A mobility perspective on the SHOT 2008 Annual Conference
When Luís de Camões wrote Os Luisiadas in the 16th century, he praised the Portuguese seafarers for their exploration of the world. This year, instead, historians of technology from around the globe explored the Portuguese capital Lisbon for the second celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Society for the History of Technology. With the able assistance of Maria de Fátima de Haan and a large team of helpers, local organising committee chair Maria Paula Diogo welcomed participants in the Oriente area of Lisbon. Since the Expo ’98, this neighbourhood has developed into a fashionable part of town on the riverside of the Tejo giving excellent views of the Vasco da Gama bridge that opened right before the Expo.
There was certainly more to attract mobility historians to Lisbon than the Vasco da Gama bridge or the stunning forest-shaped Oriente railway station designed by Santiago Calatrava. SHOT’s Program Committee managed to put together a number of enticing sessions relating to mobility. The program counted ten outright mobility sessions on a total of sixty-six. Seven out of ten had been organised as such and the Committee had composed the remainder. This short review does not pretend to do justice to all individual papers relating to mobility topics, but rather intends to give a flavour of the conference and to spotlight some of the work that was interesting from a mobility perspective. For those who want a full picture, I simply refer to the on-line program, still available through http://www.shotlisbon2008.com/meeting.htm (in particular, see sessions 3, 4, 5, 9, 30, 32, 33, 39, 45, 50, and 63; and individual papers by Anastasiadou, Borg, Churella, Cordovil, Heide, Helbig, Jones, Konrad & Rueff & Giesecke, Lipartito, MacLeod & Lewis, Maharaj, Marquez, Scranton, and Siddiqi).
The geographic and temporal scope of the papers presented at the conference displayed the usual limited variety. Most papers concerned the trans-Atlantic realm, perpetuating the neglect of large parts of the world. Time-wise there was a heavy bias towards the twentieth century. The near exclusive focus of mobility historians, or of historians of technology for that matter, on recent times remains overwhelmingly strong. It renders the occasional excursions to the nineteenth or earlier centuries, or papers moving into terra incognita, all the more interesting. An example in this double sense was Alexandra Bekasova’s “The Making of Passengers in the Russian Empire,” taking us back to 19th century coach travel in the (western) Russian empire. It highlighted how several elements of travel culture that Schivelbusch so eloquently associated with railway travel were in fact already present earlier, in stagecoach travel. Ultimately such work should entice more of us to produce the truly multimodal studies that our field needs. In this vein a session on containerisation emphasized the intermodality of the technology.
Not only do we need to blend in various modes of transport, we also should mix mobility history with other historical scholarship. Marta Macedo offered a fine example with “Wine, phylloxera, railway and engineers in the Douro Valey (1863-1887)”. Macedo’s well-presented paper intertwined railway history with long-term agricultural development in the wine-growing Douro region and the devastating effects of the seemingly untameable agricultural pest phylloxera. The combination with Peter Soppelsa’s “The Paris flood of 1910 and the fragility of modernity” further underlined how fruitful such an approach might be. Soppelsa’s marvellous presentation showed the multiple entanglements of urban infrastructures, which the flood that hit Paris in the winter 1910 laid bare. His amazing collection of postcards showed how the material structures of mobility intimately intertwined other infrastructures and the mutual dependencies and vulnerabilities that process had created. Thus taken together the papers from the session “Engineering nature” both made a plea somehow for more interdisciplinary approaches.
Soppelsa’s paper also pointed out how the flood temporarily blocked the Parisian electricity supply, thus obliging tramway companies to reinstall some of their supposedly obsolete horse trams. Bruno Cordovil’s “Disappearing technologies: Disuse and substitution in the street-lighting of Lisbon, 1848-1965” dealt with the afterlife of supposedly outdated technologies within a larger time frame. He showed that electric lighting did not revolutionize Lisbon’s streets overnight. Rather, allegedly oldfashioned oil and gas lamps not only stayed, but spread further around the city while electric lighting remained largely confined to Lisbon’s fancy boulevards.
In modal terms, aviation had a particularly strong showing at the conference, with two organised and one composed session, the latter curiously coinciding with one of the former. Among the papers was Daniela Helbig’s “Beyond the system’s limits: Marga von Etzdorf’s last flight,” recounting the tragic suicide of a popular female German pilot after a forced landing at a small airfield in the Syrian desert. By reconstructing three takes on the same event (the view of the airplane producer, a German view, and a local view) Helbig could present a fascinating reflection on what was considered or not part of the air traffic system.
If I would be forced to report something negative about the conference, I could anecdotally point at the lack of chairs at the fascinating session on techno-cocooning, tracking the car as a sound cocoon through time. The high-quality session drew such a large crowd that it virtually acquired the character of a sit-in. On a more serious level it is still unfortunate that SHOT remains a society in which most papers are read, too often in a monotonous tone slowly dozing the audience off to sleep. In that sense many presenters may still benefit from Paul Edwards “How to give an academic talk,” which SHOT has made available on its website for some years now. Yet overall there was plenty to keep the mobility historian to the SHOT annual meeting in 2008 satisfied. It can only be hoped that this development continues next year in Pittsburgh as the annual meeting moves back across the Atlantic (15-19 October 2009).