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.
The daughter of anthropologist Franz Boas, Marie had studied the history of science with Henry Guerlac at Cornell and would soon become the spouse of A. Rupert Hall, co-author of A History of Technology, published in five volumes between 1955 and 1958 by Oxford University Press. Mel’s correspondence with Boas—and later with Guerlac, who was president of HSS—was unfailingly cordial. In the sequence of letters, one senses some impatience on Mel’s part, but only in the memo addressed to Carl Condit, among others, do we get any indication that he felt that HSS was being dismissive—and even here he notes that members of the HSS council had expressed encouragement for his plan to organize a new society.
This is worth emphasizing because in the 1980s Kranzberg would often say that the decision to launch SHOT followed a confrontation in which Guerlac demeaned historians of technology. In the epigraph to Technology’s Storytellers, John Staudenmaier quotes from a Kranzberg letter dated 4 March 1983, in which he tells of heading a deputation that met with Guerlac in June 1957, a meeting that “proved to be a disaster.” Mel elaborated in his 1989 interview for Invention and Technology: “History of science was then under the intellectual dominance of the followers of Alexandre Koyre, who believed that the only proper focus was on the minds and thoughts of intellectual ‘giants.’” What was important to them were “thinkers, not tinkers,” and Mel reported that “Guerlac said as much to me.” It was in the aftermath of this episode, so Kranzberg’s story went, that the decision was made “to start our own society and our own journal.”
But there is no evidence in the documentary record that Guerlac demeaned historians of technology, and one is left with a sense that, late in his career, Mel was deliberately shaping a creation myth, a classic tale of redemption and triumph in the face of adversity.
Excerpts follow from that early correspondence concerning the textbook project and plans for cooperation between the Humanistic-Social Division of the ASEE and the History of Science Society. In the midst of his exchange of letters with Boas, Mel first heard from Lynn White, jr., the eminent medievalist and future president of the American Historical Association, who would become one of his most valuable allies.
At the meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago (December 28-30, 1953), I had occasion to speak with several publishers’ representatives regarding the text and anthology which we are preparing for our course in Western Civilization. . . . The points regarding our text which seemed to impress them most were as follows: (1) it will provide a more through integration than other texts; (2) more attention will be paid to science and technology than in the standard texts now in use [italics added]; (3) the final section on “what’s it all about and where will it all lead” will provide an admirable synthesis of the meaning and significance of civilization and also be a “thought-provoker” and meaningful end to the course. . . .
Dear Mr. Mitchell:
. . . The reason why I did not answer you sooner was because I was immersed in writing part of a text on the development of Western Civilization. Now that I have completed work on a healthy chunk of the text–namely, that dealing with Greek civilization–I thought it would be a good time to write you concerning what I and my colleagues are doing.
. . . inasmuch as our students are professionally motivated, we appeal to their interests by paying more attention to the role and impact of science and technology on civilization than do usual texts. This increases the value and interest of the text not only for our own students [but] in liberal arts colleges as well. Do not forget that the coming generation of college students is a generation of “hot rodders” and “space cadets” [italics added].
Carl Condit has just written me that you will be the chairman of the committee for cooperation with the History of Science Society on behalf of the ASEE. As I have just taken over as secretary from Tom Kuhn, I would be very grateful if you would keep me informed of your activities when there is anything to report. I expect that the Council of the History of Science Society will discuss possible participation in your activities at their meeting on October 20th.
Condit is very much on the ball; only last week I was appointed chairman of the Committee for Cooperation with the History of Science Society. I was going to write you a very formal letter informing you of the existence of the Committee, but Carl beat me to it. . . .
The members of my committee are as follows:
C. A. Brown, General Motors Institute, Flint, Michigan
Donald Stillman, Clarkson College of Technology, Potsdam, New York
Howard Bartlett, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass.
Carl Condit, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois
Raymond J. Seeger, National Science Foundation, Washington, D.C.
George A. Gullette, North Carolina State College, Raleigh, N.C.
Harmon Chapman, New York University, New York, N.Y.
(Chairman of the Humanistic-Social Division of the ASEE)
R. J. Woodrow, Princeton University, Princeton, N. J. . . .
Off the top of my head, I can think of two possibilities for cooperation between the Humanistic-Social Division of the ASEE and the History of Science Society: (1) Situated in engineering schools, my colleagues are “naturals” to explore the history of technology [italics added]. This might be the basis for a fruitful division of labor, since your membership is probably, concentrated largely in liberal arts colleges and might tend to concentrate more on “pure” science rather than its technological applications. What might come of such a division of labor and cooperation, I am not sure. Perhaps a History of Technology Society? (I am seriously thinking of getting one started [italics added]). Perhaps a joint meeting of the H-S Division and. the History of Science Society? (2) . . . the H-S Division is presently involved in working out a proposal for a summer institute on the history, philosophy, and sociology of science and technology–for teachers of the Humanities and Social Sciences in engineering colleges–to be sponsored by the National Science foundation. Maybe we could work out some sort of joint sponsorship with the History of Science Society for such an institute.
