Tendenser i teknologihistorien – det materielle, det gamle og det globale


  • Louise Karlskov Skyggebjerg Ph.d. i historie, Danmarks Tekniske Mu­seum / Teknologihistorie DTU


Teknologihistorie, Teknologi, Kulturarv, Industriel kulturarv


Trends in the History of Technology – Materiality, Old Stuff, and the Global South

History of technology is a field with changing themes and approaches, just like history in general. After sketching the situation before the millennium, this article outlines five newer trends in the history of technology: an interest in the old and mundane; in use and users; in materiality and non-human actors; in the global; and as a fifth trend, in the environment and climate change. A red thread running through most of the themes is a critique of the traditional Global North perception of innovation.

The article is not a full overview of the recent developments in the history of technology. On the contrary, the text is personally biased reflecting the author’s knowledge, interpretations, and interests. The outset is international, however with a special interest in how the global trends have been reflected in Danish scholarship.

In the article, the history of technology is interpreted as a multidisciplinary field with porous borders performed by historians, anthropologists, sociologists, engineers, etc. Much of the work done in the field could just as well be named for example history of knowledge, history of industry, or environmental history, and some readers might not think all the works mentioned should be called history of technology. Hopefully, they still find them interesting.



History of Technology before the Millenium

In the 1980s, a lot of new things happened within the history of technology with theoretical and methodological approaches like social construction of technology (SCOT), large technological systems (LTS) and actor-network theory (ANT) developing and gaining support. In general, contextualism and socio-technical systems were new buzzwords, and technology and society were often proclaimed to be a seamless web. In a trendsetting antho-logy, The Social Construction of Technological Systems from 1987, all these new approaches and more were represented.1) 

These developments did also reach Denmark where the 1990s saw quite a few new projects and publications in history of technology. Works that since became classics. However, the field remained relatively small, and when the historian Jan Peder-sen described it in Historisk Tidsskrift in 1996, he was critical. In his view, major works changing our view on history in general were still to be seen and he was not especially impressed by the results of the new theoretical and methodological developments. Instead, he asked for more internalistic approaches or in short: less social constructivism, activism, and more interest in technical details.2) However, the new trends stayed popular, both internationally and in Denmark.



The Old and Mundane

After the millennium, the history of technology remained highly influenced by the approaches from the 1980s but was also supplemented with new trends. One of those asked for more interest in the old, common, and mundane as a supplement to the dominating interest in big classic themes like the history of electricity, computers, aircraft, and nuclear power. An important publication was David Edgerton’s The Shock of the Old from 2006, where he asked for more interest in the old, in alternatives, in failures, in maintenance, and in mundane technologies like rickshaws, condoms, horses, spinning wheels, asbestos, cement, chain saws, and refrigerators. Edgerton criticised how historians of technology and others had confused technology with invention and innovation and asked for more interest in technology-in-use as he called it.3) 

The so-called maintainers were among those who took up the trend. They criticised the common view on innovation as a positive buzzword and asked for more interest in technology in operation and maintenance. Instead of innovation as the focal point, they suggested infrastructure.4) 

In Denmark, the author of this article has been among those inspired by Edgerton in her work with the history of egg trays and with the importance of small things like correction tape for typewriters.5) 



Use and Users

Edgerton was not the only one asking for more interest in technology in use. In 2003, the anthology How Users Matter represented an intensified interest in use and especially in users. It took its outset in the co-construction of technology and users, and the authors were generally interested in how users use, modify, domesticate, design, reconfigure, and resist technology. The book also included studies of non-users.

As it was reflected in the introduction to the anthology, it built on older approaches to the study of users and technology in use, however developed the theme further.6) Today, the interest in users has developed even more and does include studies of non-human users.

