Skip to content

Technology, natural resources, crises

I’m back from a somehwat unusual academic workshop in Berlin, organized by the Max Planck Society: “Energy Transformations: Perspectives from the Humanities“. Two different institutes of the society have initiated a cooperation: the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science and the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Energy Conversion – an interesting attempt to bring historians and natural scientists together. The natural scientists acted mainly as commentators, the historians as presenters. But how can such a discussion be made relevant for all? The contributions were diverse, to say the least, ranging from Jamie Cross‘s anthropology of energy storage (based on field research in New Guinea and the use of batteries there) and Benjamin Steininger‘s cultural-studies approach to motor fuels in the the twentieth century to Andreas Malm‘s provocative views on steam power in the British Empire and my own attempts to synthesize a transnational European energy history. Let’s see what comes next; a follow-up workshop is already being planned.

The Berlin workshop had some similarities with two other workshops I participated in last autumn but which I have forgotten to write about. The first took place in Trondheim (Norway) in early autumn and dealt with the history of natural resource extraction in national, regional and global perspective and brought together historians of various breeds, from transnational and business historians to historians of science and technology. The Norwegian University of Science and Technology at Trondheim has built up impressive expertise in this area and scholars such as Pål Thonstad Sandvik, Mats Ingulstad and Hans Otto Fröland have recently won several large research grants targeting natural resource history. The workshop featured a number of valuable discussions on topics such as resource nationalism, political regulation of natural resources, the EU’s evolving quest for raw materials and resource extraction from a colonial perspective.

The other workshop took place in St. Petersburg and I participated in it in conjunction with my archival research there. It was essentially a Tensions of Europe event and was a first step in the effort to explore one of the new wider themes that this network of historians of technology has identified as crucial: “Technology, Natural Resources and Crises in Past and Present of Europe and Beyond“. This workshop shared some focus with the Berlin and the Trondheim workshops, but it also differed from these in at least interesting respect – by going back in time not only to the 20th and 19th centuries, but also to Europe’s deeper past. The most interesting examples here included some of the Russian historians’ accounts of water and wood in early modern Russian history. I’m very sympathetic of such efforts. But as historians of technology we definitely need to work more on integrating these analyses and narratives into our general understanding of Europe’s history of technology – and of its crisis-ridden present. Too often do we neglect the heavy weight of the deeper past and how it continues to shape our own era in breathtaking ways. I will have reason to return to these issues later on this spring.

Advertisements

Stockholm-Istanbul Express

The 7th International Conference on Railway History, which took place in early November this year, had the history – and future – of East-West railway connections as its overarching theme, and the organizers had found the perfect venue for the event: the historic Sirkeci Railway Station in Istanbul, on the shore of the Bosporus.

20161101_153623

From the 1880s onwards, it functioned as the terminal station for the famous Orient Express from Western Europe to Constantinople, one of the most impressive East-West connections in infrastructure history. And the history continues: Turkey has now built a railway tunnel under the Bosporus, for the first time ever interconnecting Europe and Asia at these latitudes. During the conference, in which representatives from Iran’s and even from Afghanistan’s State Railways participated, it also became clear that a new Eurasian railway revolution may be in the making as China invests enormous sums in improving its land-based transport connections with Europe. The Marmaray tunnel under the Bosporus will become one of the most critical components in such a future transport system, or so the Turkish State Railways think and hope.

Given the topic of the conference, I couldn’t resist the temptation to give the already existing East-West railway system a try and take the train from Stockholm to the conference in Istanbul. It took a few days, but why always hurry and take the plane? In an age of state support to monstruous capital airports and minimal taxes on airlines’ carbon emissions (and none at all on the horrible sound pollution), it remains more expensive to take the train to distant destinations. But what an experience, gliding smoothly through Europe’s magnificent autumn landscapes, over the bridges interconnecting Denmark’s islands, through Germany and across the Austrian Alps into Slovenia and onwards through Croatia, Serbia and Bulgaria to the southeastern corner of Europe!

