Second Annual T2M Conference, Detroit, 4-7 November 2004
The city of Detroit, Michigan, was the venue for the second annual conference of the International Association for the History of Transport, Traffic and Mobility (T2M), between 4 and 7 November 2004. Bruce Pietrykowski and Sharie Beard supervised the local arrangements, aided by Dick van den Brink, secretary of the association, which is based in the Netherlands. The University of Michigan—Dearborn hosted the conference in its admirable Fairlane Conference Center. The Motor City was highly appropriate setting for the proceedings, and sparked much comment about the particular physical and cultural importance of the automobile in American life. Many of the panels focused on the conference theme, “Mobility History and Policy,” but the breadth of research interests within T2M ensured that high-quality submissions on other aspects of transport and mobility found their place at the conference as well.
T2M was formally founded at the first conference, held in November 2003 at Eindhoven. It was the culmination of several years of effort prompted by the desire to rejuvenate the academic study of transport, an area which previously has been disproportionately concerned with economic and institutional history. The association’s name reflects this new research agenda. T2M is seeking to shift attention from production to the consumption of transport. This is the “mobility” of the title: the movement of people, goods, and ideas, and the social and cultural meanings attached to this circulation at the individual and societal levels. A particular intention is to encourage a more integrated approach, through transnational and transmodal analysis of transport networks. Interaction between history and other disciplines is [End Page 164] particularly sought, in order to widen understanding and interpretation of transport, past and present.
This desire to broaden the canon manifested itself in Detroit, with papers from science and technology studies, policy makers, economists, archaeologists, geographers, sociologists, art historians, and engineers as well as historians. Since November 2003 the association has grown in membership, and representatives of sixteen countries attended the Detroit conference, from as far afield as Sweden, Australia, the Republic of Congo, and South Africa. Indeed, approximately 60 percent of the attendees came from outside North America—such was the enthusiasm for T2M. This geographic and academic diversity was a particularly valuable feature of the conference.
In keeping with the new approaches encouraged by the association, the conference employed a modern format, emphasizing discussion and the exchange of ideas. Papers were submitted by September 2004 and then sent out to all delegates on compact disk. This enabled participants to read the papers before attending the conference, giving them a chance to assess each paper critically and form more detailed questions and suggestions. Authors gave brief summaries of their papers at each session, permitting extended discussion during time that would otherwise have been spent on the presentations. With seventy-five papers spread across the four days, parallel sessions were necessary—on most days, four panels ran concurrently. Often this is an undesirable feature of conferences, as it is impossible to hear all of the papers, but the CD sent out to delegates beforehand largely compensated for this disadvantage.
The conference opened with a fascinating keynote address from David Harvey, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at City University of New York, on “the fetishism of technology.” Harvey made the case for the continued analytical integration of technology and social relations, and argued against attributing all-encompassing powers to technology. This was a provocative stand, and generated lively discussion, which was to become a feature of the following days. A reception followed at the Henry Ford Estate, with good food and plentiful wine—an excellent start to the conference. The first full day, a Friday, began with a plenary presentation by Bruce Seely, which neatly tied the conference theme to the transnational objectives of T2M by exploring how road engineers affected policy decisions in Europe and the United States.
Parallel sessions then followed from Friday to Sunday, addressing a variety of themes in mobility history and policy. The opening session on gender, race, and mobility was well-attended, and produced some interesting discussion. Georgina Hickey examined how class and race intersected in women’s use of the public space of the street and the consequent negotiations that shaped urban development in early-twentieth-century Atlanta. Steve Koerner analyzed the gendered nature of the motorcycle in Britain, [End Page 165] arguing that the social rather than the physical restricted women’s use of the motorbike, while Drew Whitelegg explored how female airline cabin crew experienced the mobility that came with their jobs in the 1970s and 1980s.
Several papers took a theoretical perspective, providing thoughts on the development of T2M and emerging methodologies. Mitch Hendrickson demonstrated the contribution that geographic information systems (GIS) can make to cultural history in his consideration of mobility and traffic on the roads of the Khmer empire. Hanna Wolf’s international comparison of the transport diffusion was framed within the deeper methodological question of the value of quantitative approaches to the history of transport. Larry Shumsky reiterated T2M’s concern for appreciating transport as a single phenomenon rather than a set of discrete modes of travel; this found support in Daniel Little’s paper, which noted the importance of transport as a whole in processes of historical causation. Colin Divall and George Revill explored the broader context within which T2M exists, showing not only how T2M can usefully learn from cultural studies but what T2M can contribute in return. Continued development of the theoretical and methodological concepts examined in these papers will push T2M, and indeed history and cultural studies in general, forward.
The consumption of transport was examined in a number of papers, among them Carlton Basmajian’s, Jason Weems’s, and Heike Wolter’s. Basmajian considered women’s experience of commuting in Michigan and the effects on their home and work lives, finding that the commute offered a welcome psychological separation between the two domains. Weems explored the cultural significance of the car windshield, as a device which affects how occupants perceive and construct the space around them. Wolter addressed issues raised by the development of tourism in the German Democratic Republic in the 1970s and 1980s, arguing that the experience of tourism took two forms: travel through actual space, and travel through the imagination—”mental tourism.”
The theme of policy was well-reflected in the papers. Examples included Corinne Mulley’s and Maggie Walsh’s papers comparing public policy on motorized bus transport in the United States and the United Kingdom, Julian Greaves on shipping policy, and Gustav Sjöblom on motor taxation in Sweden, German, and Britain. Niroj Kumar Mohanty, Shisher Kumra, and Anju Singh delivered a paper that provided an insight into the impact of policy upon urban transport in Delhi. Jamey Wetmore’s thought-provoking analysis of the introduction of car airbags in the United States counterposed the roles of manufacturers and government as he charted the processes of negotiation that led to the redefinition of the meaning of the airbag and ideas of responsibility.
The transnational flavor of the association was evident in a large number of the papers, including Jeff Schramm’s examination of the factors [End Page 166] influencing the adoption of railroad diesels, my own paper on cultures of work safety in the United States and the United Kingdom, and Maria Louisa Sousa’s paper on technology transfer and the introduction of assembly lines in the Portuguese automobile industry. Labor issues were addressed in papers by Al Churella, on the limited success of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s “company union,” and Florent Montagnon, examining personnel management practices in the mass transit company of Lyons.
While the range of topics and analytical approaches was vast, and the discussions generated by the papers stimulating, work was not the only part of proceedings. On Thursday, tours of the Henry Ford Estate were available; on Friday afternoon delegates were treated to tours of the Henry Ford Museum or the Ford River Rouge Plant—the latter sparking much comment about the presentation of the experience, for viewer and for worker. The highlight of the social activities was undoubtedly the Saturday night banquet, held at the Detroit Institute of Arts beneath the famous Diego Rivera Detroit Industry frescoes. The evening took an unexpected turn when Henry Ford himself suddenly marched up to the podium and began denouncing Rivera’s controversial paintings. He then proceeded to remind us of “what the car has done for us” through a catchy song, thus strengthening a tradition at T2M of unusual evening entertainment. The conference organizers and their assistants are to be thanked for making the 2004 conference a resounding success.
Mike Esbester is a Ph.D. candidate with the Institute of Railway Studies and Transport History, University of York. His thesis examines the techniques, messages and power structures of occupational safety education on Britain’s railways, 1913-39.
Technology and Culture 46.1 (2005) 164-167