The History of Engineering and the Engineering of History
This roundtable panel invites historians to reflect upon their encounters with engineers and the things they make. Roundtable participants will consider concepts in the history of engineering such as professionalization, social mobility, risk, standardization, diversity, risk, and regulation. The speakers will build upon these concepts in engineering history to address the ways that engineering tools, concepts, and discourses—including products of the “digital revolution”—inform historical practices of teaching, research, and public outreach.
The roundtable begins with brief presentations by four discussants. First, Michael N. Geselowitz describes the encounters between two distinct groups of professionals—historians of technology and engineers—who seek to understand how technologies were shaped by and in turn helped shape social forces. Geselowitz reminds us that the public history of technology presents opportunities to engage broader audiences who care deeply about the fate of our industrial (and now digital) society. Second, Adelheid Voskuhl shares a case study of German engineers whose project of upward social mobility brought them into conflict with Wilhelminian elites. At the same time, the engineers became interested in metaphysics, ethics, and political theories of technology—philosophical engagements that informed their process of self-fashioning. Like Geselowitz, Voskuhl poses broader questions with deep contemporary relevance: in this case, the class struggle of German engineers sheds new light on the seemingly incompatible intellectual traditions of the humanities and technical disciplines such as engineering and the sciences. The third presentation, by Andrew L. Russell, explores the tension between standardization and diversity. Engineers such as Herbert Hoover used standardization as a strategy to cope with a complex and disorderly world; in the process, they forged discursive and material links between the reduction of diversity and notions of progress. With the tradeoffs between standardization and diversity in clear view, Russell asks whether historians in the twenty-first century will be able to embrace standards for digital history without stifling the diversity and spirit of experimentation that gives digital history its vibrancy. Finally, Lee Vinsel casts a critical eye on the “progress talk” endemic to engineering discourse and public perceptions of technology. By focusing on episodes of risk reduction in automotive engineering, Vinsel explains how engineers imagined themselves as agents of progress while, paradoxically, their work was reactive at its core.
In light of the AHA’s ongoing interest in the practice of history during the so-called “digital revolution,” this roundtable’s broad and critical consideration of the interactions between engineering and history is especially timely. Since all roundtable participants work at the intersections of history and science and technology studies (STS), they are ideally situated to bring critical perspectives and long-term understanding to the choices that historians face as they integrate digital tools into historical practice. Our brief presentations are designed to set the stage for a stimulating roundtable session where historians can reflect on their own encounters with technologies of the past and the present.