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Technology, History, and Culture: An Appreciation of Melvin Kranzberg

[clock] 22-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Autumn 1998

For most scholars, finding a niche in an already developed field and contributing something significant to it constitutes a sufficient achievement. Melvin Kranzberg, however, accomplished much more. By the time of his death at the age of 78 in December 1995, he had almost singlehandedly created and nurtured a flourishing field of scholarship and teaching: the history of technology. As he readily conceded, he did not work alone. But without Kranzberg’s missionary zeal and extraordinary efforts over several decades, the field of the history of technology would not have come into being until much later, if at all; nor would it have taken the conceptual form that it did.

Mel, as everyone called him, understood from the start that the study of technological artifacts and processes without regard to the societies from which they derived—the so-called “nuts and bolts” approach—would at once entice few prospective recruits and relegate the field to the amateur historians (usually engineers) who until the late 1950’s had done most of whatever research and writing existed on technology’s past. Certainly there were notable exceptions, above all Lewis Mumford, who, despite the absence of professional training, had already made major contributions to the nascent field. Several professional historians, particularly the distinguished medievalist Lynn White, Jr., were de facto historians of technology. In the early days Mel was able to persuade Mumford, White, Aldous Huxley, the economist Robert Heilbroner, the business writer Peter Drucker, the sociologist David Riesman, and other intellectual notables to contribute to the journal he established in 1959 as the organ of the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) that he had founded the year before.

Significantly, Mel wound up calling the journal not History of Technology but Technology and Culture, thereby emphasizing its broad purview and, no less important, the still widely unappreciated fact that culture shapes technology as much as technology shapes culture. The popular notion of technological determinism was for Mel misguided. The journal’s subtitle, “The International Quarterly of the Society for the History of Technology,” reflected his recognition that technology’s scope went beyond North America and Europe. Mel was the journal’s editor until 1981, by which point he no longer needed to solicit articles in order to make up an issue but could instead choose from an abundance of submissions.

Mel’s grasp of technology’s crucial role in history derived from several sources. Born in St. Louis in 1917, the son of a prominent businessman, Mel received his undergraduate degree in history and economics from Amherst College, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. He went on to earn his master’s and doctoral degrees in French history from Harvard. His revised 1942 dissertation was published in 1950 as The Siege of Paris, 1870—1871, A Political and Social History. Little in the book deals directly with technology, and the term itself is never mentioned. He later conceded in an interview, “As a student, I didn’t really know much about technology.” But Mel’s expertise in the French Second Empire, when France began to industrialize significantly, gradually led to an interest in the process of industrialization there and elsewhere. Equally important, Mel’s work in French history made him aware of the pioneering studies of the Annales school of French historians, especially Marc Bloch. Their rejection of conventional political and diplomatic history for a comprehensive integration of archeology, architecture, folklore, geography, geology, linguistics, meteorology, and technology, among other fields hitherto largely neglected, impressed Mel deeply. If he ultimately felt that the Annales school, for all its remarkable breadth and depth, still paid insufficient attention to technology, he nevertheless came to see the illuminating connections it drew between material factors and culture as a model for the history of technology. His repeated pleas for a history of technology that transcended narrow nationalities as well as purely internal processes reflected his desire for a level of research and publication in the field that could match the best being done by other historians anywhere in the world, including the Annales school itself.

When World War II began, Mel initially worked for one of his Amherst professors at the Office of Price Administration in Washington, D.C. Mel’s own assistant was none other than Pat Nixon, whom he found to be bright and sensible. He did, however, feel uncomfortable when she repeated some of the more controversial views of her husband, Richard.

Mel simultaneously enlisted in the Signal Corps Reserve, which, unimpressed with his historical training, soon sent him to various sites for accelerated courses in electronics, electrical engineering, and radar. These courses made him more appreciative of modern technology. But by then the Signal Corps no longer needed his services, and he was transferred to the infantry. After studying Turkish and German intensely, Mel finally wound up as a combat intelligence officer. From the Battle of the Bulge until the German surrender he interrogated German prisoners, obtaining information that led to the uncovering of gun emplacements. For his efforts he received several military decorations.

