Arnold Pacey’s 2017 SHOT Leonardo da Vinci Medal winner’s acceptance speech
The first time that SHOT honoured Arnold Pacey, it was for a study in the classic tradition of history of technology. In 1973 the Abbott Payson Usher Prize went to Pacey and his coauthor, Richard Hills, for their article ‘The Measurement of Power in the Early Steam-driven Textile Mills’, published the previous year in Technology & Culture. Since then, however, Pacey’s contributions to the field have been anything but classic.
Modest, unpretentious, yet determined in his efforts to challenge what he saw as the dangerous and elitist commonplaces of the prevailing technological order, Arnold Pacey is the author of a series of ambitious, much-cited works in the history and philosophy of technology. Written – as befits a pillar of Britain’s Open University – in accessible and compelling style, The Maze of Ingenuity (Penguin 1974, 2nd ed MIT Press 1992), The Culture of Technology (MIT Press 1983), Technology and World Civilization (MIT Press 1991, with a 2nd edition currently in preparation), and Meaning in Technology (MIT Press 1999) have had notable scholarly and public impact.
On the road from ‘history of technology written by white male engineers, about white male engineers, for white male engineers’ to today’s vibrant iconoclasm and inclusiveness, several radical shifts in our field were pioneered in Pacey’s work. In the 1970s and early 1980s Pacey was already introducing his readers and students to the significance and historical role of everyday technologies; maintenance and use; cultures of expertise; and the sensoria of craft and technology. He developed attractive and convincing alternatives to linear, Eurocentric, innovation-centred histories of technology, and in the case of encounters he proposed attention to technological dialogue, thus opening new, less triumphalist perspectives for world or global history of technology. Pacey’s quest for a more humane and inclusive vision of the history, present and future of technology continues to engage a wide audience: his MIT Press books have sold over 50,000 copies, are widely anthologised, and are still selling well – in fact MIT Press have just requested a new edition of Technology in World Civilization, which continues to be regularly used as a teaching text.
Pacey’s initial interest in history of technology was prompted by a passion for architecture that is clearly reflected in his first book, The Maze of Ingenuity. The passion was infectious: ‘Here is a book.’ wrote the reviewer in Nature, ‘that should immediately be put into paperback and placed in the hands of undergraduates everywhere and in all disciplines. Its subject matter ranges from the cathedral builders of the Middle Ages to the prophets of systems analysis in our own century. Yet Dr. Pacey is nowhere superficial.’
In 1963 Pacey was teaching physics and optics to engineering students at UMIST (University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology) when Donald Cardwell (recipient of the da Vinci medal in 1981) was hired to establish a history of science programme. As Pacey tells it, he introduced himself to Cardwell and they agreed he would develop liberal studies courses on history of technology for engineering students, to complement Cardwell’s courses on history of science. Over the next seven years Pacey taught several hundred students from Civil Engineering and Mechanical Engineering, working closely with some of them on mini-projects on local industry or on engineering projects for low-income countries.
Pacey learned to teach history of technology on the job, sitting in on Cardwell’s courses and collaborating in Cardwell’s research on the history of engines and energy. Another important stimulus came from attending the seminars in History and Philosophy of Science at Leeds, then emerging as a leading centre for radical critique, where the likes of Stephen Toulmin and Jerry Ravetz were interrogating the politics of science and technology in society. As an autodidact in history of technology Pacey was spared the then conventional ‘Great British Inventors transformed the world’ curriculum (which he found extremely distasteful), plunging straight into the ethical, political and epistemological debates of the new history. In JV Pickstone’s account, Pacey and his Manchester colleagues ‘were unassuming but learned and original; they scoffed at fashions in historiography, but they already understood the principles that dominate the profession now – that history of science must be concerned with practice as well as theory, that local studies are enormously useful in exploring the interplay of content and context, and that we do well not to divide the histories of science, technology and medicine from each other, or from economic and social history.’
But for Pacey there was still more at stake: his Methodist background had imparted an urgent sense of ethical obligation. As Pacey explains in his da Vinci Lecture, his trajectory as a historian and philosopher of technology is inseparable from the humanitarian commitment he inherited from his mother, and from the lessons about technology in society that he learned while working on sustainable resource-management projects for poor communities across the South. Pacey’s moral itch prompted him to leave a comfortable and conventional university position to train as an agricultural engineer before taking up more precarious but challenging employment, first in the development sector (working on projects for Oxfam, Intermediate Technology and UNICEF), then teaching history of technology again, but this time in adult education for the Open University.