I hope that your Council will come up with some ideas, and that .my committee will do the same. In any case, I do not expect immediate and whirlwind action–such being the nature of committees.
Personal notes: I’m fine. How are you? Did you enjoy your stay in Europe? How are things at Brandeis? . . .
Many thanks indeed for your letter, which unfortunately, because of the crazy mail services in these parts, did not arrive in time for me to read to the Council at the meeting on October 20th. However I have showed it to both Henry Guerlac and Bernard Cohen, both of whom expressed interest, and I have just incorporated the substance of your letter into the Council minutes, as something I should have reported even if I did not. Everyone expressed great desire for closer cooperation between you and us, in any case. If you can keep me informed of any developments as they may arise, I can report on them at the next Council meeting, which will be at the time of the AAAS meeting, on December 27th.
Have you noticed that the joint session of the History of Science Society and Section L of the AAAS is to be on the interaction of science and technology? [italics added]. You might call the attention of anyone who might be interested to this. We welcome all and sundry to this as to all activities (especially membership) of the History of Science Society.
I am sure we would be glad to help you in any way possible in the excitation of interest in the history of technology [italics added]. We have always included this within the Society’s interest in any case, and would welcome anything you could do to stimulate interest in it. I am also sure we would be interested in joint meetings between the HSS and your humanistic-social Division. About the Institute I cannot of course say for sure, but individually we are all bound to be interested, and very likely if enough information were forthcoming the Council would express collective interest.
It is good to hear that you are making out well at Case. I duly gave your regards to Don Bigelow, and we had a great meeting of the minds about how much we both thought you had livened up Amherst during your stay there. Brandeis is whirling along in its usual hectic fashion, building buildings so fast you lose yourself if you stay away from campus too long. Personally, I had a wonderful time last year in England, and even got a lot done. I played visiting fireman at Cambridge, Oxford and the Sorbonne and was royally treated. I can hardly wait to get back, in fact the only problem is t o decide what to do first.
I hope I’ll have a chance of talking these matters over with you personally some time; if not this year with the AAAS, perhaps next year when we meet with the AHA.
Dear Dr. Kranzberg:
In reading the minutes of the latest meeting of the Council of the History of Science Society in New York City (the continent being extraordinarily wide I was unable to attend), I was delighted to see the report that you are the chairman of the committee which is pondering the setting up of a society for the cultivation of the history of technology. It has long seemed to me a matter of high comedy that the United States, probably the most technological nation in all history, has thus far exhibited so little interest in the contemplation of technology as a human activity which we must understand in great detail if we are to understand the central enigma of human nature [italics added].
The purpose of my letter is to tell you that if such a society is formed I should be much interested in joining. I have talked with Stanley Pargellis of the Newberry Library and John Burchard of M.I.T. about such a project, and I know that both of them would likewise be interested. Simply to demonstrate that this is more than a passing fancy I enclose a review in Isis which I regret could not have been more flattering to the volume in question. And unfortunately in a coming issue of Isis I am reviewing the three volumes of R.J. Forbes’s Studies in Ancient Technology with similarly deplorable results. Indeed, is there another field of erudition in which the standards of scholarship are so lax?
There have been no new developments, so this letter is simply an acknowledgment of yours of October 29. It does appear, however, that we were a little late in getting started on our application to the National Science Foundation for a summer institute on the History, Philosophy, and Sociology of Science and Technology. Consequently, we will probably apply next year for an institute during the summer of 1958.
Also, my parenthetical remark in my letter to you regarding the formation of a history of technology society seems to have excited some interest. Public pressure might actually force me to get going on the deal–as if I didn’t have enough to do already! And how does one go about forming a new scholarly society? I suppose one finds out simply by going ahead and doing it [italics added]. Well, I think I’ll set on the idea for a couple of months and see if it hatches. (A good metaphor for an egghead, don’t you think?). . .
First, my apologies for being so late in communicating with you in regard to the Humanistic-Social Division’s Committee for Cooperation with the History of Science Society. My tardiness is explained—but not excused—by the multitude of factors, including heavy committee duties at Case, the pressure of work, and my recent marriage to a lovely and talented lady whom I hope you will have the pleasure of meeting soon.
However, I have not been completely idle in connection with my duties as chairman of our committee, and here is my report on our activities so far. On October 16, 1956, I wrote to Dr. Marie Boas, secretary of the History of Science Society, informing her of the existence of our committee, its personnel, and its dual nature as a Committee on the Summer Institute. I then offered some tentative suggestions. . . .