Mel’s military experience did not disillusion him about modem technology—or human nature. But it did alter his professional calling. His wartime involvement convinced him that the traditional political and diplomatic history he had studied and written about was far less significant than the history of technology as a key to understanding the modern world and to identifying possible solutions to its problems. But Mel never embraced the Whig Theory of the History of Technology, which, to paraphrase historian Herbert Butterfield, sees the course of history as one of unceasing progress. As Mel later realized, the pervasiveness of the Whig Theory, especially in the United States, had led both to fundamental misreadings of technology’s rich and complex past and to a convenient rationale on the part of its celebrants to dismiss history altogether as irrelevant.

After the War, Mel held successive temporary appointments at Harvard, the Stevens Institute of Technology, and Amherst before accepting an appointment in 1952 at Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences. Case sought someone who could teach the history of science and technology to aspiring engineers, one third of whose undergraduate education needed to be in the humanities and social sciences to meet accreditation requirements. That the person who had pushed through these standards was none other than a former Case president, William Wickenden, was not lost on either Mel or the current administration. Being at Case enabled Mel to develop what he liked to term “contextual” course offerings, not just in history but in the liberal arts overall. These courses recognized the need to connect the humanities and social sciences to engineering and the sciences in legitimate ways, without converting them to the kind of watered-down classes epitomized by “Shakespeare for Engineers” or “Poetry for Physicists.” Mel was able to get his department to go along with what at the time was truly a pioneering program, the equivalent for engineering undergraduates of Harvard’s famous General Education program for liberal arts undergraduates created in the same years. Mel’s own courses asked otherwise historically indifferent future engineers to examine the reciprocal relationship between technology and culture in Western civilization. That in turn interested them in literature, economics, politics, philosophy, and other disciplines.

Remaining at Case for 20 years, Mel further legitimated the field by establishing, in 1961, the nation’s first graduate program in the history of technology, which trained some of the most distinguished members of the field’s next generation. Mel capitalized on the national enthusiasm for technology, as epitomized by President Kennedy’s vow to land an American on the moon by 1969, to garner funds for the program. Yet Mel’s preoccupation with SHOT and its journal and with other projects left him little time to work with graduate students, several of whom wound up doing their doctoral dissertations with Case’s historian of science instead.

One of those other projects was the International Committee for the History of Technology, which Mel cofounded in 1968, just as the end of the “Prague Spring” renewed Cold War tensions. A part of UNESCO, the committee regularly brought together historians from East and West to try to lessen those tensions as well as to promote the field. Mel’s diplomatic skills and good humor were instrumental in keeping the committee functioning over the next quarter century. Ever the missionary, he promoted the history of technology within the committee and to wider audiences by stressing the need to place the space race and nuclear arms competition in historical perspective. He asked how Cold War technological advances might affect American and Soviet societies respectively and how their cultures might simultaneously affect those advances. But, typically, Mel left it to others to pursue research on the topic.

In 1972 Mel left Case to become the Callaway Professor of the History of Technology at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, a position he held until his retirement at seventy in 1988. This chair, the first of its kind, further established the field. At Georgia Tech Mel helped transform the Department of Social Sciences, a small service unit that included undergraduate courses in the history of technology, into a School of History, Technology, and Society that offered both an undergraduate history major and a graduate program in the history of technology.

Meanwhile Technology and Culture became an international journal with a growing influence and readership. Mel worked ceaselessly to encourage others to contribute, as I first learned in the mid-1970’s when, with a new Princeton Ph. D. in American history— not history of technology—I wrote him about the possibility of contributing a review essay for Technology and Culture as a means of getting into print while revising my doctoral dissertation on technological utopianism. The dissertation was my one link to the history of technology, a field in which I had never formally studied (not that any courses on the topic were then offered at Princeton, which focused on the history of science). Instead of deeming my suggestion audacious, Mel complimented me for writing, replying that it certainly made sense for him to accept the offer of a presumably qualified person eager to review books rather than, as is often the case, begging less enthusiastic established scholars to perform this important but usually thankless task. So I began contributing. We met a year or so later at the 1975 SHOT annual gathering held in Washington, D.C.

As friendly in person as he had been in correspondence, Mel was of average height, solidly built, completely bald, and mustached. Charming though he was, he hardly struck me as the romantic, passionate ladies’ man he was long known to be. At that point Mel was married for the third time, his first two marriages having ended in divorce; but this one, much happier than the others, ended a few years later with his wife’s death from cancer. Mel was devastated, but he eventually returned to his familiar ebullient self after marrying for the fourth and last time in 1984.


