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Technology and Culture 42.2 (2001) 335-336
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Technological Revolutions in Europe: Historical Perspectives
Technological Revolutions in Europe: Historical Perspectives. Edited by Maxine Berg and Kristine Bruland. Northampton, Mass.: Edward Elgar, 1998. Pp. xiii+325. $85.
When a historian of technology sees a title such as "Technological Revolutions in Europe," she immediately makes a few assumptions: that there will be stories of technological change, that some discussion of the forces behind the change will occur, that the author or authors will comment on the nature of technological revolution, that they will make mention of inventors and their social, cultural, and economic contexts, and, not least, that there will be an effort to situate technological revolutions within the context of the history of technology. Readers of Technology and Culture might assume that a book so titled would fit well within the historiography of our field, but for most of the essays in this volume that assumption would be unfounded. The questions asked here are about economics much more than about technology, more about economic change than technological change. They are useful questions, but they are not questions that address technological revolutions.
Technological Revolutions in Europe is the product of a symposium in Oslo in 1996 that was organized around the theme of "the relationship between technological change, learning and the social context." The contributors are, with a couple of exceptions, economic historians. One wonders why a conference on such a topic did not include the large and active community of historians of technology in Norway and Sweden.
As with most conference proceedings, the quality of the contributions is uneven. Of the fifteen essays, there is a core of five that I think would be most interesting to T&C readers. Two of them both support the volume's title and fit well into the historiography of technology: Christine MacLeod's "James Watt, Heroic Invention and the Idea of the Industrial Revolution" and Trevor Griffiths, Philip Hunt, and Patrick O'Brien's "The Curious History and Imminent Demise of the Challenge and Response Model." Both are important contributions to a new and more critical history of the industrial revolution, one that returns to the sources instead of relying too much and too uncritically on secondary material.
MacLeod makes us reconsider the historiography of the industrial revolution. After the death in 1819 of James Watt, his friends and supporters launched a campaign to glorify the man and his invention. MacLeod suggests that Watt "posthumously [became] the benign personification of the Industrial Revolution" because he was adopted by manufacturers, "men of science," and economic liberals in the 1820s as the figurehead for industrial and economic change. This heroic and benign depiction of Watt and his engine "moulded the concept of the Industrial Revolution" (p. 97). It also "raised awareness of new technology and helped shape attitudes more positively [End Page 335] towards it. Watt's admirers proffered an optimistic and patriotic interpretation of the terrifyingly rapid changes" (p. 98).
Griffiths, Hunt, and O'Brien's contribution is as important as MacLeod's. They argue that the challenge-and-response model has no historical foundation. It was first developed in the 1880s to explain the inventiveness of the industrial revolution: the flying shuttle created demand for yarn, inventors responded by inventing spinning machines, and so on. The authors subject the model to empirical tests and find no evidence to support it. Exploring the literature of the mid-eighteenth century, they find no awareness of the flying shuttle creating an imbalance in the textile industry. The yarn shortage was attributed to increasing exports rather than faster weaving. Though the model has been used uncritically up to the present, the authors are right in saying "it is time to bury an old friend" (p. 133).
Three other contributions will be of special interest to T&C readers. Alf O. Johansson's "Why Change to Steam Power? Institutional Constraints, Risk-Aversion and Path-Dependence in the Swedish Sawmill Industry, 1850-1900" argues that "powerful Swedish institutions operated at different levels to retard steam power: through laws that did...