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Technology and Culture 41.3 (2000) 635-636

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Book Review

Institutions in the Transport and Communications Industries: State and Private Actors in the Making of Institutional Patterns, 1850-1990

Institutions in the Transport and Communications Industries: State and Private Actors in the Making of Institutional Patterns, 1850-1990. Edited by Lena Andersson-Skog and Olle Krantz. Canton, Mass.: Watson, 1999. Pp. xix+359; figures, tables, notes/references, bibliography, index. $49.95.

Historians of transport and communications have long faced difficulties in defining what distinguishes their field from major branches of historical inquiry such as economic and business history. Writing in the early 1990s, the British scholar Michael Robbins argued that a thorough knowledge of transport technologies and techniques was the defining feature: without this, historians ran the risk of drawing nonsensical conclusions from their studies.

I am reminded of that old debate by this impressive collection of fourteen essays, which aims to reinvigorate transport and communication historiography along more theoretically informed and sophisticated lines. The editors argue that while the concerns of economic historians have tended to define the discourse of transport history, the time has now come to embrace political economy and political history. More specifically, they advocate building on historians' growing recognition, over the last decade or so, of the political context to the financing of technological change, investment in transport and communication infrastructure, and organizational and regulatory patterns. Deepening our understanding of these politics will come about through the "broader institutional discourse" the editors see emerging, a discourse drawing upon the growing theoretical interest in a number of disciplines in questions of institutional change, changing patterns of state regulation, and the path-dependency of all these phenomena.

Given the authors' concern with the political institutions and actors of regulation, it is not surprising that most of the essays in this volume analyze railways, either discretely or in comparison with other modes of transport or telecommunication (notably the telegraph and telephone). Railways were not the first mode of transport to be regulated (canal tariffs were often subject to statutory maxima, for example), but the sheer scale of their enterprise and the effects that this had on the wider economy meant that state intervention was much more extensive and pervasive than hitherto. Railway regulation sometimes served as a model for later forms of transport and communication, and aviation, coastal shipping, inland waterways, and road transport (automobiles and trucks) all receive some scrutiny here. Geographically, four of the chapters develop international comparisons, three in the field of railways, the other in aviation, while the rest focus on developments in Britain (three essays), Germany, Spain (one each), and Sweden (five).

Beyond a concern for the institutional and political context of transport and communications, this book does not serve as a vehicle for any one [End Page 635] school of thought, embracing instead an eclectic mix of theoretical approaches. All the essays are of interest to historians of technology, although most do not deal centrally with the relationship of technology and culture. A striking exception is Andreas Kunz's analysis of the diffusion of steamboats on German inland waterways prior to and during the era of railway construction. Another is Peter Lyth's fine essay on the contrasting American and European approaches to regulation in the air, which ascribes to the development of four-engine planes during the Second World War a critical role in bringing the two regulatory regimes together on a collision course. John Armstrong refers to the technology of British coastal shipping in explaining the industry's low capital requirements and highly competitive structure by comparison with the railways, features that help to explain the state's lower level of interest in regulating trade. Similarly, Antonio Gómez-Mendoza reflects upon the shortcomings of Spain's infrastructure for road transport while analyzing the managerial failures of the railways between the world wars. By contrast, technology features scarcely, if at all, in Colleen Dunlavy's excellent essay on contrasting patterns of stockholder democracy in Prussian and American railway companies...


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