Exploring Histories of Risk and Knowledge

Editorial note: The editors wish to acknowledge that the date of this post about risk cultures, highlighting the example of fire-fighting technologies, marks the 22nd anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which took the lives of so many firefighters and other first responders. While we often honor the people involved in emergency response, we frequently forget to also analyze the constraints of modern risk cultures.


When Ulrich Beck published Risk Society in 1986, the sociologist could have hardly known how influential his work would become for scholars studying risk. The idea that industrial modernity undermined itself through the very means of technological advancement proved exceptionally relevant. At the time of publication, chemical industries and nuclear energy presented paramount environmental and societal challenges.1 Beck’s prognosis that societies would increasingly become preoccupied with risk appears accurate for the present moment. With the global pandemic, risk entered the lives of billions, revolutionizing social interactions. Likewise, climate change is widely recognized as the main global challenge. Nations across the globe are searching for appropriate adaption and mitigation strategies. Indeed, a significant part of contemporary knowledge production is now geared toward improving societal resilience.

Histories of Risk and Knowledge

While Beck’s claims remain relevant, historians criticized the sociologist for lacking empirical analysis of risk cultures. This prompts a crucial question: How has the perception and management of risks evolved over time? Histories of risk tackle this question by tracing the social and material processes that guide notions of risk and safety. Historians of knowledge can contribute to this evolving field, given their shared interest in the construction of knowledge. The following reflections provide a concise introduction into the history of risk, highlighting key institutions and practices that shaped risk knowledge. Additionally, I demonstrate how technologies of fire offer a valuable lens for examining the transnational history of risk.

Risk has been central to the human endeavor. The experience of hunger and cold, as well as the threat of physical attacks, promoted the creation of early human communities. Events like earthquakes, floods, and firestorms frequently devastated such settlements. The term “risk” is often used interchangeably with threat, hazard, or danger. Scholars researching risk generally employ the term to analyze how humans evaluate and engage potential sources of harm. These approaches to risk, in other words, “risk cultures,” have changed over time.

The word “risk” itself serves as a marker. While its etymological roots reach well into antiquity, its growing use marked the gradual trend toward the quantification and formalization of risk. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw the rise of mathematical inquiries into chance creating an alternative to fatalistic understandings of misfortune. Likewise, sea-faring nations used the term “risk” to speculate about the success of maritime endeavors. Indeed, maritime and fire insurances played an important role in the quantification of risk. The insurance business transformed the physical threat of fire into a more abstract, numerical entity. Yet, nineteenth-century insurance agents also relied on intuition and expertise when underwriting risks.2 The modern, scientific approach to risk is far from value neutral. Modes of blame vary across time and space. Anthropologist Mary Douglas, in her cross-cultural study of risk and blame, argues that the Western practice of risk assessment promotes the idea that hazards can be attributed to individual people or organizations. This risk culture obscures the fact that a large number of catastrophes are the consequences of industrial capitalism.3

The history of risk is a still-developing field. Using risk as an analytical category holds the potential to integrate a variety of historiographical approaches. Historians have always shown great interest in catastrophe and disaster. Indeed, the history of disaster represents the most established tradition in this field of inquiry. Historians of disaster have shown how major catastrophes acted as catalysts for political and cultural change. Histories of safety joined the conversation in the 1970s, driven by the social and labor histories of the time, and focused on the long road toward workplace safety. New histories of safety and accidents show a variety of approaches that shed light on the negotiation of risk and safety over time. Such scholarship shares the common finding that social decisions and cultural norms play a major role in the creation and experience of disaster.4

In recent decades, historians of science and technology have also contributed to the study of risk. Risks have been a driving force behind numerous scientific inquiries, technological advancements, and the establishment of research institutions. However, experts have often struggled to influence public policy with their expert knowledge, leading to disastrous consequences.5 The history of knowledge overlaps with the history of risk in many ways. Both fields share a keen interest in academic and non-academic processes of knowledge production. Vernacular knowledge continues to guide decisions about safety. The history of knowledge, with its commitment to global history, can also facilitate integrating local and transnational investigations into risk cultures.

