Technology’s workforce. Inventing, operating and learning technology throughout history

Technology’s workforce. Inventing, operating and learning technology throughout history

Iron Library, Schlatt / Schaffhausen
Vom - Bis
16.11.2018 - 17.11.2018
Url der Konferenzwebsite
Nina Helg-Kurmann, Eisenbibliothek, Stiftung der Georg Fischer AG, Schlatt

The 41st History of Technology Conference started with a novelty that might become a tradition: a public lecture on the eve of the conference. In this year’s lecture, YULIA SANDAMIRSKAYA (Zurich) spoke about whether artificial intelligence is possible. The neuroinformatician explained what machine learning is, what the term “intelligent” means specifically, which problems research faces, and what is possible regarding Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the near future. Sandamirskaya ended with a positive outlook on the opportunities that lie in the new developments: intelligent and autonomous machines can enable a more humane life and the new technologies can help us to better understand how our behavior and thinking is generated through neuronal processes. While Sandamirskaya talked about future developments regarding technology’s workforce, the conference began with a retrospective approach to the topic. The keynote speaker PAMELA O. LONG (Washington, D.C.) discussed the fluid culture of skilled work in late 16th century Rome. She made plausible that, in order to climb the social ladder, workers sometimes led fluid professional lives by moving between different kinds of artisanal occupations. Leonardo Bufalini for example came to Rome as a carpenter and later became a celebrated surveyor and cartographer. This professional and social mobility was possible thanks to strong interactions and friendships with patrons and humanists in what Long called “trading zones”. They could be found in other cities as well, however, mostly in different industrial segments.

The first panel of the conference approached the topic of technical education and focused on handicraft and factory work in the pre-modern era. GERHARD DOHRN-VAN ROSSUM (Chemnitz) spoke about watchmakers as the prototype of technical experts in Europe, and the correlation between migration and transfer of technical skills. By using three groups of specialists as examples (draftsmen of astronomical instruments, engineers, and hydraulic technicians), he explored the innovative force of watchmaking technology. Since the mechanical clock first appeared at the end of the 13th century, clockmakers embodied technical development and innovation. Two centuries later, intellectual arenas, or ”trading zones” as Long called them, in which craftsman and learned laborers interacted, had developed. This transfer of technical skills was made possible through the migration of artisanal watchmakers.

Subsequently, REINHOLD REITH (Salzburg) presented a historical approach to “craft orientation” and explored critiques of manual craft labor, notably Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman and Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soul Craft. He argued that the praise of craftsmanship is anchored in a frustration with throwaway society, which ignores that the costs of resources and human labor have reversed. Furthermore, Reith explored the notion of craftsmanship as the basic human desire “to do a job well for its own sake”. In criticizing Sennett, the speaker pleaded for a more systematic historical analysis of work based on learning, performing, developing, and maintaining.

LEONARD N. ROSENBAND (Logan, UT) thereafter discussed the craftsmanship of the journeymen paperworkers between 1700 and 1800. The historian challenged Jan de Vries’ model of the industrious revolution which claims that laborers chose to work longer hours under great intensity to consume new manufactured and imported goods. However, Rosenband argued that there was no revolution in this trade and journeymen paperworkers resisted becoming automatons. Neither E. P. Thompson’s depiction of the moral economy of the marketplace, nor de Vries’ account captured the trade’s social relations of production. Rather, paperworkers tried to keep their trade scarce by developing associations to preserve control of the market and their sense of the proper order. The three talks illuminated and added to Pamela Long’s notion of trading zones and the hybridity of skilled laborers. Moreover, they challenged established perceptions of periodization, distancing themselves from sociological categories.

The afternoon panel was dedicated to engineers, scientists, and workers in the steel industry. NINA SCHLÄFLI (Bern) discussed the launch and establishment of steamship construction at Escher, Wyss & Cie. She introduced four men who had a strong influence on the development of the company: Hans Caspar Escher, William Fairbairn, Matthew Murray Jackson, and Gustav Albert Escher. Using their example, the historian illustrated the importance of professional networks and technological transfer to develop a new sector and to create the groundwork for innovation and expansion. With her study, Schläfli adds an important transnational dimension to the industrial and mechanical engineering history of the early 19th century.

RUPERT PICHLER (Vienna) subsequently contributed to the often overlooked topic of inventor’s biographies. He outlined Hubert Hauttmann’s career to illustrate the figure of the “industrial researcher” and to define the role of in-house research institutes as the institutional context of this figure. The industrial researcher was a mixture of inventor romanticism and the academic cult of the genius. Hauttmann developed new technologies from a sound scientific base with a starting point in real life. His career reflects the scientific development in the steel industry and the important function of R&D in the early 20th century. Moreover, his biography highlights the significance of professional networks, research communities, and the exchange between practice and science for industrial researchers.

