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Technology and Culture 42.3 (2001) 401-435

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"A Very Special Relationship" SHOT and the Smithsonian's Museum of History and Technology

Robert C. Post


Synergism: Cooperative action of discrete agencies . . . such that the total effect is greater than the sum of the two or more effects taken independently.

--Webster's Third New International Dictionary

Friday, 23 May 1958, a fair spring day in Cleveland. The Plain Dealer headlined the accidental explosion of eight Nike missiles at Middletown, New Jersey, with a death toll of seven or more. Editorially it lamented "Soviet Russia's present leadership in the field of rocketry," and a news item quoted a man identified as "America's chief tracer of unidentified flying objects" on the danger of withholding UFO information from the public: "Russia might claim flying saucers as a propaganda 'secret weapon' at any time." There was a story on the impending demise of the three-cent stamp, and [End Page 401] another on the completion of the Wiley-Dondero ship channel, the key link in the Saint Lawrence Seaway. 1

Something else happened that day. At the Cuyahoga County Courthouse, Melvin Kranzberg, accompanied by two Case Institute of Technology colleagues, John Hrones and Morrell Heald, filed articles of incorporation for a nonprofit organization "to promote the study of the development of technology and its relations with society and culture." 2 News of this event never made the papers. But it is well documented, as is another event a month later in Berkeley, California, when charter members of the new Society for the History of Technology convened a conference in conjunction with a meeting of the Humanistic-Social Division of the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE), of which Kranzberg was chair. Moderating the opening session, on 16 June, was Lynn White, the president of Mills College in nearby Oakland and a longtime champion of Kranzberg's aim to establish "a society for the cultivation of the history of technology." 3 One of the first two talks was presented by the rising scholar who had attended to local arrangements, Thomas S. Kuhn, assistant professor of the history of science at the University of California, whose topic was "Engineering Concepts in the Development of Thermodynamics." The other was given by Robert P. Multhauf, head curator for the Department of Science and Technology at the Smithsonian Institution, who spoke about "The Role of the Technical Museum in Engineering Education," specifically "the principles behind the new Museum of History and Technology." 4

Kuhn and White were soon to publish books that transformed the historiography of science and technology, Kuhn's introducing us to paradigms and White's summarizing, he said, "everything I know, and some things I merely suspect." 5 Multhauf would never make his mark in that way, but he [End Page 402] was already making an impression on an emerging discipline. By the time the Museum of History and Technology (MHT) was dedicated by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, Multhauf would have assembled a unique company of curators, and a decade after SHOT's founding--in 1968, when Multhauf had become director of MHT--Kranzberg would tell one of them that "you people represent the largest collection of historians of technology in this country." 6

The society's affairs remained integrated with the museum's in the 1970s, in part because of Kranzberg's friendship with Multhauf's successors, Daniel Boorstin and Brooke Hindle. (Together with Eugene Ferguson, these four had been at the heart of the 1965 Conference on Technology in Early American History at the Hagley Museum, a signal event in bringing together specialists and generalists. 7 ) And in one obvious way the relationship would become even closer in the 1980s, with the National Museum of American History (NMAH), under Roger Kennedy, underwriting the editorial operations of the society's journal, Technology and Culture (not to mention a Smithsonian chief executive, Secretary Robert McCormick Adams, whose scholarly concern was technology and culture). 8 But the relationship was different than it had been in earlier times...


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