On October 29, 1956, Miss Boas replied, saying that the Council of the History of Science Society had met and “expressed great desire for closer cooperation” between the H-S Division and the History of Science Society . . . .
Since then, this correspondence with Miss Boas has been at a standstill. However, my parenthetical remark of October 16, regarding the formation of a history of technology society seemed to excite some interest, for my letter was spread on the minutes of the Council of the History of Science Society, and I received mail encouraging me to organize such a society. I have given the matter some thought and there is a strong possibility that I shall do something about it in the near future [italics added]. I am all the more minded to do so since I am convinced that, despite Miss Boas’ observation that the History of Science Society has always included technology within its interest, the history of technology has been neglected by that organization. In proof of this, one merely has to look at Isis, the quarterly journal of the History of Science Society; a quick analysis of its contents from 1950 through 1956 reveals only a half-dozen articles remotely connected with technology. This is not meant to disparage the History of Science Society; it is, and should be, primarily concerned with the history of science. An analysis of other journals, including the Journal of Economic History and the Business History Review, reveals a similar neglect of the history technology. This to my mind, would indicate the desirability of the formation of a new society, with its own journal, to stimulate research in the history of technology—and I intend to do something about it . . . [italics added].
I have several items to write you about. First, as I wrote you last Fall, the Humanistic-Social Division of the ASEE is trying to get the National Science Foundation to sponsor a summer institute on the history, philosophy, and sociology of science for teachers of the humanities and social sciences in engineering colleges. The first of these institutes, if they become an annual affair, would be held in the summer of 1958 and would probably become an annual affair, would be held in the summer of 1958 and would probably be four weeks long. What help could the History of Science Society give us in planning the program for such an institute? What suggestions do you have for lecturers? (Incidentally, your name was suggested by one of the committee members.) I do not think we can assume much knowledge of the history of science among the participants. If you or any of your H of SS colleagues have any ideas or suggestions, we’d like to have them. Unfortunately, this is rather short notice, for we need them soon.
Second, I have not heard anything from your side of the fence about possible cooperation with the H-S Division. As you know, we appointed a committee, of which I am chairman, for cooperation with the H of SS, and I also wrote you about this last Fall. Since then I have circularized my committee, and they have come up with various suggestions, which I am in the process of summarizing. I shall send you a copy of my next communication to the committee, so you will know along what lines we are thinking. But before I write them again, I should like to know if the H of SS has appointed a committee to consider ways and means of cooperation, or an individual for liaison between the two groups–or is this going to be unilateral cooperation with the H-S Division doing all the cooperating? In other words, has the H of SS done anything about our vague offer of cooperation? (Marie, this is not meant to be critical of the H of SS; it’s just that I’m chairman of a committee, meeting time is approaching, and I’d like to have something to report!)
In the meantime, my suggestion for a history of technology society seems to have been gaining support. Perhaps I’ve grabbed a bear by the tail, and I shall be forced to hang on and actually organize such a society. We shall see [italics added]. I’ll keep you informed about developments along those lines, for if such a society is formed, with its own review, it will undoubtedly want to maintain very close contact with the H of SS. Never fear, I do not visualize the proposed society or its review–if these materialize–as being competitive with the H of SS or Isis; it would complement, not compete. Do you have any ideas on this subject. . . .
Thanks very much for your letter of March 29th with its heartening news of the activities of the Humanistic-Social Division of the ASEE.
As I believe I wrote you, the History of Science Society is much interested in what you have talked of doing, but when the Council met last December you had not much information available. The decision of the Council then was that the Society would not appoint a committee until more definite plans had been made by you. We are, however, planning a meeting of the Executive Committee on May 4; if you could send me more concrete information on what your committee is thinking of, and along what lines it would like to act, I could bring it to the attention of the Committee. It is probable that we should then want to form a committee to cooperate with yours. The HSS is much interested in cooperating with the ASEE; but the general feeling was that it was so occupied with other things that it would wait for some slightly more concrete proposals from your side. Especially as Carl Condit, on your committee, is a member of the HSS and was until recently on the Council (but I must say he has so far been poor liaison).
On the matter of your summer institute, individual members of the Society would certainly be interested, and I should again like to wait to consult the Executive Committee. You would presumably want as lecturers people with some experience of teaching engineers, as well as the pure historians of science—people like [Henry] Guerlac and his Cornell pupils, like Harry Woolf (now at the University of Washington in Seattle) and Pearce Williams (now at Delaware).
The history of technology society sounds like a very good idea. Had you thought of some formal relationship with the HSS? This might have its advantages, as many people are interested in both aspects, and are always more inclined to join affiliated societies, than absolutely new ones [italics added].
I’ll hope to hear from you again soon. Meanwhile, my cordial greetings.