Eighteenth-century Sweden was a scientific powerhouse. Its researchers gave their names to some of the most significant developments of the period, from the Linnaean system of binomial classification to the temperature metric established by Anders Celsius. But what if I told you that one secret to Sweden’s success was a German-speaking Protestant from Alsace?
What do governments know? When and why have they generated knowledge about themselves, sovereign territories, the functioning of bureaucracies, legal systems, and the effectiveness of legislation? In other words, how have officials made that capacious concept we call the state legible?
State knowledge took on heightened importance in Central Europe in the nineteenth century with the transition away from remaining vestiges of feudalism. This is especially clear to see during the revolutions of 1848. Over the course of a turbulent two years, revolutionaries protested against a great many things. They most famously called for national unification and the introduction of liberal constitutions, but they also demanded the reform of outdated modes of administration. Such ultimatums were unsettling for governments in two ways. First, they required a rethinking of law, as well as of the kinds of bureaucratic structures and activities needed to bring about a more flexible handling of domestic affairs. And second, they prompted an urgent need to generate knowledge to gage the effectiveness of these initiatives.
The Bolshevik Revolution strove to create a “new man,” a morally and psychologically superior human being. This new man required a complete physical and mental renewal, including, among other measures, the hygienic literacy of the masses. A wide range of media were employed for the Revolution’s ends, including not only various forms of print but also mobile cinemas and theatrical productions. A theater movement aimed at instructing the masses gained strength in the early years of the Revolution, and many theatrical performances addressed prevailing problems in public health. The hygienic awareness of the population was especially crucial during World War I and the Russian Civil War that followed, when diseases flourished in conditions of hunger and claimed millions of lives. In the 1920s, the performances came to local clubhouses and reached even the kolkhoz fields to entertain and educate workers and farmers. Beginning in 1925, theatrical hygiene propaganda was centrally managed by the newly founded Moscow Theater for Sanitary Culture (1924–1947).
It is striking how profoundly we have come to integrate technological artifacts into our lives and how commonplace these devices appear to us now. There were times when they were entirely new. Just think of indoor water taps replacing public wells, or electric light bulbs supplanting kerosine lamps and gas fixtures. Here I consider how new technologies associated with engineered water supplies became a part of standard household practice in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Specifically, I explore the role that knowledge played in the process in Los Angeles. This city offers a thought-provoking glimpse into the “appropriation of technology” around 1900.
The Effects of Nuclear Weapons was by far the most popular handbook of nuclear defense during the Cold War. Adapted from an original publication of the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory (1950),1 the handbook was amended and made commercially available for popular use (1957),2 revised (1962),3 reprinted (1964),4 expanded (1977),5 and even illicitly translated into Russian for use in the Soviet Union (1960).6 Edited by Samuel Glasstone, a prolific author of science textbooks, The Effects of Nuclear Weapons was described as a “comprehensive summary of current knowledge on the effects of nuclear weapons” and commended by the Federal Civil Defense Administration as “the definitive source of information on the effects of nuclear weapons.”7
The Making of a Cambridge Handbook
In 1928, the Cambridge academic Marxist Maurice Dobb published a short textbook on wages that underwent five revised editions by 1959, many reprints, and diverse translations, including into Japanese (1931), Arabic (1957), Italian (1974), and Spanish (1986). As historians of economics, our naive idea was that it would be possible to observe the transformation of economic knowledge about wages by observing changes both in the book’s contents and in the textbook genre. On the whole, however, our study of the making of Wages and its diffusion let us do less and more than that.
Circa 1835, following a survey of recent Dutch publications in shogunal collections, the Japanese physician Koseki San’ei (1787–1839) concluded that among the strengths of new European approaches to education, a proactive attitude toward the power of cheap pedagogical print was paramount. European countries, Koseki declared, “produce affordable and easy-to-understand books on all arts and sciences, give them to impoverished scholars, and by doing so verse them in the arts and sciences.” “It is through this,” he maintained, “that they foster talent.”1
As of my writing on April 12, 2018, there are 24,506 known or suspected human genes out of roughly 3 billion base pairs in the reference sequence of the human genome.1 While the bulk of these were identified during the course of the Human Genome Project (HGP), which ran from 1990–2003, a majority of the 5,000 or so with a well-characterized clinical phenotype—a genetic trait visible in human anatomy and physiology with consequences for human disease manifest above the cellular level—were cataloged beginning in the 1960s, long before genetic sequencing was possible. Medical geneticists worked to identify heritable traits in study populations that manifested unambiguously in family lineages. They set up clinics around the world and established sections in academic hospitals.2 In a discipline that was still marginal to mainstream medicine and tainted by its incomplete severance from eugenics, breaking apart old categories and multiplying new ones became a legitimation strategy, one that required physicians and counselors across the country to be on the same page.
Since Warren Weaver coined the term “molecular biology” in the late 1930s, technological innovation has driven the life sciences, from the analytical ultracentrifuge to high-throughput DNA sequencing. Within this long history, the invention of recombinant DNA techniques in the early 1970s proved to be especially pivotal. The ability to manipulate DNA consolidated the high-profile focus on molecular genetics, a trend underway since Watson and Crick’s double-helical model in 1953. But the ramifications of this technology extended far beyond investigating heredity itself. Biologists doing research on a wide variety of molecules, including enzymes, hormones, muscle proteins, RNAs, as well as chromosomal DNA, could harness genetic engineering to copy the gene that encoded their molecule of interest, from whatever organism they worked on, and put that copy in a bacterial cell, from which it might be expressed, purified, and characterized. Many life scientists who wanted to use recombinant DNA techniques were not trained in molecular biology. They sought technical know-how on their own in order to bring their labs into the vanguard of gene cloners. Manuals became a key part of this dissemination of expertise.
What kind of knowledge are we addressing when we talk about folk culture? What can we extract from work songs, ballads, lullabies, and reels? What do stories of various kinds, relayed by word of mouth, tell us about the communities they sprang from? What do they reveal about how migrants organized themselves, how they navigated the socioeconomic and political currents affecting their lives?
Such questions speak not only to a history of knowledge in our own time but were important to WPA fieldworkers during the Great Depression. Under the auspices of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration, or WPA, sometimes with additional local funding, these men and women collected folk music and other oral traditions for the library, which supplied the requisite recording equipment and disks. The materials they collected went into the Library of Congress’s Archive of American Folk Song, now the Archive of Folk Culture and part of the library’s American Folklife Center. The resulting collection comprises field recordings, photographs, drawings, and written documentation by the fieldworkers. But the Archive of American Folk Song did not just gather and preserve such material. It also enabled the dissemination of some of the songs and stories via songbooks, anthologies, and radio broadcasts.