Power politics that forgot the mothers in invention

December 4, 1998

No longer can the history of technology be caricatured as the amateur pursuit of retired engineers stuck in the hagiographic mode. But has it not courted the danger of being taken over by sociologising outsiders, lacking technical competence and pushing their rival agendas?

Not on the evidence of the studies in Icon, largely selected from the symposia of the International Committee for the History of Technology. Traditional themes are better integrated with social and economic history.

The inherently political nature of any attempt to construct the past of technology and science was brought brutally home to two senior curators at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington in 1994. Designing a major exhibition on "Science in American Life", they had worked under the guidance of a committee, half of whose members were picked by the sponsor, the American Chemical Society.

Another ACS-appointed group of consultants, which included a Nobel laureate chemist, vetted the final script. Yet the opening of the exhibition helped to spark the "science wars" in the United States.

Prominent scientists denounced it as part of a flight from science and reason. Newt Gingrich said the Smithsonian was now "the plaything of leftwing ideologues". A senate committee probing exhibits policy at the museum sternly told a curator that his task was to present a recitation of fact and leave interpretations to the viewer. Most critics had not even seen the exhibition, and a poll found that most visitors left with their positive image of science intact. Nevertheless, the museum gave in to demands for wholesale changes, now voiced by the ACS itself.

The curators were bewildered. They had responded to the post-war call for providing the public with a context for viewing artefacts by placing them within a narrative or a story about the past. The exhibition also reflected the commonplaces of the Science Studies in which most Smithsonian curators had taken their PhDs: that the past has to be constructed; that multiple stories can be constructed about it; and that stories change as larger perspectives alter. Hence the fact that the story of science and technology in our century could not be told in a purely celebratory way.

Keeping control over telling the story of technology in order to enhance their power and prestige had been the clear aim of engineers in Germany from the turn of the century. In Vol 1 of Icon, W. Weber documents how they lost control as a result of their tainted image at the end of the second world war. The subject blended with social and economic history as the German path to modernisation became the subject of anxious self-scrutiny.

A more general charge, drawing on and broadening feminism, is that technology has been defined so as to exclude the experience of "women, children, people of colour, and nearly the entire working class" (Caroline Pursell). The result is the privileging of "design over use, production over consumption" and periods of "change" over those dismissed as static and traditional. Hidden masculine assumptions "gendered space" (Joan Rothschild) and gave us many of the horrors of mass housing and the built environment.

A number of other Icon papers probe the role of mindsets in causing inventions to drop out of view (the too-German sounding Feuerhefer pump in postwar Britain; the numerical rules that must underlie much pre-industrial technology) or be labelled failures (a nuclear-powered flying Ramjet).

Researchers are well aware of the larger bearings of their work (Chamberlain's "appeasement" in the light of radar research; Japanese reception of Western footwear and the country's "failure" to become consumer-led). Indeed, the history of technology emerges from a reading of these volumes as among the most exciting sectors of interdisciplinary history today, deserving of a wide audience.

P. M. Rattansi is emeritus professor of the history and philosophy of science, University College London.

Icon: Journal of the International Committee for the History of Technology

Editor - Graham Hollister-Short
ISBN - 1361 8113
Publisher - Sage
Price - £18.00 (individuals); £.00 (institutions)

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