The two years Pacey spent at Oxfam were, as he explains in his da Vinci Lecture, often frustrating but ultimately rewarding. The work mobilised both his expertise in agricultural engineering and his historian’s insights into the social organisation of skills within a community and the conditions of sustainable technical practice. The projects that Pacey undertook for Oxfam, UNICEF and Intermediate Technology required critical synthesis of large volumes of technical material, generated by engineers, sociologists, medics and economists who often disagreed fundamentally about priorities and methods. Pacey was tasked with transforming this cacophony into clear, accessible and above all functional texts: reports for policy makers, or technical handbooks that could be distributed in rural regions around the developing world. Works like Hand-pump maintenance: in the context of community well projects (Intermediate Technology Publications / Oxfam, 1977), Water for the Thousand Millions, (Pergamon, 1977), Sanitation in Developing Countries (Wiley, 1978), Rainwater Harvesting (co-authored with Richard Cullis, Intermediate Technology Publications, 1986) and Farmer First: Farmer Innovation and Agricultural Research (co-edited with Robert Chambers and Lori Ann Thrupp, Intermediate Technology Publications, 1989) challenged the technocratic assumptions then prevalent in development practice. The more democratic, practical and flexible alternatives they proposed gave their works perennial value – many are still key references in the technical literature today. Pacey’s engagements with technology in action had a profound impact on his understanding of technology in history. As he and colleagues like Robert Chambers argued the case for taking “indigenous technologies” seriously, they challenged many of the basic assumptions about knowledge hierarchies inherent not only in development theory but also in history of science and technology at the time. In arguing for what feminist, post-colonial theorists like Sandra Harding were soon to call “epistemological justice”, they proposed a radical rethinking of the concepts of technology and technical expertise. ‘We can too easily underestimate a society in a dry tropical country which uses a subtle understanding of ecological relationships to grow crops without heavy irrigation works. Lack of irrigation engineering in such a country does not imply lack of technology, but sometimes quite the reverse.’ (Technology in World Civilization: ix). ‘A hand-pump is only appropriate if it fits the pattern of organisation, social responsibility and skill which exists in the community … Success [in pumping projects] has depended more on appropriate organisation than appropriate technology.’ (Hand-pump maintenance: 6-7). These observations seem self-evident now, but were almost shocking at the time.
Pacey set his practice-based insights to work in what many of us consider his most important contribution to the history of technology: Technology in World Civilization: A Thousand-Year History (1990). From his first years in Manchester, Pacey had felt repelled by the triumphalist Eurocentric narratives of so much of the history of technology that was then available. Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilisation in China appealed to Pacey not simply as an alternative but also because of his own strongly-felt connections to China, that encouraged him to look at the world whenever possible from an Asian perspective. But he was initially put off by Needham’s tendency to claim every invention for China, at least in some embryonic form (as in the case of the steam-engine). Then in 1971 the volume on Civil Engineering and Nautics came out, and Pacey was asked to write a review for the British Journal for the History of Science. Here he found a convincing, absorbing account of how technical practices evolved in social, political and cultural context. The Science and Civilisation in China volume on Agriculture, published in 1984, appealed particularly to Pacey as an agricultural engineer, and complemented the civil engineering volume in presenting technologies and technical knowledge as essential facets of a civilisation’s culture.
These China-based examples encouraged Pacey to compose an innovative introduction to world history of technology, Technology in World Civilization, that was not premised (as most earlier grand histories had been) on European exceptionalism and the “blockage” or “failure” of non-Western civilisations. Instead Technology in World Civilization presents holistic accounts of the technological systems and cultures of different historical societies around the globe, focusing on the technological dialogues or dialectics that arose when technologies travelled, and the resulting co-creation of new, continuously evolving working systems. Pacey’s case studies of technological dialogue, whether between China and West Asia in the eleventh century or between India and Britain post-1700, vividly illustrate the complex braidings of people and institutions, skills and knowledge, materials, styles and markets that interwove technological systems in different parts of the world, reshaping linkages and assemblages over the longue durée and often resurfacing in unexpected guises and places. Surprises for the reader include a gorgeous line-drawing of the HMS Trincomalee, built in Bombay in 1816-17 for the British Royal Navy (and still afloat today!). The sketch, specially created for the volume, adorns Pacey’s analysis of the local advantages in craft-skills and materials that led the Navy to out-source much of its ship-building to Indian dock-yards for almost a century, starting in the 1730s and continuing through the Napoleonic Wars. The little-known global rise of the Bombay and Hooghly shipyards coincided with the much better-known and devastating erosion, by competition from British factories, of the equally skilled Indian textile sector.
Published in 1990, some years before global history got serious, Technology in World Civilization already offers critical discussion of themes like the Black Rice hypothesis (eleven years before the publication of Judith Carney’s book). A chapter on “Three industrial movements, 1700-1850” explains concisely all the steps in the European appropriation of Indian textile techniques elaborated two decades later by Giorgio Riello in his seminal study of cotton in the making of the modern world. Sustained attention throughout Pacey’s book to the inter-relations of technology, energy and environment culminates in a final chapter on “survival technologies” which heralds current debates about technology in the Anthropocene. Above all, where today’s global histories all too often study flows at the expense of matrices, Pacey’s concept of technological dialogue offers a promising corrective.
In recognition of his lucid and accessible pioneering of critical approaches in the history of technology, his intellectual boldness, and the humanitarian commitment that shines through in all his work, our Society is glad to award Arnold Pacey its highest honour, the Leonardo da Vinci Medal.