Figure 1: Advertising slogan. Nineteenth-century manufacturers frequently emphasized the urgency of investing in risk response technologies. Source: American Fire Extinguisher Co., Delay Makes the Danger: The New Patent Fire Extinguisher! (Boston: Wilder, [1873?]), 3.

Transnational Perspectives on Technologies of Fire

Most histories of risk and safety focus on national developments. As risk becomes a powerful political motive across the globe, it is important to analyze also the transnational origins of risk cultures. International organizations and associations provide a valuable window into this history as they greatly shaped societal norms and expectations during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. All around the world, insurance companies established safety standards by offering low premiums on fireproof building styles and incentivizing other forms of fire prevention. The British Sun Fire Office set up a foreign branch in Germany as early as 1836, disseminating knowledge about fire safety through publications and instructions. Similarly, associations like the Red Cross and the St. Johns Ambulance Association spread information on how to treat injuries and thereby increased societal expectations toward first aid.

Fire departments were some of the most emblematic organizations of risk response. Their employment of large steam fire engines, loud sirens, and militaristic uniforms left a lasting impression on contemporaries. These experts of risk revolutionized modern emergency management. During the nineteenth century, fire departments became the primary force for risk response in cities. While fire departments were novelties at the beginning of the nineteenth century, almost every town and village in Germany and the U.S. had a volunteer or professional service by around 1900. When other forms of emergency response like ambulance services evolved, they were subordinated to the fire services.

At first glance, it appears that firefighting did not evolve in a transnational space. Fire response depended on local conditions. Firefighters organized their work and equipment according to the population size, water supply, and street layout of the towns they served. Likewise, local politics and financial factors influenced when a fire department transitioned from volunteer to paid firefighting. Nonetheless, influential figures in the history of fire response showed great interest in international developments. In 1852, Conrad Magirus, the founder of one of Germany’s first fire departments in Ulm, traveled across Europe examining fire management in urban centers like Paris, Brussels, and London. The following year, he established the German Association for Fire Response and shared his newly gained expertise with fellow enthusiasts of fire response.6

Besides national and regional associations, international associations became an authority on questions regarding the organization and equipment of fire departments. The first international congress on fire prevention took place during the 1878 World Exhibition in France. Several European countries founded the Grand Conseil International de Sapeurs-Pompiers. The council convened at least once every four years during international fire exhibitions. These fire exhibitions drove the proliferation of novel and expensive technologies into all corners of urban life. Fire exhibitions and congresses spread the notion that modern risk response required investment in state-of-the-art technology.

Figure 2: “Enfer Humain” at the Paris World Exhibition. The protective suit was supposed to allow a man to “dive” into smoke and fire. International exhibitions played a pivotal role in disseminating knowledge about equipment and training. Source: Eugene Rimmel, Recollections of the Paris Exhibition of 1867 (London: Chapman & Hall, 1868), 28.

In 1901, Berlin, Germany, hosted a major fire exhibition. Its organizers considered it the pinnacle of emergency response, inviting thousands of manufacturers, businessmen, fire departments, and anyone interested in supporting this form of risk management. Visitors from all over the world, particularly from industrializing countries, poured into the German capital. Exhibitions were spaces to exchange knowledge about equipment, organization, and training. Yet, for some contemporaries like Berlin’s fire director Erich Giersberg, the formal discussions at the council’s meetings were of little relevance. In reports to the German Ministry of Trade, he pointed out that the international congresses offered an extraordinary opportunity “from a strictly economic standpoint.”7

Prospects for profit played an integral role in disseminating technologies of fire response. On both sides of the Atlantic, firefighters joined the business of advertising and selling safety. At the 1901 International Firefighting Exhibition in Berlin, the city’s fire director Giersberg presented several pieces of equipment, including a resuscitation apparatus and a respiratory device. G.C. Hale, the representative of the American team, displayed a water tower and wire cutter manufactured by his own company in Kansas. According to Hale, his appliances had found customers in over 1,500 fire departments across the world.8

Figure 3: Advertisement for a fire extinguisher, 1870. The latter half of the nineteenth century saw a rise in the manufacturing and sales of technologies of risk response. Instructions and designs mirrored social norms about who was expected to tackle risks. Source: Prospectus der Gassspritze genannt Extincteur (Berlin: Gebrueder Grunert, 1870).

