Doing “pre-industrial” history of technology

Earlier this month, I got to present a paper in a session I organized for the annual meeting of the Society for the History of Technology in St. Louis. I have two things to say about that. One has to do with the paper and the session, and the other doesn’t.

SHOT and the field it promotes are overwhelmingly concerned with “industrial” and “post-industrial” technology, and the relationships between those cultures and the technologies they produce and use–as well as those they don’t. That does not mean, however, that those of us working in earlier periods are unwelcome; I had 12 scholars who signed up, which means I had to propose three sessions. SHOT accepted only one, but they re-distributed most of the other scholars, and their papers, to other suitable sessions. The session was well-attended, the presenters enthusiastic and compelling, and SHOT was kind enough to find us a most suitable chair/commentator who took an obvious interest in the papers and the proceedings. We learned about the competition to build an astounding number of Gothic cathedrals in late-medieval Europe, the relationship between the building and operation of mills and the social and power structures of medieval England, and what the artisanal craft of shipbuilding in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British Atlantic might teach us about doing history of technology in general. (That was mine, of course.) I thank Anne McCants of MIT, Adam Lucas of the University of Wollongong, and our chair and commentator, independent historian Pam Long, for making this work. If you’d like to learn a little about what they work on, you can use these links (links will open in a new window):

Anne McCants

Adam Lucas

Pam Long

I also thank those who signed up for our sessions and either couldn’t make the conference or presented in other sessions: David Zvi Kalman, Moritz Nagel, John Pannabecker, Steven Walton, Yovanna Pineda, Rob Johnstone, Dustin Studelska, Gideon Burton, and William McMillan.

The other thing I want to say is about winning–and not winning–awards and grants. I was up for two at this conference: the prize for best paper by a first-time, early-career presenter; and a no-strings-attached postdoc worth $10,000–plenty to complete the research I want done for this book. I knew I wanted to win them, but I didn’t realize how badly until I found out I didn’t, after which I confess I threw a bit of a tantrum (in private), which made clear to me not only that I don’t like to lose, but that I’d got quite used to winning things lately. The inescapable truth, though, is that when you play this game, you will win some and you will lose some. They’re all seriously competitive, whether or not they have big checks attached. I can’t objectively complain about the number of such cap feathers I have on my CV at this point. (But, as the indefatigable Joe Walsh so memorably sang, “I can’t complain, but sometimes I still do…”) If you’re a young scholar or an aspiring scholar and you’re reading this, first of all, thank you, and also, remember, when it counts (which is when you’ve been rejected for something you want and you’re in the middle of that gross feeling), that the only proper response is to try again as soon as possible. The biggest thing I ever won, I won the second time I applied for it. The whole equation changes each time; as long as you’re qualified, your name should be in that hat.

The acknowledgements sections of academic books, usually included in the introductions, can be terribly intimidating (at least they used to be for me), because they typically list all the grants and prizes and fellowships the author won that facilitated the completion of the book. What they do not contain is all the grants, prizes, and fellowships the author did NOT win. I have resolved to note this in the acknowledgements section of my book (if the editor will let me, of course), so as not to daunt any new or would-be scholars who might be reading.

That’s enough blogging for now. Back to that other thing… Thanks for reading.

PS the picture at the top is the ceiling of the bar in the Union Station Hotel in St. Louis where the conference was. They put really cool light shows up there during happy hour. The picture is off-kilter and blurry. That is how pictures taken in bars by current patrons should be.

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