Volume II – No. 1 – May 2005
A new newsletter feature contains brief interviews with important figures from the T2M world. Here, retiring editor of the Journal of Transport History, Peter Lyth, faces up to the questions.
1. How did you get interested in transport history and aviation in particular?
Well, fairly late in my career. My first degree, at the University of East Anglia, was in economic and social history. An inspirational supervisor steered me towards Weimar Hamburg for my doctoral research and for some time I concentrated on German economic history. It was only in the 1980s that I began to take an academic interest in airline history. Aircraft had always fascinated me (like many men, I suspect!), but until then I hadn’t really considered the degree to which airlines represented something quite unique in 20th century history: extraordinary scientific and technological endeavour, mixed with political intrigue, eccentric entrepreneurs, and one of the most Byzantine regulatory arrangements ever to control a modern transport system. I began researching British airline history and it was from that standpoint that my interest broadened to encompass transport history generally in the 1990s. I still don’t know much about the railways or maritime history but thanks largely to fruitful discussion with (and, of course, reading the articles and books of) colleagues and friends, amongst whom I’d like to mention John Armstrong, Philip Bagwell, Colin Divall and Terry Gourvish, I know rather more than I did fifteen years ago!
2. As Editor of the Journal of Transport History, you’ve seen a few changes over recent years. What are some of the more important ones?
I have only been editor since 2001 and under the new rules for JTH officers, four years is the maximum for a single term as editor. By comparison, my predecessor John Armstrong was at the helm for over a decade. But you are right: there has been an accelerated rate of change at the Journal since the turn of the new century. As Gijs Mom and I have both mentioned in editorial leaders in the Journal, the trend has been away from traditional, supply-side economic and social history approaches to transport and towards what one might term the consumption of transport in history. It is a trend which would include the study of how men and women have experienced transport over the last two hundred years, and how transport enterprises have marketed their services and products to the consumer.
In practice this has meant more cultural history and more gender history, or at least the publication of articles which are informed by a cultural history or gender history methodology. The second change in trend which I would mention, and which we are trying to establish in editorial policy, is towards the history of technology. A closer look at the evolution of transport artifacts and technologies, drawing, where appropriate, on the cultural and gender history methodologies mentioned above, should form an important part of the broad spectrum of approaches and disciplines featured in future issues. I hasten to add, however, this is most definitely not to say that there is no place in the future for the more traditional submissions from economic and social historians that have been at the heart of the Journal’s publishing record since its first appearance in the 1950s. The fruits of solid research in company archives, and the economic and financial analyses of transport industry history, will always be welcome, as will studies on government policy towards transport. In any case, good scholarship will always find a home in the JTH.
3)How have you balanced the sometimes-differing interests of academics and lay enthusiasts?
I have always thought the so-called gulf between academic scholars on the one hand and lay historians and transport history enthusiasts on the other, is exaggerated. The truth is surely that the latter has provided the former with a steady flow of empirical raw material with which to consolidate their theories and support their arguments. The academics need the enthusiasts, but also, and here your question makes an important point, the enthusiasts need to heed and understand the state of the art in academic transport history. Many hours of worthy research in dusty local archives will yield little of scholarly value unless it is focused on an academic issue or debate, or engages the historiography in its chosen field. Certainly, academics and lay people have different interests and agendas; the latter are, by definition, amateurs and there is always the risk that they will be enchanted and led by the sources. The task of the editor of a specialist journal like the JTH is to lead the lay author back onto the path of academic righteousness and get him or her to answer not only the how, when and where questions, but also those all-important why questions too. This is not always easy and doubtless I have critics on both sides for the way I have struck the balance here.
4)Where will your interests lie after leaving the Journal?
I have a number of projects which I confess have been on the back burner during my spell as editor. I just hope I can warm them up again! My interests remain mainly in aviation history and range from a cultural history of British Airways (hopefully ready by the centenary in 2019!) to another look at that fascinating decade of British jet engine history from the premature death of the Comet to the protracted birth of the Concorde. I am also writing a book (very slowly!) on speed; provisionally entitled A Quick History.
5)Any advice for the new editor?
Get a good secretary! Editing the JTH seems to me to be like running a railway: you spend your time shunting stuff to and fro, and worrying about timetables.