20161029_184356

Everywhere people on the move, boarding and unboarding, everyone with one’s own destination and one’s own life story. I felt a child-like happiness. But at the same time, naturally, I couldn’t help thinking about the thousands and thousands of refugees who these days move in the opposite direction. Towards the end of my journey, I passed out of the European Union and Schengen, then returned briefly before leaving it again at the Bulgarian-Turkish border. Passport controls, stamps, torches searching for hidden passengers. A Cold War feeling reminiscent of train travels in the former Soviet Union. And outside: huge fences along the borders, some of them newly erected. Southeastern Europe is a sad and confused region of the world these days.

 

In Russia’s State Historical Archives

Yesterday was the 99th anniversary of what Russians officially call the Great Socialist October Revolution (although some argue that it was not great, not socialist, not really a revolution – and that it didn’t even occur in October…), and it comes to my mind that I’ve forgotten to report about my recent research visit to St. Petersburg, where it all took place. One of the consequences of Lenin’s coup was that the country’s capital moved from Petersburg to Moscow, a move that also has its effects on where historians go for archival research: so far I have been going to the archives in Moscow, which hold the Soviet-era collections, but thanks to our project on Sweden and the Origins of Global Resource Colonialism, which centers on the earlier period from 1870 to 1920, I had now the chance to explore the archives in St. Petersburg, which hold the Imperial-era documents.

rgia-in-autumn

The visit became a surprisingly positive experience. Well, there is a need for patience with the bureaucracy and waiting times in Russian archives – not unlike the situation in German archives – which may come as a shock to Swedish historians, spoilt as they are with the relaxed state of things in most Swedish archival collections. But the Russian materials are truly rewarding, especially so in terms of all the private companies that were nationalized in the context of the Revolution and whose archives were subsequently  merged with the state holdings. This means, for example, that the Russian state archives hold the collections of a variety of imperial-era privately-owned oil companies. I came to St. Petersburg to look into the collections of one of these: the Nobel Brothers Petroleum Production Company, of which I’ve already written repeatedly in this blog.

Oil, of course, continues to feed the Russian economy in the 21st century. Ironically, some of this money now finds its way back to the state archives and their historical oil-company collections: the Russian government has recently invested in new digital and electronic tools that significantly improves and simplifies the research process. Since last year it is possible, for example, to order archival documents through the web, that is, from one’s own computer – even from a remote location such as Sweden. All opisy (lists of archival files) are also available online (although they are not yet searchable). In addition, some materials are being scanned and digitalized. A surprising and very positive development, which I hope will continue. The main threat to progress here is probably the low world oil price and the state budget deficit that it gives rise to in Russia!

Back in Baku

My study of the Nobel Brothers Petroleum Production Company as a colonial-style enterprise in Imperial Russia is far behind schedule, but every time I manage to find some time for it I’m reminded of the unique features of its history. Recently I finally got the chance to continue my earlier research in Azerbaijan’s National Archives, and the documentary material available there is truly great. I returned home with a few thousand copies of documents, which describe in detail, among other things, what actually happened in Baku and its oil industry during the violent years of the First World War, the Bolshevik Revolution, the short-lived independent Azerbaijan Republic, and the Red Army’s final conquest of Baku in spring 1920.

But this time I also took my time to follow in the footsteps of the Nobel Brothers by first visiting Georgia’s key oil port of Batumi, which nowadays also hosts a museum dedicated to the Nobel Brothers, and the critical Surami pass in the mountains, which in imperial times caused much headache for Russia’s oil industrialists eager to conquer foreign markets. In 1890 a first railway tunnel across the pass was inaugurated, through which all trains en route from Baku and Tbilisi to Batumi continue to pass – but not for much longer; Chinese construction firms are now building a more modern tunnel. The purpose is still the same: to make oil products move as efficiently as possible from East to West.

Surami web

New Surami tunnel

This history is thus still, quite literally, under construction. It may be added that the Nobel Brothers’ company continues to play an important role in current affairs, although it basically ceased to exist a century ago. This is because its history and brand continue to be used actively by both politicians and industrialists in present-day Georgia and Azerbaijan, especially when it comes to forging fruitful relations with Sweden and Swedish business. I will come back to this aspect; at the moment I feel it deserves a whole journal article in its own right.