At that 1975 SHOT meeting, as was his custom, Mel made me and other new members feel welcome. He gave those of us engaged in “works in progress” the opportunity to discuss our research at special sessions. He introduced us to other senior persons and was himself a model of modesty and good nature. Influenced by his example, SHOT has long been known among historians as an uncommonly hospitable community of scholars and teachers.

As I learned years afterward, Mel and his fellow SHOT pioneers knew from painful experience what being unwelcome meant. Despite their cultural thrust, Mel and his fellow pioneering historians of technology were often condescended to by historians of science, whose principal professional organization had been established by Harvard’s George Sarton in 1924 and whose own journal, Isis, begun by Sarton in Belgium in 1912, was also explicitly external rather than internal in its outlook. Just as scientists frequently misrepresent what engineers do as merely applying scientific laws in an almost robotic fashion to come up with the only possible solution to problems, so historians of science sometimes misrepresent what historians of technology do as analyzing the “nuts and bolts” of the past apart from the society and culture that nurtured them. In reality, just as engineers employ creative intellectual strategies not wholly dependent on scientific truths to determine the best rather than the only solution to problems, so professional historians of technology go beyond the “nuts and bolts” to illuminate the past. The foremost historians of technology, like the foremost historians of other subjects, never assume that the facts speak for themselves or that the sheer accumulation of facts leads, in Baconian fashion, to truth.

But the stereotypes held by academics can be as impervious to revision as those held by anyone else, as Mel and a few of his associates had already discovered in 1957. Then, as loyal members of the History of Science Society, they approached the President of the Society, Henry Guerlac of Cornell, seeking sessions on the history of technology at the Society’s meetings and space in Isis for their publications. Guerlac’s refusal to allow either, lest the history of science be tainted by such alleged intellectual inferiority—by attention to lowly “tinkerers” rather than great “thinkers”—is what spurred Mel to establish a separate society with its own journal. The experience reinforced his growing conviction that the history of technology required and deserved autonomy as an intellectual endeavor. Ironically, Sarton himself, who had died the year before, was receptive to the history of technology both intellectually and editorially but had had little to publish on the subject by the time his editorship ended in 1952.

These initially unpleasant relations with the History of Science Society did not preclude much warmer ones once SHOT had gained visibility and respectability. Guerlac himself wished SHOT well, and his earlier frostiness was, in retrospect, a blessing in disguise, prompting Mel in the next two years to take the actions he had hitherto hesitated to take. Every few years the two societies would hold joint annual meetings, with some joint sessions and with some persons belonging to both groups. Yet the inevitable specialization of knowledge and research within each field has led to a mutual recognition of science and technology as separate phenomena—not just materially but intellectually—with much less in common than one might otherwise guess.

Significantly, C. P. Snow, author of the highly influential as well as controversial The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (1960), recognized that engineering is in fact a third culture separate from the two he had focused upon: science and the humanities. In passages of his book rarely cited he acknowledged that scientists can be as patronizing toward engineers and other technical experts as any self-proclaimed humanists can be. “Pure scientists have by and large been dim-witted about engineers and applied science,” Snow wrote. “They couldn’t get interested. They wouldn’t recognise that many of the problems were as intellectually exacting as pure problems, and that many of the solutions were as satisfying and beautiful” as those set forth by scientists. Instead, scientists invariably assumed that “applied science was an occupation for second-rate minds.” Of course, engineering and technology generally are not, contrary to Snow, simply “applied science.” But Snow deserves credit for criticizing many scientists’ unwarranted condescension toward engineers and for his equating engineers’ practical pursuits with intellectual activity of the first rank.

Snow, then, might well have supported Mel’s efforts in this same period to establish the history of technology as separate from but equal to the history of science. Mel, for his part, implicitly embraced Snow’s three cultures and argued as early as 1962 that the history of technology could bridge the humanities and the sciences and to that extent gain for engineering itself greater visibility and respectability. This, in fact, was the mission of his undergraduate program for engineers at Case. Whether newly impressed historians of science would in turn influence actual scientists was, of course, another matter beyond the control of historians of technology. Yet what, if anything, today connects the history of science to the history of technology is the no less controversial notion that all knowledge is “socially constructed” and that scientific truths and engineering formulas are, like objectivity itself, the products of cultural bias writ large. True, such opinions are not held by a majority in either field, but they are influential.

