The right moment for founding a society whose aim was to analyze the interactions of technology and culture arrived in the late 1950s. Why then? What was SHOT’s historical context? First, the 1950s marked “the high point of a two-century love affair . . . that saw human betterment in every advance in machinery,” as Carroll Pursell puts it. But along with this technological enthusiasm, there was a growing ambivalence engendered by daily news of ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads. Technology, both its upside and its downside, was on people’s minds as never before. There was also a potential synergy with the Smithsonian Institution’s newly authorized National Museum of History and Technology. And perhaps most important, there was a new concern about reforming the curriculum in engineering education. To take advantage of this concern, and everything else, there was the entrepreneurial flair par excellence of Melvin Kranzberg.
In 1947 Mel joined the faculty at Stevens Institute, an engineering school in Hoboken, New Jersey. There, while teaching a course in Western Civilization, he underwent an epiphany. So many historians’ debates seemed utterly unimportant. “What earthly difference,” he asked himself, “does it make whether the feudal system had Latin origins or Germanic origins?” Wasn’t it far more important to try and understand how technology had become so central to human existence, how mankind had benefitted, how it might deal with problems caused by technology? Didn’t engineers particularly need to address these questions? During Mel’s time in Hoboken, he became active in the American Society for Engineering Education. He also caught a glimmer of what later he codified as one of Kranzberg’s five laws: All history is relevant, but the history of technology is the most relevant.
In 1948, Mel moved to Amherst to teach modern European history. But the question of relevance would not go away as he kept asking himself why the historiography was so devoted to arcane matters such as “the Eastern question.” His fellow academicians “seemed to have things completely upside down.” Harry Truman had made a Presidential speech that was televised, Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier, the Department of Justice filed suit to separate AT&T from its manufacturing component, Western Electric. In his 1949 inaugural, Truman announced “Point Four,” a plan to share industrial expertise with America’s allies. Was this a technological age or what?
The word was that a multivolume work on the history of technology was being prepared in England for publication by Oxford University Press, and similar projects were under way in France and the Soviet Union. Several specialized organizations such as the Newcomen Society were providing a rudimentary matrix for research in the history of technological devices, but these were not focused on the relations of technology and culture. Moreover, they were only tangentially part of the academic world. There, the most obvious and potentially significant way to connect was by incorporating the history of technology into the so-called humanistic stem of engineering education-liberal arts courses aimed at making “well rounded” engineers. Why should not engineering students learn about the traditions of their field?
One of the schools where the history of technology was first linked to engineering education was Case Institute in Cleveland under the presidency of William Wickendam, who in the 1920s had authored a massive study aimed at strengthening the “stem.” During his time as Case president, between 1930 and 1947, Wickendam laid a foundation with required courses on “man’s cultural accumulation.”
Upon that foundation his successor built an edifice, a Division of Humanities and Social Sciences, and a reputation for the best general education program for engineers in the country. This was T. Keith Glennan, an academic entrepreneur who would serve Kranzberg as a role model (and who later became the first head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration). In 1951 Glennan secured a $150,000 grant from the Carnegie Corporation for the Advancement of Science to refine the Case curriculum in humanities and social sciences. The goal was articulated by Robert L. Shurter, whom Glennan put in charge: to grasp the complexity of the problems they would face, “the engineer as a citizen will have to study all the history, economics, government, and human relations he can muster.”
What did Case do with its Carnegie funding? Enter a new faculty contingent, including Mel Kranzberg, who had been writing articles in the ASEE journal about the importance of the humanities and sciences in engineering education and who had become a mainstay of the ASEE’s Humanistic-Social Research project, a study of nontechnical components of engineering education. By 1956, when ASEE published a report titled General Education in Engineering—with Mel having done a good part of the work and Glennan involved as well—courses in the history of engineering were being offered at several schools including the University of Detroit, Clarkson, MIT, and Michigan State, as well as Case.
Mel’s ASEE work was important for several reasons, but with regard to the gestation of the history of technology as an academic discipline it was crucial insofar as it brought him into contact with academicians who were mainly interested in the history of engineering, notably Carl Condit at Northwestern, John Rae at MIT, Tom Hughes at Washington and Lee, and Bob Multhauf and Gene Ferguson at the Smithsonian. When Lynn White, the great medievalist, wrote that “it was 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,” all of these men nodded in affirmation, Mel Kranzberg most vehemently. For here was was . . . a network! Time would prove that there was hardly anybody, anywhere, who was better at networking than Mel Kranzberg.
SHOT’s formal incorporation took place in May 1958, but its inception is best dated to June 1957, at a meeting of the ASEE in Ithaca, New York, when Kranzberg first enlisted Condit, Rae, Hughes, and others in a serious effort to launch a new society. Later that year, Mel convened a meeting at Case to formalize plans for that society as well as a center for graduate study in the history of technology and a quarterly journal. In early 1958, an advisory group endorsed not only the creation of this research center, but also a new Society for the History of Technology and a new journal-the journal eventually named Technology and Culture. The roots of the new society and new journal were deeply intertwined with the ASEE. Indeed, even before it held its inaugural meeting at the Smithsonian, there was a joint meeting with the ASEE in Berkeley. Hand in hand with the ASEE, SHOT was on its way.