The panel was closed by OLAF SCHMIDT-RUTSCH (Dortmund) who introduced the Industrial Labor Memory Archive at the Westfalian Museum of Industrial Culture. In 1979, the Landschaftsverband Westfalen-Lippe founded a decentralized museum with the aim to document the life and work in the industrial age at historically authentic sites. Eight locations were selected to represent different sectors of the industry and, over the years, a large oral history archive was established. By means of interviews with former workers, the sites are explained and fascinating, often disregarded facets are brought to life. The archive is able to illuminate the history of work from a different angle and add new perspectives on individual memories and experiences. However, the interviews have to be contextualized carefully in order not to sentimentalize history.

The third panel on Friday focused on women in science and technology. SERENITY SUTHERLAND (Oswego, NY) spoke about the women’s laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) 1876–1884. The historian outlined the career of Ellen Richards, the first woman to graduate from and teach at MIT, who started the lab as a place for female scientists like herself to train and practice chemistry. It illustrates the type of laboratory work women did at the time and shows how women contributed to technological advancements in Boston. Moreover, Richards highlights how women networked efficiently and bonded together to make up for their exclusion from scientific institutions. Through their work – both in the lab and within larger networks – women made an important contribution to the technological knowledge of the late 19th century in the US.

CORINNA SCHLOMBS (Rochester, NY) continued the topic with her paper on female keypunch operators in banking automation in West Germany. In the 1950s, it was hoped that automation of information processing through computers would free employees from tedious routine work; however, it soon became clear that the opposite was the case. The dull and easily controllable work of punch card data entry was mostly performed by women. Schlombs illustrated the role of women in clerical positions and outlined the social, political, and economical conditions of office automation as a field of human endeavor to trace the gendering and classing of computing and its workforce. The issue of keypunch operators makes frictions in automation processes visible that are still relevant in contemporary developments, for example AI.

The morning panel of the second conference day was dedicated to training and work processes in the 19th and 20th century. MARISA DE PICKER (Leuven) discussed the vocational training of Belgian physically disabled veterans of World War I. She argued that inside the re-educational institutes, the mechanization of labor went hand in hand with disability. Thereby, physically disabled soldiers became both actors and subjects of mechanization through mechanotherapy, working prosthetics, and individualized technical schooling with assistive technologies. The programs were established to modernize certain labor methods, anticipate recent technological and scientific innovations, and try to improve disabled soldiers’ productivity. The paper demonstrated the importance of work rather than compensation at the time: every man was needed in the workforce and being productive and efficient was regarded as important character traits.

Thereafter, FAY LUNDH NILSSON (Lund) presented a national perspective to the topic. In order to promote economic development in Sweden, a technical education system was established in the mid-19th century. It included five technical secondary schools as nodes for industrial development from 1850 to 1920. Lundh Nilsson illustrated the regional effect of these schools, their development, and their impact on the respective regions. As a preliminary conclusion, Lundh Nilsson stated that the schools functioned as regional institutes for technical education. However, 50 percent of their students left the region after graduation. She proposed further investigation regarding entrepreneurial career patterns, change in behavior due to migration, and employment over time to broaden the understanding of the effects and impact of this project.

The panel was concluded by PETER MOSER (Bern) who outlined Konrad von Meyenburg’s invention of the rotary drill in 1928 and the reception of his discovery in agrarian practice. It was inspired by both Taylorism and the way moles dig up the earth. Until World War I, humans and horses constituted the most important workforce. Von Meyenburg wanted to change this in order to “free” people and animals from manual labor with a motorized rotary drill. However, his machine was almost too effective: not only agricultural crops, but also weeds prospered. This shows the complexity of agrarian practice. Categories of failure and success are therefore not applicable since it is a process and interaction. Lundh Nilsson and de Picker agreed with this statement in the subsequent discussion. Both argued that their topics do not constitute histories of failure, but are part of larger processes and developments.

The last panel of the conference addressed the topic raised in the pre-conference lecture: AI and digital transformation. LAURA PLATTE (Aachen) outlined the discourse surrounding AI in regards to its implications for engineers and production technology. Drawing on both guided expert interviews, and the RTWH Aachen’s cluster of excellence, Platte addressed the following questions: Which characteristics, potentials, and risks are ascribed to AI? And has the image of the engineer changed as a result? In discussing her results, the linguist found that AI cannot be considered a humiliation for the engineer in the sense of Freud’s proposed humiliations of mankind. Rather, AI is a tool, an enhancement, and a method for the engineer.