As Mel recognized, the growth of the field of the history of technology and of Technology and Culture in the late 1960’s and 1970’s reflected not the glorification of technology as in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s but precisely its loss of allure as highly publicized technological and environmental disasters undermined Americans’ historic faith in technological progress. If the field was still small and congenial enough to avoid the ideological conflicts that tore apart larger historical, literary, sociological, and other professional organizations, it nevertheless attracted some first-rate scholars who dissented strongly from Mel’s generally optimistic (but never Whiggish) view of technology’s historic legacy and potential.

I witnessed this dissent first-hand while teaching the history of technology at the University of Michigan in 1979. As an organizer of a symposium on “Technology and Pessimism” that drew the attention of The New York Times, I invited Mel and other prominent scholars of technology to debate whether technological pessimism was replacing technological optimism as a basic tenet of Americans’ thinking. Mel argued that technology’s very success in the most industrialized societies provided them with the “luxury” of being able to criticize technology’s alleged excesses and to call for such non-technological objectives as social justice and environmental preservation. Until recently, he claimed, concerns for sheer survival precluded those considerations. Mel’s paper, “Technology: The Half-Full Cup,” hardly satisfied those at the symposium who denounced technology for allegedly ruining the world since at least the English Industrial Revolution of the 18th century. Mel’s critics would not accept his more tempered and, I believe, more accurate interpretation of technology’s mixed record over the centuries.

In fact, from far being an uncritical defender of technology, Mel never denied the profoundly mixed nature of technology’s blessings. Nowhere was this made clearer than in his 1985 address as president of SHOT. Entitled “Technology and History: Kranzberg’s Laws,” Mel offered not dogmas but “truisms.” His first and most famous was that “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.” Mel offered the example of the pesticide DDT to make his point. Once used throughout the world to eliminate malaria-carrying pests and to increase agricultural productivity, DDT was eventually banned in Western industrialized nations when, thanks to Rachel Carson’s powerful Silent Spring (1962), it became clear that DDT damaged ecological systems and food chains and posed a threat to human beings as well as to birds and fishes. But India, for instance, could not so readily afford to substitute more expensive alternative means of pest control, and, equally important, it placed a higher value on malaria prevention than on agricultural productivity. Hence the same DDT condemned in the West was still legitimately embraced in India and other less industrialized countries.

Mel also rightly emphasized the unexpected consequences of DDT following the revelations in Silent Spring and the less heralded research of others. So often the ultimate positive or negative or mixed results of technological advances are precisely those that were not anticipated. As Mel understood, this is where the fear that technology is out of control arises, with all the now familiar anxiety about “the machine” or the robot taking over from its creators. Yet the personification of autonomous technology, as exemplified in Frankenstein and its literary progeny, misses the point that unexpected consequences invariably take more impersonal forms, as with DDT, and need hardly be evil. As usual, Mel concluded, context was everything, trade-offs were a fact of life, and DDT was indeed neither wholly good nor wholly bad nor simply neutral. The same holds true for many, perhaps most, major technologies.


Despite his balanced technological assessments, Mel’s undeserved reputation as an arch-defender of technology persisted. Years later, while helping to organize another symposium on technological pessimism, but one that now took that phenomenon for granted, I found it impossible to get Mel invited at all. Having an allegedly unreconstructed Whig amidst technological skeptics if not outright neo-Luddites was too much for the others involved. The exclusion no doubt pained Mel. Moreover, the conference was to take place in Israel, with which he had close ties. But it was one of his endearing traits not to take criticism of his views personally and not to preclude critics from being heard.

Mel’s toleration of dissent was tested still more in the face of Leo Marx’s 1991 review, in Technology and Culture, of the Festschrift for Mel entitled, most appropriately, In Context: History and the History of Technology. With appreciation for many of the contributions to the volume, Marx, a widely admired member of MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society, questioned the value and validity of the specialized study of the history of technology itself, given the field’s “unusually obscure boundaries.” According to Marx, the very triumph of the contextual approach had so expanded the concept of technology that the field was too vast for anyone to master. Marx recommended replacing the history of technology with more general history courses, programs, and research projects. In effect, Mel’s professional and organizational achievements were in vain. Mel replied in print with remarkable restraint, defending the legitimacy of the field and embracing Marx’s own work as contextual. Yet Marx’s challenge to historians of technology was not fully answered and remains to be addressed by younger scholars. Still, I found it puzzling that someone so critical of the field would choose to teach in one of its major programs—and at MIT, of all places—rather than in a conventional history or literature department.