Europe’s Infrastructure Transition

My new book, co-authored with my colleagues Arne Kaijser at KTH and Erik van der Vleuten in Eindhoven, has finally been published: Europe’s Infrastructure Transition: Economy, War, Nature. It’s definitely the heaviest book I’ve ever written – weighing more than a kilo! – and I do hope it’s also one of the best, although that will be up to readers to judge!

In any case we’re certainly proud of the book, and it is published at an interesting moment in European history. As transnational relations in Europe are reshaped in response to the refugee crisis, worsening EU-Russia relations, tensions between northern and southern Europe, and so on, our book adds historical context and depth to the current debate about the future of Europe and its relations with the rest of the world, discussing in historical perspective a variety of cross-border issues relating to transport, communications, and energy.

ME cover web

One of our main conclusions is that cross-border infrastructure systems in Europe – which are crucial now in everything from EU imports of Russian natural gas to migrants’ possibilities to move from south to north – are shaped historically both by “system builders” and by “border builders“. At the moment, obviously, of these two actor categories the border builders seem to be the most powerful.

The book is published as part of a six-volume series, Making Europe, in which the overall argument is that technology – in our case represented by transport, communications, and energy systems – is a vital object of study for anyone trying to grasp Europe’s modern history. Most books about the history of Europe fail to take technology and, more generally, material aspects of life, into account when setting out to narrate the fate of our part of the world. New ways of talking about European history are direly needed!

Read the introductory chapter in Europe’s Infrastructure Transition here!

New research grant

Together with my colleagues Dag Avango and David Nilsson here at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, I received a new large research grant from Riksbankens Jubileumsfond, the most important Swedish funding agency in the social science and humanities field next to the Swedish Research Council (VR). The grant is for a project with the title “Colonial Natural Resources and Swedish Foreign Policy.” It will form the basis for the second phase in our long-term strategic effort of exploring Sweden’s colonialist history from a natural resource perspective (see earlier posts on this theme!). As in our ongoing VR project, we intend to explore Swedish natural resource-related activities from a business and political point of view in three major colonial regions of the world: West Africa, Central Asia/Siberia, and the Arctic. Whereas our VR-funded project deals with the period 1870-1930, our RJ-funded project will target the “short twentieth century,” or the rough period 1914-1989. In other words, we will take our earlier research into the late Interwar era, the Second World War, and in particular the Cold War period. Read more about the project here.

On the road in New Mexico

This year’s Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) conference took place in Albuquerque, which is one of those many American cities where most Europeans would find it hard to live but which definitely attracts the traveler. Isabel Perez, a PhD student in my department, writes her thesis on environment and literature in this culturally intriguing part of the United States, so to some extent our KTH delegation knew what to expect and what to look out for. But the conference also coincided with the famous Albuquerque International Baloon Fiesta, which proved to a truly magnificent event. I also took the opportunity to head north along the road toward Santa Fe, New Mexico’s legendary capital city, and the even more mythical town of Los Alamos, higher up in the mountains, where in the 1940s Robert Oppenheimer and his colleagues built the world’s first atomic bombs. Not much remains these days of the original war-time facilities, but the local historical museum has an excellent exhibition on display and at the Fuller Lodge it is still possible to get an idea of the social atmosphere during those bomb-making years.

The SHOT meeting itself featured some interesting discussions about the future of history of technology as a field that touched on quite a few of my own thoughts that I’ve had in recent years. Although the history of technology to a certain extent remains my home in academia, I have long had a feeling that it would be counterproductive to define my area of interest in terms of what is discussed at history of technology conferences or published in history of technology journals.

History of technology, or so it appears to me, can only survive as a research field through close interaction with other fields such as economic and business history, environmental history, STS, innovation studies, aera studies, historical geography – and in particular general history. The ultimate proof of success in history of technology research, as I now tend to see it, is that our research results become integrated into general history books dealing with, say, Sweden’s modern history, the history of the Soviet Union, or the history of the World Wars. By this measure, those of us who still refer to us as historians of technology have so far usually failed in our research efforts.