It is crucial to note that such technologies were not simply neutral tools for avoiding risk; neither did their adoption follow a logic of best available equipment. American fire departments adopted costly (and unreliable) steam fire engines earlier than their German counterparts because of close ties between American manufacturers and local politicians. Similarly, technologies of fire response mirrored social judgments about who and what was considered worthy of protection. Take as an example my analysis of the use, design, and location of fire alarm telegraphs in Imperial Germany. The technology embodied urban elites’ and Prussian police’s distrust of the common population. Early fire alarm boxes were placed within the homes of “trustworthy” citizens and were not easily accessible. Archival sources reveal that intra-urban communication between police and urban administrators, not fire signaling, became the fire alarm telegraph’s main use. On both sides of the Atlantic, authorities used the fire telegraph to monitor political activities and respond to riots as they feared losing control over rapidly growing cities.9


The historical record is replete with technologies of risk that have shaped the urban sphere. Many of the technologies advertised by manufacturers around the turn of the century, such as fire extinguishers and sprinklers, have found their way into our homes. Similarly, infrastructures of risk, like the fire telegraph and security cameras, have encroached upon urban spaces. From the perspective of the history of knowledge, these technologies have black-boxed decisions and norms regarding what is perceived as a risk, who should tackle it, and which entities are deemed worthy of protection.

The transnational proliferation of technologies of risk is a defining characteristic of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These artifacts serve as material evidence of societies’ growing preoccupation with risk. Nation-states, cities, and individuals invested in these technologies, believing they would make risks manageable. Yet, techno-progressive thought and industrialization have given rise to numerous new risks. Still, illusions that humans might master risk through technological fixes seem to persist. Efforts at geoengineering the planet to tackle climate change are some of the most recent manifestations. The history of knowledge can help unveil how aspirations to master risk have gained prominence in the modern world.

Jan Hua-Henning is an Assistant Professor at Duke Kunshan University (China) and holds an affiliate position at Duke University (United States). He specializes in the history of risk and technology in Germany and the United States. Hua-Henning also leads the research project Global Histories of Risk (GLOHRI) at Duke Kunshan University.

  1. The first English edition was published in 1992. The German original is Ulrich Beck, Risikogesellschaft: Auf dem Weg in eine andere Moderne (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1986). ↩︎
  2. Theodore M. Porter, The Rise of Statistical Thinking: 1820–1900, reprint (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2011), 102–106; Matthias Beck and Beth Kewell, Risk: A Study of Its Origins, History and Politics (Hackensack: World Scientific Pub. Co., 2014), 25; Mark Tebeau, Eating Smoke: Fire in Urban America, 1800–1950 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2003), 55, 60. ↩︎
  3. Mary Douglas, Risk and Blame: Essays in Cultural Theory (Abingdon: Routledge, 1992). ↩︎
  4. For an excellent introduction to the history of risk, see Arwen P. Mohun, “Constructing the History of Risk: Foundations, Tools, and Reasons Why,” Historical Social Research/Historische Sozialforschung 41, no. 1 (2016): 30–47. ↩︎
  5. For the development of disaster expertise, see Scott Gabriel Knowles, The Disaster Experts: Mastering Risk in Modern America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011). ↩︎
  6. Martin Nestler, Der Feuerwehrpionier und Unternehmer Conrad Dietrich Magirus (Erfurt: Sutton, 2011), 37–38. ↩︎
  7. Die Internationalen Feuer – Kongresse und – Ausstellungen, 1884–1906, I. HA Rep. 77, Tit 264, Nr. 105, Bd. 1, GStA PK. ↩︎
  8. Fire and Water Engineering, “The Hale Fire Appliances,” February 24, 1906, 93. ↩︎
  9. Jan Hua-Henning, “Opening the Red Box: The Fire Alarm Telegraph and Politics of Risk Response in Imperial Germany, 1873–1900,” Technology and Culture 62, no. 3 (2021): 685–708, https://doi.org/10.1353/tech.2021.0104. ↩︎
Suggested Citation: Jan Hua-Henning, “Exploring Histories of Risk and Knowledge,” History of Knowledge, September 11, 2023, https://historyofknowledge.net/2023/09/11/exploring-histories-of-risk-and-knowledge/.