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

By Segal, Howard P. | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Autumn 1998 | Go to article overview

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


Segal, Howard P., The Virginia Quarterly Review


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. …

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