Review of Wolfgang König: "Technikgeschichte: Eine Einführung in ihre Konzepte und Forschungsergebnisse" (Stuttgart, Franz Steiner Verlag, 2009), by Sylvia Wölfel for H-HistGeog

Wolfgang König. Technikgeschichte: Eine Einführung in ihre Konzepte und Forschungsergebnisse. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2009. 264 pp. $34.00 (paper), ISBN 978-3-515-09423-8.

Reviewed by Sylvia Wölfel ((Technical University of Dresden, Department of History ))
Published on H-HistGeog (January, 2011)
Commissioned by Eva M. Stolberg

Marginalized But Vital: A New Introduction to History of Technology

That technology nowadays constitutes human life is neither a new nor disputed discovery. It is both a daily companion from birth to death in an individual perspective and can be associated with the beginning and probably the end of the human species in general. Technology in history is therefore firmly grounded as an object of research in a broad range of scientific disciplines. Regarding the academic historiography, however, it becomes apparent that history of technology is a comparatively young subdiscipline in a rather peripheral position. Available introductions for students may serve as an indicator for the unsatisfying level of integration. If mentioned at all they offer outdated scientific knowledge concerning the debates and state of research in the history of technology. Two recently published introductions now attempt to fill this gap. The first is Rolf-Jürgen Gleitsmann, Rolf-Ulrich Kunze, and Günther Oetzel's Technikgeschichte: Eine Einführung (2009). The second, by Wolfgang König, chairholder for History of Technology at the Technische Universität Berlin, is an introduction to research concepts and research findings followed by an anthology of texts illustrating the development of a discipline, her methods, and future aspects (Technikgeschichte: Basistexte [2009]). The book under review addresses an audience inner's level and presents a profound overview of technology as a key factor of historical change and essential topic of research in three chapters.

The first chapter discusses, in a systematic approach, the appropriation of the terms "technology" and "history of technology" within the system of academic disciplines. From a historical perspective, technology appears as a traditional research topic, but in particular the social sciences and humanities only hesitantly established it. Furthermore, the successful institutionalization and expansion of engineering sciences in the late nineteenth century resulted in a narrowing of perspectives. Research focusing on the origins of technology or contexts of usage was marginalized in favor of a more practice-oriented approach. A cross- disciplinary dialogue on technology in history, therefore, still awaits to be accomplished. The chapter terminates with a short outline of the development of the subdiscipline history of technology. At this point, it becomes apparent that König largely concentrates on the German-speaking scientific community, the Federal Republic of Germany after 1945. That approach disregards international debates and largely ignores the other German state with its Marxist-inspired research tradition.

The second chapter gives insight into theories and key concepts of the academic discipline, such as Innovation Systems and Innovation Cultures, Social Construction of Technology (SCOT), Path Dependency, and Technological Momentum or Revolution and Evolution. König discusses their emergence, reception, and heuristic potential and explicitly criticizes a rather uncritical usage of theoretical concepts so far. With noticeable distance, he introduces newer approaches influenced by cultural studies and particularly disagrees with SCOT. That much-discussed concept has been taken over by historians of technology in a quasi ritual way even though the transfer of a sociological approach from science to technology still lacks an elaborate explanation. König points to the continuing process of revision since 1984 and expresses his doubts about the significance of SCOT as a general theory of technological development.

The following chapter drafts a general outline of Western technology from the Industrial Revolution until today, thereby concentrating on Germany, Great Britain, and the United States. In the first of two historical-systematic parts, the author sketches technology in the industrial society and subsequently resumes his substantial research related to the consumer society, including comments on mobility, mass media, and environmental problems. König concludes this introduction with a third part focusing on learning through the history of technology. As expected, the author stresses the advantages but not without mentioning the constraints of technology assessment or political attempts to steer technical development.

This introduction is a well-written and clearly structured book that raises a large variety of topics with inevitable simplifications and restrictions. It shows the expansion of a discipline resulting in a diversification of research themes and methods. The reader gets a comprehensible outline of theories and concepts. A wide-ranging bibliography gives access to research literature and presents standard works. Therefore it would be presumptuous to criticize a cursory view or certain thematic priorities. However, in contrast to comparable works, it is apparent that a link to museums of technology or science centers is missing as well as an introduction to industrial archeology. Students and interested readers could also benefit from more detailed information about new concepts and methods related to the terms "global" or "transnational history," "gender," "objects," "discourses," or "pictures." This applies all the more because the author repeatedly emphasizes the importance of cross-disciplinary theoretical and methodological debates.