SUMMARY of SHOT (Society of the History of Technology)

summary by sam smiley

This September, I had a chance to go to the Society of the History of Technology (SHOT)
to screen INtransit V.6: “scientific american”/La America Científica. The conference was in Tacoma Washington, and my sister lives in Seattle so I had an opportunity to visit her too. What follows is the summary of my experience there and some resources and links.

What I learned overall: Historians are storytellers. Maybe in their different ways.. some let the numbers tell the story, some let the artifacts tell the story, some people collect oral histories and let that add the story up. Some don’t claim to be telling a story at all. One of the editors of SHOT’s journal, Technology and Culture, John Staudenmaier SJ actually wrote a book on this subject called Technology’s Storytellers: Reweaving the Human Fabric.

The second thing I learned: generally historians have pretty good presentations. WHy? well, many historians look at artifacts, and primary source documents. So you are much less likely to see a lot of text, flying graphics, and gratuitous google images, and more likely to see some interesting letters, images, or pictures of places.

I met some interesting people. There were a lot of people from the Smithsonian there, and one of the things my room mate did was curate space suits! I met another woman who curated uniforms. So there were historians who write, historians who curate, people interested in the history of science and technology, people who wanted jobs as historians, Rachel Maines who wrote about the history of the vibrator (later turned into an off broadway musical), people who wanted to publish their books through academic presses, and me, probably the only M.F.A in the house.

The screening of INtransit V.6: “scientific american/La America Científica was on the first Friday morning of the conference. The audience was small, but I got some very good feedback and discussion. That day I went to (appropriately enough) a panel that day called “Patent Regimes” where I saw a good talk by Cai Guise-Richardson on how the difference between the British patenting system and the U.S. patenting system eventually allowed Goodyear (the U.S. patenter) to claim to be the inventor of vulcanization of rubber (thus “Goodyear” tires). Guise-Richardson said that Hancock, a British manufactorer most likely came up with the idea first, but Goodyear ended up with the world patent. She said that it was because the U.S. patent system at the time favored the individual, and the British one favored the “good of the community” so it was harder for an individual to profit from a patent. There was a followup from Graeme Gooday about metaphors for patents in the U.K. in the 19th century which was interesting to me..is a patent “property”? a service? a process? a product? These are interesting questions.

On the subject of patents, Ted Beatty’s talk on the next day was very interesting. He talked about patents in Mexico in the early 1900’s. Although he described Mexico at that time as primarly a “technology importer” he also talked about the importance of “adaptation” as invention in developing countries. He said it was important to understand the interactions between imported knowledge and local contexts. There is an assumption that Mexican’s didn’t play a role in technological change at that time, but his question was: How did importation stimulate local innovations in Mexico? He had an image of a great document which he later emailed me the information for..Mexico’s patent records at that time. This forms the basis for some of his research.

Book of Mexican Patents, 1903

here are two case studies/examples he used as part of his research:
a brewery (Cerveceria) in Monterray..beer created a demand for glass bottles which were hand blown primarly by foreign glassblowers. However, by 1903 they were replaced by a machine glassblower that had been manufactored in Toledo Ohio. There was a race for a Mexican patent and by 1913, there was one that had been secured.
Beatty also talked about a cigarette manufactoror who used automatic rolling machines and the race for the Mexican patent then. Beatty spoke about patents that come in the wake of the introduction of imported inventions. he also noted from his research the amount of foreigners who had claimed Mexican patents.
This makes me curious (as per a previous AstroDime post) about the “Spanish Patent” that was advertised in the Export Edition of Scientific American in the 1800’s..and how that related.

I saw a lot of other talks, but the panel that turned out to be the most interesting was the “Consumption and technological change in 20th century Africa”. Laura Fair’s talk was called “Consuming Cinema in Colonial and Post-Colonial Tanzania”. For me it was facinating! There are a lot of assumptions that technologies come late to developing countries or countries that still bear the stamp of colonialism, but actually it turns out that film was part of the culture in Tanzania in 1904, shortly after the introduction of film in Europe. There were grand movie houses built, especially on the coast. Johny Walla built a picture palace that seated 900 patrons. Some of these are still around today. Fair built her historical reconstruction around oral histories of people who remembered seeing film, or whose parents had seen film in these communities. All in all, it was a facinating talk.
Joshua Grace followed up with public tranportation in urban Tanzania: “Riding the People’s Car in Dar es Salaam: Busses, Passengers, and the State”. He talked about the competition between the state run public transportation system and the “Thumni Thumni” busses, or illegal private ones that would adjust their rates according to the market but were often more efficient.

Finally, Bianca Murillo worked from letters written in Ghana in the 1970’s..looking at letter writing as a technology. She had several examples and they were really facinating. She did an analyis of them but also provided statistics about the amount of letter writing, specifically to the government..at that time. She said that the 1960s was the end of colonial rule, but there was a collapse of the government. Private citizens would write to the government to report on neighbors, or store violations of the price of goods, report on the conduct of soldiers, or actually ask for a job as a soldier. her talk was called “Militarization of the Market: Scarcity and Surveillance in Ghana, 1970’s.”

I wished I could stay for the final day, but I was unable. Probably with respect to what AstroDime came out of this..I found a great journal on Environment and it has a few articles which can help lead us as we continue our call for work for Ecology/Ecología in the next journal.