The last paper of the conference was presented by ANDREAS RAUCH (Biel) who spoke about the digital transformation at GF Machining Solutions. He described the challenges that digital transformation poses to machine manufacturers and how they can be met. Digitalization demands a fundamental culture and mindset change in all areas of operation. Actions to face the challenges include standardization of machines, implementation of the industry 4.0, automation, connectivity, cloud infrastructures, and business applications. The speaker explained that GF Machining Solutions employs a combination of design thinking, lean startup, and agile development methods to change the mindset from a technology to a human centered thinking. This is the only way, Rauch argued, how the needed cultural change is possible.

The conference was concluded by MARCUS POPPLOW (Karlsruhe). He stated that the overall topic is not a homogenous area of research with a conceptual link, as the spectrum of presented papers illustrated. Popplow identified seven research fields: differentiated histories of inventors, the role of social groups in the creation of new techniques, gender issues, history of knowledge and expertise, technological transfer, learning in institutions, and the history of work. AI constitutes another related issue that is at the moment not clearly connected with the others. However, as historical and contemporary discussions show, the question whether technology poses a threat or is a hope is prompted time and again. Questions regarding the scope of human action and technology could therefore be a possibility for future studies: Who is in control of whom? The wide spectrum of the history of technology allows for an exploration of both sides. Popplow closed his remarks with the suggestion that the starting point for reflection does, however, not necessarily have to be people or technology; a third option is that people use technology to get closer to other people.

Conference Overview:

Pre-Conference Lecture
Yulia Sandamirskaya (INI University and ETH Zurich): “Artificial intelligence”: Is It Possible?

Roland Gröbli (Chairman of the Governing Board of the Iron Library Foundation and Corporate Secretary of Georg Fischer Ltd., Schaffhausen): Welcome and Opening

Keynote Lecture
Pamela O. Long (Washington, D.C.): Bricolagic Practitioners and the Fluid Culture of Skilled Work in Late Sixteenth-Century Rome

Panel I: Handicraft and Factory Work in the Pre-Modern Era
Moderation: Friedrich Steinle (TU Berlin)

Gerhard Dohrn-van Rossum (TU Chemnitz): Clockmakers as the Prototype of Technical Experts in Pre-Modern Europe. Migration and Transfer of Technical Competencies

Reinhold Reith (University of Salzburg): Animal Laborans and Homo Faber. A Historical Approach to “Craft Orientation”

Leonard N. Rosenband (Utah State University, Logan, UT): Journeymen Paperworkers, the Industrious Revolution, and the Industrial Enlightenment, c. 1700–1800

Panel II: Engineers, Scientists, and Workers in the Steel Industry
Moderation: Reinhold Reith (University of Salzburg)

Nina Schläfli (University of Bern): Launch and Establishment of Steamship Construction at Escher, Wyss & Cie. Transnational Networks and Technology Transfer

Rupert Pichler (Austrian Ministry for Transport, Innovation and Technology, Vienna): Innovation in Large Enterprises. Hubert Hauttmann – an Austrian Career in Industrial Research

Olaf Schmidt-Rutsch (LWL-Industriemuseum Dortmund): Not a Textbook Example of Labor: the “Industrial Labor Memory Archive” at the Westfalian Museum of Industrial Culture

Panel III: Women in Science and Technology
Moderation: Friedrich Steinle (TU Berlin)

Serenity Sutherland (State University of New York, Oswego, NY): Women in Chemistry’s Workforce: The Women’s Laboratory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1876–1884

Corinna Schlombs (Rochester Institute of Technology, NY): Computing’s Workforce: Keypunch Operators, Gender, and Class in Banking Automation

Visit of the Centenary Exhibition “Vigorous Convent – Vibrant Industry: 100 Years of GF at Klostergut Paradies” and Factory Tour at GF Piping Systems, Schaffhausen

Panel IV: Training and Work Processes in the 19th and 20th Centuries
Moderataion: Gisela Hürlimann (ETH Zurich)

Marisa De Picker (Catholic Universit of Leuven): Prosthetic Labor Hands and the Mechanization of Disability. The Vocational Training of Belgian Physically Disabled Veterans of the First World War, 1914–1925

Fay Lundh Nilsson (Lund University): Technical Education and Regional Development – Technical Secondary Schools as Nodes for Industrial Development in Sweden, 1850–1920

Peter Moser (Archives of Rural History Bern): Taylor in Sight. Mole in the Mind. Konrad von Meyenburg and the Reception of his Discoveries in Agrarian Practice

Panel V: Artificial Intelligence and Digital Transformation in Industry
Moderation: Reinhold Reith (University of Salzburg)

Laura Platte (RWTH Aachen): Artificial Intelligence: The Engineer’s First Humiliation?

Andreas Rauch (GF Machining Solutions, Geneva): Digital Transformation at GF Machining Solutions: Engineering Industry in the Digital Age

Marcus Popplow (KIT Karlsruhe Institute of Technology): Conclusion and Closing Remarks

Franziska Eggimann (Iron Library, Schaffhausen): Closing Words