By the time of this exchange, Mel had received the kind of professional recognition that, in addition to the Festschrift, surely lessened whatever he felt about these criticisms of his work and accomplishments. He garnered several awards from both scientific and engineering societies and a half-dozen honorary degrees. He also served a term as president of Sigma Xi, the national scientific honorary society. Upon his retirement from Georgia Tech, the regents endowed the Melvin Kranzberg Professorship of the History of Technology in his honor. The initial occupant was a former student who had received his doctorate in Mel’s program at Case Western. Mel was also an advisor to NASA and to President Jimmy Carter but was no longer surprised when his advice and historical perspective were ignored by those obsessed with short-term considerations. He had become what some today call a public intellectual.

Mel’s professional achievements never changed the mensch that I and so many others knew and admired. He stayed remarkably modest while his often self-deprecating folksy humor remained intact. His legendary kindness manifested itself in later years in his efforts to help academics in the former Soviet Union and its East European satellites who had lost positions because of the collapse of communism, just as decades earlier he had assisted academic victims in those same countries of Cold War politics. Mel’s prominence in the International Committee for the History of Technology proved extremely useful in both cases.

Over our two decades of friendship, we grew very close, enjoying almost a father-son relationship. Not only could I count on Mel for endless letters for jobs and research grants as I experienced the travails of the academic marketplace of the 1970’s and beyond, but I could confide in him as in no one else my professional dreams, satisfactions, and disappointments. Our Jewishness also brought us together, but I sometimes joked to Mel that he was the most optimistic Jew I had ever met—always reassuring me that things would work out—where most of us were prone to pessimism.

By the time of Mel’s retirement the history of technology had a standing no one could have foreseen in those early years, and it would have been understandable if Mel had enjoyed his later years by slowing down a pace of travels and speeches that would have exhausted a younger person with less missionary zeal. But despite several health problems, Mel continued his activities until October 1995, when what was later diagnosed as cancer forced him to miss the annual SHOT meeting he had previously never missed. All participants lamented his absence but were assured that he was in good spirits and would acknowledge our get well messages. Two months later, and just hours after I had called him in Atlanta but could only speak to his nurse, he died.

Mel’s legacy is the flourishing field he founded and nurtured and the scholars, including me, who would not have entered it had he not been so encouraging. It may be easy to fault Mel for sacrificing his own scholarly career—for not having spent more time expanding his editorials, conference papers, lectures, articles, and other shorter writings into a full-length book or two. Yet he coauthored and coedited several significant volumes, including Technology in Western Civilization (1967), a pioneering work with contributions from many leading scholars that served as the principal college text for two decades. Moreover, Mel could see his work live on in the many articles and books by younger scholars whom he had inspired. In keeping with his oft-stated ambition to help others in the field more than himself, it is fitting that his official SHOT tribute is a fund in his name to assist graduate students pursuing their doctoral dissertations. Word of the fund’s creation reached him before he died and brought him much pleasure.

Historians of technology routinely argue against the so-called heroic theory of invention—the notion, especially pervasive in American history, that great inventors like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford worked largely alone. In truth, even the greatest inventors, not least Edison and Ford, could never have succeeded had they not been wise enough to choose able assistants with the expertise, experience, and often formal education they themselves lacked; and had they not also been shrewd enough to hire talented publicists who embellished the image of the lone genius surrounded, if at all, by lesser lights merely carrying out the inventor’s orders. The heroic theory has also been diminished by the repeated discovery that virtually all great heroes, including Edison and Ford, had character flaws sufficient to remove them from their pedestals once their lives are fully explored. From the outset Technology and Culture itself published a number of articles debunking the heroic theory on these grounds. Yet Melvin Kranzberg’s almost single-handed invention and promotion of the history of technology as a field constitutes a most ironic exception, as does the character of the man many in the field would unabashedly call heroic.


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