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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.


Lubmin’s metamorphosis

I’m spending this week in northeastern Germany preparing the 2nd edition of the one and only book I’ve ever written in German: Die deutsch-deutsche Geschichte des Kernkraftwerkes Greifswald: Atomenergie zwischen Ost und West. Originally published in 2005, it tries to explain why a vast Soviet-designed nuclear power plant – with 8 planned reactors it was designed to become the world’s largest nuclear facility! – that was built on the territory of the former GDR was shut down in connection with Germany’s 1990 reunification. Was its operation considered too dangerous? Was it unnecessary to keep the facility operating after East Germany’s industry and its electricity consumption collapsed? Was the phase-out part of a grand strategy to turn the former GDR into a pioneer for green energy production? Was it perhaps part of a new anti-Russian German foreign policy? Or was it an irrational political decision taken by people who had no idea of nuclear energy as a high technology? Read the book and find out!

But things have changed at the former nuclear site during the 25 years that have now passed since Germany’s reunification. While Lubmin, as the place is called, is no longer a site where Russian atomic energy meets German engineering traditions, it now serves as a key transit point for Russian natural gas on its way to the rest of Europe: it is here that the Nord Stream Pipeline, hotly debated in media a few years ago, ascends from the depths of the Baltic Sea for further transit to markets. The control station, where the Siberian gas is measured, cleaned, reheated and compressed, sits just opposite the former nuclear plant’s reactor buildings and huge machine hall.

Energiewerke Nord GmbH (EWN), the state company in charge of decommissioning the Greifswald NPP, seeks to use the arrival of the gas pipeline as a key component in its effort to establish a “Synergy Park” in Lubmin. A number of industrial companies have been attracted to the area, including businesses related to the biofuels, photovoltaics, and wind turbine industry – thus symbolizing a shift in Lubmin from nuclear power not only to natural gas, but to renewable energy as well. But there is also disappointment: EWN has long had a vision of erecting several large gas-fired power plants at the site. These would be able to make use both of the Russian gas that arrives from the sea and of the old high-voltage electricity transmission lines that the Soviet-designed nuclear facility used until 1990. Vattenfall, which until recently owned all transmission lines in the former GDR, invested heavily in modernizing the grid. But the two or three projects that were initiated have now all been canceled. Why? Political problems with permissions and also difficulties making the gas power plants competitive enough.

Teaching natural resource history in Beijing

Much of this summer I’ve devoted to teaching a summer course that I was invited to give at Renmin University of China (RUC) in Beijing. This university each year invites a hundred or so foreign scholars (well, about half of them are Chinese scholars who normally teach abroad) for the Renmin University International Summer School. Some 3,000 students participate, most of whom are obviously Chinese students. But by organizing courses in English about Chinese history and culture, the university also seeks to attract foreign students to this quantitatively impressive event. The strategic objective is obviously to boost the university’s internationalization in a variety of dimensions and also to strengthen Renmin’s prestige and reputation – both domestically and abroad.

My course dealt with the history of natural resources in global perspective. It was organized in cooperation with the School of History, but as it turned out, only 1 of my 30 students in the course actually had history as her major! The other students comprised a fantastic blend of disciplines, from statistics, biology and chemistry to law, economics, and sociology. For me, this mix formed an ideal interdisciplinary point of departure for discussing natural resource histories not only for their own sake, but above all in relation to present-day challenges and burning issues in the world.

Ten natural resources were at focus in this course: water, wood, salt, sand, iron, coal, oil, natural gas, uranium, and aluminum. For each resource, we discussed a set of common themes: practical uses of the resource; spiritual and symbolic significance; resource scarcity and abundance; shifting geological patterns of extraction; local and global conflicts over resource extraction; and environmental aspects.

Some students complained that the course was demanding. Apart from the challenge of having to read and write a lot in English, they were particularly confused about STS-inspired notions such as natural resource scarcity as socially constructed (a topic that my PhD student Hanna Vikström is developing in a forthcoming journal article, and which I used in this course). But most of the students did well in the end. In their final essays they came up with a host of interesting arguments about everything from the role of Confucius in defining ancient China’s salt policy to the rise and fall of tens of thousands of small-scale coal mines in Shanxi Province during the Mao Zedong era.

Swedish chromium colonialism in Turkey

I’m afraid I’ve neglected this website during spring, but here’s an update on what has been my favorite reserach topic for the past couple of months: Swedish resource colonialism in Turkey. It all started some time ago when my PhD student Hanna Vikström brought to my attention the intriguing question of how the Swedish steel industry has historically gone about securing access to critical alloying metals. Swedish steel has long been the subject of national pride, but the focus in terms of the material basis for this industry has, in the existing literature, almost always been on domestically abundant iron ore, charcoal, and waterpower. But what about a critical input such as chromium, which in the 1920s started to used in the production of stainless steel? Chromium ore was not available domestically.

To answer this question Hanna and I together with my colleague Dag Avango took the train to Sandviken, home to the famous steel company with the same name. Helped by the municipality’s excellent archivarian we started to track down one of the craziest chapters in Sweden’s natural resource history. The short version reads something like this: In 1928 the head of the Swedish legation in Istanbul, Gustaf Wallenberg, contacted Sandviken and other Swedish steel companies pointing to the excellent opportunities regarding investments in chromium ore mining in Anatolia. A year later a consortium of steel companies joined forces with a Swedish citizen of Turkish origin, Orhan Brandt, in forming a mining company that quickly seized control over a vast number of chromium ore deposits. Local farmers and their ox carts were hired to bring thousands of tons of chromium ore to the railway and thence to the port of Derince for further shipment to Sweden. The venture seemed on its way to become the world’s largest chromium ore exporter, supplying not only the Swedish steel industry but much of the world market as well. But then the steel companies, realizing that they were about the were about to assume leadership in a segment of global resource colonialism, stepped back. Or would they have acted differently if chromium ore prices had not dropped by 40% in conneciton with the Great Depression?

