On the fiftieth anniversary of SHOT, with its constituency of historians, it seems fitting to look back to the beginning, to consider what it set out to do, and to weigh what it has accomplished against what it aimed to accomplish. A clear view of those aims is indispensable. To a remarkable degree they were shaped by one man, a professor at Case Institute in Cleveland, Melvin Kranzberg.
The Kranzberg Papers, held by the Archives Center of the National Museum of American History, are an almost unimaginably rich trove of primary source material on the history of SHOT, particularly on the society's genesis fifty years ago. (A 160-page register of the collection is available from the Archives Center.) From time to time (as scanning or transcription opportunities permit) we will be posting selections from this correspondence that are particularly revealing of the hopes and expectations amid which SHOT was born.
In the premiere issue of Technology and Culture, published by Wayne State University Press in 1959, Kranzberg summarized the “pre-history” of what would become the Society for the History of Technology.
The “pre-history” of the Society for the History of Technology begins with the Humanistic-Social Research Project (1953-1955) of the American Society for Engineering Education. Under a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Humanistic-Social Division of the ASEE undertook a survey of the Humanistic-Social stem in engineering curricula and issued a report (published under the title General Education in Engineering ) which pointed out that the study of the history of technology was “of special interest and importance for engineering education” and recommended that it be “encouraged,” while at the same time guarding against possible over-emphasis and distortion.
A special committee, headed by Dr. Melvin Kranzberg, was appointed to implement this aspect of the Humanistic-Social Research Project’s report; this committee soon discovered that the history of technology was being taught only sporadically and that there was no organization or publication specifically devoted to its study. Despite this lack of a systematic approach, it was evident that there was tremendous interest in the development of technology, not only among engineering educators and historians, but among all academic disciplines. Indeed, the demand for the systematic, scholarly study of this field was found to extend far beyond academic circles.
With encouragement from many individuals, most notably Drs. Carl W. Condit and John B. Rae, Professor Kranzberg formed the Advisory Committee for Technology and Society, which included academicians, engineers, and industrialists who had evinced interest in the history of technology. A preliminary meeting at Cornell University in June 1957 discussed the areas of study comprehended within the field of technology and its relations with society and culture. These areas of study were circulated among the members of the Advisory Committee, as were various proposals for promoting the study of the development of technology.
In January 1958, Case Institute of Technology sponsored a meeting of the Advisory Committee for Technology and Society in Cleveland, Ohio. At that time it was decided to establish The Society for the History of Technology, which would conduct programs, publish a scholarly journal, and take any other steps necessary to encourage the study of the development of technology and its relations with society and culture. The Society for the History of Technology was incorporated in May 1958, as a non-profit educational organization, in accordance with the laws of the State of Ohio, and the constitution of the Society was adopted at a meeting at the University of California (Berkeley) in June of that year. At the same time the first program of the Society was held in conjunction with the Humanistic-Social Division of the American Society for Engineering Education. . . .
In a series of letters beginning in 1954, Kranzberg outlined a project he already had in the works and a plan he was beginning to formulate. The project, a Western Civ textbook he was co-authoring, ultimately failed to attract a publisher, and the unfinished typescript languishes to this day in the Kranzberg Papers. The plan, for a new scholarly society, began to take shape in Mel’s mind even as the textbook project was going aground. His first mention appears in the fall of 1956 in correspondence with Marie Boas, secretary of the History of Science Society (HSS), about possibilities for cooperative ventures with the ASEE. Boas and Kranzberg were old friends, having previously been together on the faculty at Amherst.
It is not certain that Condit was a “poor liason,” as Boas remarked; probably not. At one point, Kranzberg wrote that the problem “was more my fault than Carl’s” as there was “nothing for him to report.” Kranzberg noted that Condit was “a great one for prompt letters” and indeed he had already responded to Mel’s memo of 15 February remarking on “the desirability of the formation of a new society.” Condit was opposed. But he also urged Kranzberg to contact various scholars whom he knew to be interested in the history of technology, among them Lewis Mumford and Robert Multhauf.
Even though Condit was not the only one of Kranzberg’s committee of correspondents to warn him about plunging into “the formation of a new society,” it now seemed as if he had made up his mind. Indicative is the memo he sent to his ASEE Committee of Cooperation preceding their participation in the ASEE’s annual meeting in June. The meeting was to take place at Cornell University, where the ASEE was headquartered in Willard Straight Hall, and in this memo we see the groundwork laid for a meeting with Guerlac. The ASEE delegation was to be led by Condit, not Kranzberg.
As the meeting in Ithaca approached, Kranzberg began referring to more than a society and a learned journal. Having apparently garnering some interest in his plans from people in the Case administration, he was also writing about “a research center in technology and society,” and he sought to enlist a larger group of scholars as advisors, eventually ending up with a list of nineteen names. Typical of his approach to people he had never met was his correspondence with Robert P. Multhauf of the Smithsonian Institution, who would soon become as faithful an ally as Lynn White and one of Mel’s closest friends.