From Passive Livestock to Untamed Beings: Reanimating Animals in the History of Technology

From Passive Livestock to Untamed Beings: Reanimating Animals in the History of Technology

Fachgebiet Technikgeschichte der TU Berlin
Findet statt
In Präsenz
Vom - Bis
21.03.2024 - 22.03.2024
Christian Zumbrägel, Institut für Philosophie, Literatur-, Wissenschafts- und Technikgeschichte, Technische Universität Berlin

Workshop at the Division of History of Technology at TU Berlin, Germany
March 21–22, 2024

From Passive Livestock to Untamed Beings: Reanimating Animals in the History of Technology

How should studies that analyze the historical relationship between animals and technology incorporate more-than-human perspectives and multispecies approaches that have been established in Science and Technology Studies and Human Animal Studies? What can the history of technology contribute to the methodological and theoretical basis of studies of animals and technology in other disciplines? Which stories about animals and technology do we wish to write in the Anthropocene? The planned workshop seeks to explore the role of animals in technological change from a variety of disciplinary angles.

The past few years have registered a significant increase in studies that explore animals and their relationships to society, science, and technology. Spurred by theoretical debates about the New Materialism and Actor-Network-Theory, researchers in the fields of ethnology, anthropology and empirical cultural studies have developed approaches that focus on “animal agency” in socio-technical processes. Within the field of history, too, the role of animals in animating and moving history has gained momentum. In these stories, the liveliness of animals is always entangled with technologies. For example, historians of science have provided accounts of how escaped fish from domestic aquariums entered urban water pipes around 1900; they have studied how fruit flies, rats and frogs were used in laboratory experiments; and how silk worms were put to work in Asian textile production. Environmental historians have explored how animal migrations have taken place in technological landscapes (e.g. industrialized rivers, traffic junctions) and how global transportation infrastructures triggered phenomena of biological invasions. These accounts provide only a few examples of how the specific properties of animals have broadened or restricted human capabilities and actions in the past.

In the field of history of technology, there are still very few empirical studies that trace animals as agents of technological change. Traditionally animals have been seen as domesticated and functionalized livestock, but rarely as living organisms or untamed beings involved in co-shaping technical practices and daily routines. Historians working at the junction of environment and technology, however, have already generated conceptional considerations that encourage us to consider the complex interrelations between animals and technology beyond perspectives of animals as “living machines” (McShance/Tarr) or “industrialized organisms” (Schrepfer/Scranton). Dolly Jørgensen, for example, has argued that technological artifacts in the Anthropocene cannot be separated from natural ecosystems and animal worlds. This perspective has opened up many new avenues for further research, illuminating diverse new subjects, such as sites of shipwrecks where coral reefs developed, garbage patches in the ocean that have become habitats for different organisms, building façades where birds and insects reside, and river dams where ibexes climb to lick salt from quarries.

We seek contributions that investigate theoretical approaches and case studies from different time periods and geographic regions in order to trace new perspectives on historical relations between animals and technology. We invite scholars working in the history of technology, environmental history, global history, history of science, Science & Technology Studies and Human Animal Studies, and especially those working with interdisciplinary approaches, to explore various types of organisms from new perspectives in relation to technological artifacts and infrastructures.

We especially invite contributions that address one of the following sub-themes:

# Concepts
This cluster considers the terms and approaches that are appropriate for researching historical interrelations between living organisms and technology. These include, but are not limited to, concepts like “biofacts” or perspectives that have developed from within envirotech-research and explore nature and technology not as separated entities, but as overlapping relations. Through breeding and bioengineering salmon, pigs, and cattle have been reconceptualized as “technoscientific objects” or “boundary objects”. Multispecies research has expanded on approaches informed by Actor-Network-Theory that have proved compatible with historical investigations (e.g. “liminal animals”).

# Animals as actors in technological landscapes
The different ways that humans have adapted pigs, cows and horses over the course of the centuries to better exploit them in existing technological systems are well studied. However, there has been little research on how animals have interacted with artifacts and infrastructures that humans have placed in their habitats. As point of departure, this cluster sheds light on interactions between animals and infrastructures. In the US, birds thwarted the expansion of the early electrification by nesting on the power lines where their excrements prevented electrical transmission. Additional impulses have come from the field of Moving Animals: from the 1970s, the migratory patterns of caribou in North America cut across pipeline systems, which generated controversies about wildlife conservation and management.

# Animals as living technologies
Even in the industrial age, it was difficult to completely replace animals with machines and engines, which were often unavailable or inflexible in certain contexts. Examples range from pit ponies in coal mines, to dog transportation networks in cities around 1900, to forms of animal mobility beyond the paths of western industrialization, such as mules, elephants, carrier pigeons or “hybrid camels” that were employed as the backbone of regional freight traffic in desert regions as a result of their both heat and cold resistance in an otherwise hostile climate. We seek contributions that analyze animals as technologies and, in doing so, emphasize how the liveliness of animals affected socio-technical processes.

# Technology between animals and humans
Humans use technologies to gain access to animals. With the help of specific transport technologies, humans transform wild animals into livestock and zoo animals. Fish ladders, camera traps, and tracking devices play a crucial role in wildlife management. Whether rifles, harpoons, or steel traps, a variety of different technologies support hunting in order to track, capture, and kill animals. The perspective of animal agency makes it clear that these attempts to control organisms can have unintended consequences since the reactions of animals produce contingencies and uncertainties. Schools of fish adapt their swimming behaviors and their breeding grounds to the drag nets and echolocation systems of industrial deep-sea fishing; the tracking of animal movements, mediated through technology, triggers unintended consequences in ecosystems that include the encroachment of invasive species or the demarcation between wild and domestic animals.

# Animals as resources
Animal bodies have always provided important resources that go well-beyond their dominant role today as sources of meat. Bison hides enabled the production of robust leather straps that powered steam machines; substances extracted from cattle and sheep hooves were indispensable to the watchmaking industry and sperm whale oil predated fossil fuels as an important source for lighting oil. The byproducts of slaughter, including bones, tallow and innards provided raw materials, tools, and ingredients for fertilizers, animal food, glue, and soap. Going beyond agricultural (by-)products, approaching animals as resources opens up new horizons for questions within the history of technology that can be fruitfully paired with ongoing discussions of “embodied agency.”

Please submit extended abstracts in English (max. 400 words) and a brief CV by email to Christian Zumbrägel ( by Friday 6 October 2023. The two-day international workshop will take place on March 21–22, 2024 at the TU Berlin. Depending on the availability of funding, the costs of travel and accommodation will be covered by the organizers. The workshop will be structured around 20-minute presentations and discussions; we plan to publish the revised papers in a leading international journal as a Special Issue.


Dr. Christian Zumbrägel