Chance and Contingency: Putting Mel Kranzberg in Context
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Chance and Contingency
Putting Mel Kranzberg in Context

. . . what would happen if Mary Tudor had borne a son, or if Mary of Modena had failed to bear one, or . . . if a storm had not destroyed the Armada. . . .

—Charles W. Cole, “The Relativity of History”

“The Relativity of History” appeared in the Political Science Quarterly for June 1933, the same year that Charles Beard delivered his presidential address to the American Historical Association, “Written History as an Act of Faith,” and not long after Carl Becker’s equally iconoclastic presidential address, “Every Man His Own Historian.”1 Beard and Becker were among [End Page 839] the preeminent historians of their time, Charles Cole a twenty-seven-year-old assistant professor at Columbia, but no less committed to the emerging school of interpretation called historical relativism. The times they were a-changin’. In 1935 Cole would move on to Amherst College in Massachusetts, where the students who answered roll on his first day in class included a youngster named Melvin Kranzberg. He saw at once that Mel was a prize. Their relationship would evolve from teacher and pupil into friends and colleagues. Mel would be Cole’s assistant at a wartime agency in Washington and would then join his faculty when Cole became Amherst’s president after the war. They would remain close even as Cole became vice president of the Rockefeller Foundation, then ambassador to Chile. In later years Mel would thank Cole many times over for having opened so many doors, for taking “so large a role in shaping my destiny.”2

After Mel, Cole may have influenced nobody else quite so directly, though his vivid exemplification of chance and contingency would endure. More than a half-century later, Peter Novick would take note of his article in the context of “a more general breakdown of agreement on the meaning of the past” that was occurring in the 1930s.3 The larger question concerned the possibility of recounting “the past as it actually was, somewhat as the engineer describes a single machine.” This was the twist that Beard put on Leopold von Ranke’s storied remark about “wie es eigentlich gewesen,” and many historians would have agreed with him that it was simply not possible. Others, still a majority, remained committed to the “noble dream” of objectivity. About the conditional element in history, however, there would have been more accord. Historians would cite “providence” and write of events being “fated,” and yet there was so much evidence for the pervasive role of happenstance. What follows is a case in point.

That Charles Cole and Mel Kranzberg both showed up at Amherst, Cole a protégé of Columbia’s immensely learned Carlton J. H. Hayes and Mel the son of an immigrant merchant in Saint Louis—that would have entailed deliberative choices. But both of them at the same time? That was a matter of chance, as was Cole’s decision to do more than usual with the Industrial Revolution in his Economics I course because he could now assign a provocative new book by Lewis Mumford titled Technics and Civilization. And for many years afterward very little of Mel’s life story would seem to have been fated, and certainly not his decision to foster an organization called the Society for the History of Technology.

Today, fifty years after its founding, we see SHOT as the cornerstone of [End Page 840] Mel’s legacy, a matter of invention and enterprise: first, putting a new discipline in academic cloaks (invention) and, second, securing its institutional foundations (enterprise). Had he not done this, would there still be a collaborative effort among scholars concerned with technology in historic perspective? Probably there would, although it seems unlikely that the intellectual ambience would be the same, nor the institutional configuration, with SHOT and with another slightly younger society fulfilling a somewhat different role, ICOHTEC.4 Here, I have no intention of trying to address a riddle basic to any and all historical inquiry, inevitability, nor to argue for Mel’s indispensability to this collaborative effort. I have only a modest aim: to set forth the evidence that he might have lived quite...