In Denmark, the historian Michael Wagner’s work on automo-bilism reflected the interest in use and users. He talked of the consumption and mediation junction inspired by work presen-ted in the anthology and has worked with Forenede Danske Motorejere (FDM, Federation of Danish Motorists) as an example of a mediator in the field between production and consumption.7) 



Materiality and Non-Human Actors

Actor-network theory has developed a lot since the 1980s and is still influencing the history of technology. However, the discussions about non-human agency have been intense, and it can still be perceived as controversial to talk about non-human actors.8) 

Actor-network theory was an import part of the so-called material turn asking for more interest in materiality and emphasising concepts like process, agency, relations, networks, performativity, doing, and becoming. This turn has since been followed by a nonhuman turn or posthumanist approach trying to decentre human beings and avoid treating humans as the only important actors in history. This has been leading to research on how “matter makes us as much as we make it”, as formulated by Timothy LeCain in his book The Matter of History. How Things Create the Past from 2017.9) Herein he wrote about longhorn cattle, silkworms and copper. In general, the posthumanist approaches want to avoid anthropocentrism and pay more attention to the doing of non-human actors or as LeCain calls them: our fellow travellers.

In Denmark, the historian Dorthe Gert Simonsen has – inspired by the material turn and with Britain as her case – analysed the creation of airspaces, which she perceives as co-constituted by the technologies used to move through them. In her view, airspaces are not an existing entity to be found, but an assembly of multiple agencies. It is something performed.10) 



Going Global

Traditionally, the history of technology has been not only anthro-pocentric but also ethnocentric taking its outset in technologies, concepts, and views from the Global North. However, in the past years, the Global South has been gaining more interest as reflected in e.g. the project GlobalHoT at the university in Darmstadt lead by historian of technology Mikael Hård. Among other things, the project wants to challenge our tendency to per-ceive technological development as a linear process and to discuss the relation between the local and the global. Like in the anthology, What do Science, Technology, and Innovation Mean from Africa? from 2017 the typical Global North view on technology and innovation is challenged and discussed based on alternative views from the Global South.11) 

Edgerton has played a role in this new global aspiration with his concept creole technologies meaning technologies that are used differently outside the time and place of their first use.12)Other important concepts used instead of classics like techno-logy transfer and diffusion are translation and hybridity.

In Denmark, the historian of ideas Casper Andersen has wor-ked with the history of UNESCO and British engineers in Africa.13) His work reflects a more general and international interest in the con-nection between technology, colonialism and post-colonialism.



Environmental and Climate Change Issues 

– and the Creation of Knowledge and Doubt

We cannot understand the Anthropocene without talking about technology. In recent years, studies of environmental issues and climate change have been part of the agenda in the history of technology, often with a special interest in the construction of expertise and doubt. This has among other things been reflected in the anthology New Natures from 2013 presented as a product of a dialogue between science and technology studies on the one hand and environmental history on the other.14) 

In Denmark, the Danish Society for the History of Technology took up climate and resource crises as a theme at their yearly meeting in 2019. There has also been a highly interesting project about the history of climatology at Aarhus University lead by the historian Matthias Heymann.15) 



And all the rest

Classic themes like electricity, transportation, and nuclear power are still on the agenda in the history of technology, sometimes with studies based on new concepts like “sociotechnical imaginaries” emphasising the role of conceptions and our ima-gi-na-tion of the future.16) Also history of industry and engineering are still lively fields where new research using many different approa-ches from conceptual history to more classic business history are published in a steady stream.

To conclude, the history of technology is very much alive. How-ever, compared to the decade before the millennium, perhaps less eager to promote itself as something special and more blen-ding in and mixing and matching with other fields like the histo-ry of knowledge and environmental history. After the mate-rial turn and living in a society experiencing climate changes crea-ted by a socio-technical ensemble of humans and non-humans it seems more relevant than ever to include technology in histo-rical work. In short, to take our non-human fellow travellers seriously.








1) Bijker, Hughes, and Pinch (1987) op. cit.

2) Pedersen (1996) op. cit.

3) Edgerton (2006) op. cit.

4) Russell and Vinsel (2016) op. cit.

5) Skyggebjerg (2018, 2019) op. cit. 

6) Oudshoorn and Pinch (2003) op. cit.

7) Wagner (2013) op. cit.

8) See Sayes (2014) op. cit. 

9) LeCain (2017) op. cit., p. 183.

19) Simonsen (2018) op. cit.

11) See Mavhunga (2017) op. cit.

12) Edgerton (2007) op. cit.

13) Andersen (2011, 2017) op. cit.

14) Jørgensen, Jørgensen, and Pritchard (2013) op. cit.

15) See e.g. Mahony, Gramelsberger, and Heymann (2019) op. cit.

16) Jasanoff and Kim (2015) op. cit.