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Tom Hughes—International Scholar
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Tom Hughes—International Scholar

The photo below was taken at a workshop in Sigtuna, Sweden, in May 2008 (fig. 1). Tom Hughes is standing a little to the right of the center looking down at his own camera, surrounded by the other workshop participants, who could fairly be described as belonging to Tom’s fan club. Some of the older participants had known Tom personally for more than two decades, while some of the younger met him for the first time but had been greatly inspired by his writings. The theme of the workshop was “Transnational Infrastructures: Coping with Scarcity and Vulnerability,” and the participants came from all over Europe (eleven countries) and from the United States. Tom served as a commentator and chair, and he was, as always, encouraging and gentle. This was the last international workshop in which Tom participated, and I was struck by the respect, appreciation—and, I would even add, love—that he received from the participants.

Tom was unique in this respect; I can think of no other non-European historian of technology with the same appreciation among his European colleagues—and this appreciation stretched far beyond our discipline. My remembrance will reflect on why and how Tom became such a renowned international scholar.

First of all, it has to do with his writing. When I looked through his books on my shelf while preparing this article, I remembered my enthusiasm and excitement when I read Networks of Power the first time. I was studying the history of energy systems in Sweden at the time and became thrilled already at the very first sentence: “Of the great construction projects of the last century, none has been more impressive in its technical, economic, and scientific aspects, none has been more influential in its social effects, and none has engaged more thoroughly our constructive instincts and capabilities than the electric power system.” The margins in my copy of the book are full of comments and exclamation marks, for example, when [End Page 953] Tom writes: “This book is not simply a history of the external forces that shape technology, nor is it only a history of the internal dynamics of technology; it is a history of technology and society” (p. 2), and when he states that “The technological, or man-made, world awaits a Darwin to explicate the origins and dynamics of the forces that pervade it” (p. 5).


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Fig 1.

Group photo of the participants at a workshop on “Transnational Infrastructures: Coping with Scarcity and Vulnerability” held in Sigtuna, Sweden, in May 2008.

Tom Hughes is standing right of center looking down at his camera.

In Networks of Power (what a magnificent title, too!), Tom does his very best to explain the origins and dynamics of electrical power systems by introducing a number of fruitful concepts and an overall model of system evolution. He also applies a transnational perspective, in which processes of technological transfer from one region and society to another are very important, and in which a focus on the economic, political, cultural, and geographical conditions in different regions forms a crucial part of the analysis. Moreover, he explicitly encourages the study of other technological systems—“It is hoped, therefore, that this history of a particular kind of system will be of some assistance to those historians who wish to study other systems” (p. 7)—and of other parts of the world—“Limitations of time, resources, and language prevented explorations of the sources pertaining to France, Italy, Sweden, the Benelux countries, Russia, Japan, and other industrializing regions of the world” (p. x).

Many younger scholars, not least in Europe, indeed became encouraged to pursue studies of other systems and other regions, and Tom actively supported them. In 1986 he and the German sociologist Renate Mayntz took the initiative to a whole series of conferences on the evolution and dynamics of large technical systems (in Cologne 1986, Berkeley 1989, [End Page 954] Sydney 1991, Vadstena 1992, Paris 1995, Durham 1998). And when the Tensions of Europe network was established in 1999 and started a program called “Networking Europe,” Tom enthusiastically supported it, and he...