religious Culture of Seventh-day Adventism, 1843-1920 (2019)

Anne McDivitt, We Take Fun Seriously: The Creation of the Video Game Industry in the United States (2018)

Nathan Sleeter, Fortunate Deviates: A Cultural History of Gifted Children, 1916-1965 (2017)

Gerald Prout, Coxey's Challenge in the Populist Moment (2012)