Technology and Culture 46.1 (2005) 187-191
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Techniek in Nederland in de twintigste eeuw
The seven volumes of Techniek in Nederland in de twintigste eeuw, published in Zutphen by Stichting Historie der Techniek/De Walburg Pers between 1998 and 2003, are the showpiece of the Stichting Historie der Techniek (Foundation for the History of Technology). In 2,845 pages, they address the history of technology in the Netherlands during the twentieth century. TIN-20, as Techniek in Nederland in de twintigste eeuw is usually known, is the result of an ambitious undertaking funded by numerous universities, institutes, and private companies, much to the benefit of the academic history profession. It was edited by Johan Schot, Harry Lintsen, Arie Rip, and A. A. Albert de la Bruhèze, and involved dozens of other subeditors and authors. It provided support for student assistantships, Ph.D. dissertations, postdoctoral fellowships, and professorships. And it greatly enhanced the value of collaborative research projects among scholars from different universities. This review can hardly do justice to the project by sketching the contents of its seven volumes, but it will try to put its merits into perspective. The first part considers TIN-20's aims; the second assesses its results and concludes with some personal views.
Only angels come out of the blue. TIN-20 had its precursor in another multivolume work, Geschiedenis van de techniek in Nederland, or TIN-19, which dealt with the history of technology in the Netherlands during the nineteenth century.1 Although the color of the dust jackets changed from blue to red, there is much continuity between the two projects. But there is a crucial difference as well. TIN-19 had a straightforward problematique: to [End Page 187] explain the erroneous assumption that industrialization in the Netherlands took off late, compared to France, Great Britain, and Germany. The answer lay in demonstrating that the Netherlands had its own way of modernization. TIN-20 lacks any such concern, and proceeds instead from the proposition that technology became omnipresent in twentieth-century Netherlands. The editors have aimed to present a contextual history of technology that either corrects or supplements the previous historiography. Rather than starting with traditional categories of analysis, they identified sectors that embrace both production and consumption. Sites where technologies have converged, "intersections of innovation," were given special attention. The first six volumes deal with hydrology; office and information technologies; minerals, energy, and chemistry; agriculture and food technologies; transportation and communication; housekeeping and medical technology; and cities, construction, and industrial production.
The authors of various sections, one surmises, had a great deal of autonomy. The resulting diversity has obvious advantages, but there are drawbacks as well—namely, uneven treatment of various subjects. For example, there is an excellent overview of agriculture, but transportation gets only a brief overview followed by case studies of the automobile, the port of Rotterdam, and Schiphol airport, Amsterdam. Sometimes a single case study is addressed in great detail, such as X rays in the section on medical technology. Some subjects, such as pharmaceuticals, are not covered anywhere, and in a few instances one finds neither an overview nor well-researched case studies, as in the section on food. Unlike the first six volumes, the seventh has a much more comprehensive organization. Besides an overview and some general reflections by the series editors, one finds themes that are considered crucial to an understanding of technology in the twentieth century, such as normalization. This seventh volume also covers, or at least sketches, topics that earlier volumes overlooked, such as technical education and visual culture.
How does this series represent the role of technology in the Netherlands during the twentieth century? What images are we left with? Overall, it was a prosperous century. Land was reclaimed. The conversion of factories to steam power was in full swing by the 1890s. By the 1920s the electric motor was decentralizing factory production and changing household practices because of the availability of electricity not just in cities but also in the countryside. The availability of natural resources...