In any case the whole thing ended in disaster: Brandt and a number of other people involved in the project ended up in court and some were jailed. “Thanks God that I have no responsibility in this,” exclaimed Wallenberg’s successor Boheman in 1935. But during the time the dream lasted, the chromium affair actually contributed in a highly significant way to strengthening Swedish-Turkish political relations and to opening up Turkey as an export market for Swedish goods – including our excellent stainless steel.

Hanna is now taking the lead in writing up this story, which she intends to present at the upcoming Tensions of Europe conference in Stockholm, to be held in September.

Workshop on Soviet Energy History

In January the University of Zürich arranged a workshop on the seemingly narrow theme of the Soviet Union’s energy history: Oil, Gas and Pipelines: New Perspectives on the Role of Soviet Energy during the Cold War. I presented some work based on my book, Red Gas, and above all I enjoyed the presentations and ideas brought forward by other historians interested in the topic of Soviet-era energy issues. I was thrilled to learn that a significant number of research projects are currently being carried out in which academics from several countries enthusiastically dig into the rich archival material that is available in the archives of Russia and other ex-Soviet republics.

The political economy of Soviet energy in its national and international context was clearly a central discussion theme during the conference, whereby it became clear that Soviet, East European, and West European energy developments must be analyzed and understood as a whole. The conference papers also contributed in an excellent way to the analysis of the intriguing dialectics between East-West cooperation in the energy field and competition in the geopolitical arena.

Less represented were the material and technological dimensions. This surprised me, since it is obvious to everyone that nothing can happen in the field of oil and gas without science and technology – from the geology of oil and gas exploration to the complex metallurgical challenges for the steel industry in their attempts to produce large-diameter gas pipes for use in harsh Arctic environments. Another issue that remains to be dealt with is how Soviet energy can best be theorized.

It remains to be seen what the community of 25-30 workshop participants can come up with in terms of further research on Soviet energy during the next couple of years.

Per Högselius wins the Shulman Book Prize

I’m back in Stockholm after a brief visit to San Antonio, Texas, which hosted this year’s annual convention of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES). This is a big conference featuring some 1,500 participants and 30 parallel sessions in its program (which is big at least compared to those with which I’m more familiar, like the Society for the History of Technology). And like all proud US-based academic associations it also awards a number of prizes in connection with its convention.

Unexpectedly, my book Red Gas: Russia and the Origins of European Energy Dependence was named the winner of this year’s Marshall D. Shulman Book Prize, which is awarded by ASEEES for the best monograph dealing with “the international relations, foreign policy, or foreign-policy decision-making of any of the states of the former Soviet Union or Eastern Europe.” I received the prize at a ceremony last Saturday evening at San Antonio’s Marriott Rivercenter Hotel. Noting that ASEEES is an “area studies” association, I view the prize as a recognition of my argument that the history of technology may contribute in a fruitful way to the study of regional and world history and international relations more generally, and that in-depth historical studies can shed new light on controversial and burning issues in current affairs.

Read more about Red Gas here!

In Azerbaijan’s National Archives

I’m back in Stockholm after ten days in Baku, Azerbaijan’s fascinating capital city and probably the richest spot in the Caucasian region. To the north is wartorn Chechnya, to the south Iran and Iraq, where the Islamic State is advancing, but Azerbaijan, just like Armenia and Georgia, sees its future linked to Europe and, by way of possible oil and gas flows, to Central Asia. Baku was once an oil center of far-reaching importance, with a share of some of some 50% of total world production. The key people who made this happen were Swedes: Ludvig and Robert Nobel, brothers of the more famous Alfred Nobel, came here in the 1870s, invented new, superior methods for refining and transporting oil, and soon conquered the Russian and large parts of the world market. Their son Emmanuel later on took on what by then had become a vast industrial empire, and earned a reputation as the richest man in Europe.

I went to the National Archives of Azerbaijan to find out more about this unusual Swedish foreign history, which is also crucial to understanding Azerbaijan’s, Russia’s, and the Soviet Union’s industrial history. The material looks very fine, is in good shape, and would clearly make it possible to write not only one or a few articles, but a couple of books as well – if one could find the time to do that. The collections of the Nobel Brothers Company (Branobel) are clearly underutilized. The only scholar who has so far actually used them in earnest is Parvan Ahanchi of Azerbaijan’s National Academy of Sciences, who, apart from being an expert on the archive’s Branobel collections, has written several articles and books about the Swedish-owned company’s story in Russian language. I was lucky to meet Parvin while in Baku, learn from her experience, and discuss possibilities for future cooperation.

I also paid a visit to the recently restored Villa Petrolea, which served as Branobel’s Baku headquarters in the old times and where I was generously received by the Baku Nobel Heritage Fund’s Chairman Tugril Bagirov, a professor of political science, UN energy expert, and oil businessman with far-reaching philantropic ambitions and historical interests.

What makes Baku so fascinating today, however, is the way in which this historical oil capital has experienced a second oil boom after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Industrial oil producers have done their best to quickly exploit the region’s oil for about a century and half, but in the outskirts of Baku you can still marvel at whole forests of active oil pumps, oftentimes small ones awkwardly placed in backyards and other unexpected places. And in the Caspian Shipyard the enormous towers of offshore drilling platforms compete with minarets and skyscrapers for dominance in the skyline. When will the age of oil finally come to an end?