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Technology and Culture 42.2 (2001) 329-332
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The Twenty-Seventh Symposium of the International Committee for the History of Technology
Russell Douglass Jones
Following hard on the heels of the Society for the History of Technology's August 2000 meeting in Munich, the International Committee for the History of Technology held its annual symposium in Prague from the 22nd to the 26th of August. The European Union Council of Ministers of Culture designated Prague as a "City of European Culture" for the year 2000, and the Czech National University and the National Technical Museum organized the ICOHTEC meeting as one of the official "Praha 2000" events. Participants enjoyed the symposium's collegial atmosphere as well as the romantic cityscapes and cultural offerings of Prague.
The organizing committee, chaired by Carroll Pursell and headed locally by Sona Strbánová and Karel Zeithammer, molded the meeting around the general theme "Technological Landscapes: Energy, Transport, Environment." While many panels focused on the subjects mentioned in the subtitle of the conference theme, others centered on the situating of technology more generally, as in the home, on the body, in museums, or in built environments. Still others addressed issues of technological change, diffusion, innovation during peace and war, and changes in manufacturing.
The conference theme grew from conversations over the interaction between humans and nature that were begun during the preceding year's meeting at Belfort, France, and several of the papers presented in Prague developed ideas bearing on that general topic. James Williams suggested that the idea of the landscape could help clarify the interactions between society and nature. Arguing that human use had changed natural systems into technological, but nonetheless organic, systems, Williams placed the remade landscape between the social and the natural worlds. Several other [End Page 329] presenters pursued similar motifs, addressing such topics as the construction of nuclear power plants along the Rhône River (Sara Pritchard), the flooding of the Noorland Valleys in Sweden during that country's construction of hydroelectric dams (Bo Sundin), and the conflicting notions of nature that emerged when regional planning by the Tennessee Valley Authority usurped local land use (Brian Black). Other papers on the environment focused on melioration projects that enabled intensive Prussian agriculture (Rita Gudermann), local reactions to France's canalization (Pierre Claude Reynard), actors-structures in the development of Switzerland's tourist railways (Wolfgang König), the U.S. sanitary program in the Panama Canal Zone that overlaid American notions of tropical nature on problems largely of the engineers' creation (Paul Sutter), and a comparison of large-scale resource development in the Amazon and Siberia (Paul Josephson). Papers in the remaining two thematic areas, transport and energy, also followed this pattern of wide geographical distribution. Energy-related papers looked at the politics of hydroelectric power in Russia and the electrification of Estonia, and transportation historians discussed ancient Mayan roads, the effects of changing technologies on the Western Canadian environment, the introduction and safety of the automobile in the Netherlands, Russian petroleum transport, and aviation.
Panels that situated technology on the body, in the home, in museums, and in the built environment stretched the idea of environments beyond outdoor landscapes. A two-session series on technology and the body dealt with the social and cultural fabrics woven around changing notions of the body at work, beauty, gender, and mental health. Jennifer K. Alexander proposed that the late-Weimar emphasis on ergonomics offered a sense of predictability and control in the rapidly unraveling republic. Rebecca Herzig took a gender-symmetrical look at electrolysis; Rachel Maines discussed the evolution of menstrual technologies; and Jonathan Sadowsky examined the interplay between psychoanalysis and electroconvulsive therapy.
Other panels focused on the visual or aural receptions of technologies. Julie Wosk and Miriam Levin collaborated with Olivier Lavoisy in a discussion on the visual expressions of technology, and David Morton organized a session on sound recording and reproduction. Joan Rothschild examined the construction and use of gendered living spaces in eighteenth-century Cairo and in nineteenth- and twentieth...