Making Europe Goes Global
In the summer of 2019, the book series Making Europe was completed. After a decade of intense research, discussion, and writing, thirteen historians were able to present six volumes about the role of technology in modern European history. Judging by the positive book reviews, the series will contribute to the reformulation of European history writing. We, the authors hope that our efforts will make the public debate about the past and future of the European Union more serious. After all, European integration has not only been a political and economic venture but also a technological project. The series adds to an understanding of European integration and tension when we look through the lens of technology.
Europe cannot be understood in isolation. During the past decade, global history developed into an important sub-discipline. Historians of technology also have been contributing to this field of research—including two Making Europe authors: Ruth Oldenziel and myself. After we finished Consumers, Tinkerers, Rebels: The People Who Made Europe in 2013, we decided the time had come to look beyond the European continent. Do we find developments in Asia, Africa, and Latin America that remind us of the processes we observe in Europe? To what extent did Europe influence these continents, and how did people in the “Global South” influence Europeans?
Stories from Around the World
We decided to “go global” in two different ways. Whereas I chose a broad approach, Ruth chose to dig deep. I received a grant to write a synthetic “Global History of Technology, 1850-2000,” and Ruth set up a global network of scholars focusing on the history of sustainable urban mobility, in particular of cycling. Whereas I have been building a tight project group of five PhDs and one postdoc―each with her or his own research focus―Ruth’s research project has a network character. We both share an interest in testing the hypotheses formulated in Consumers, Tinkerers, Rebels. For example, how did customers of electricity in Dar es Salaam learn how to use and tinker with this new technology in the first half of the twentieth century? Or, how did high-class cyclists in Johannesburg go about protecting their interest on the political stage and how did urban planning decisions shape the mobility options of working-class cyclists? In both cases, the technology at hand would have looked differently if they had not engaged with its development.
Let me illustrate the Dar es Salaam example with a very short story, based on sources from the Tanzania National Archives (File No. AB356). I quote a report, written in July 1920 by Mr A.W. Grant, assistant electrical engineer of the newly founded Public Works Department. Grant was strolling down the street in the commercial area of Dar es Salaam, when his attention was drawn to one of the shops in the Indian bazaar. The store belonged to a certain Mr. P.P.B. Choithram, an Indian merchant who owned similar establishments in Bombay, Zanzibar, Mombasa, and Nairobi. The shop was brightly lit, both inside and outside, inviting the British engineer to have a closer look at how the owner was using the electricity and asked to see the meter:
In view of the fact that meters have been tampered with recently, I entered and asked to see their meter. This was not working, and on inspecting further, I found that the Armature locking device had been released. (The meter is a Siemens Schuckerte). To do this the seal had been removed from the Plug at bottom of meter, and a new seal had been suspended, on a piece of string, from the screw of terminal Box cover.
Denying that he had tampered with the meter, the manager of the shop “pointed out that the seals on the Meter were intact.” After the engineer claimed the shop owner or one of his employees must have tampered with the seals, the shop owner in Dar es Salaam responded that many “Meters in European offices” did not have any seals at all.
Just as in Europe, ordinary users overseas quickly learned how to tinker with modern gadgets and machines. They were not simple customers who just bought new things for their houses. In East Africa, local technicians (so-called fundis) taught consumers how to handle new techniques. According to one source, the chaos that had ruled during the First World War had prompted (or forced) amateurs to take things in their own hands—and local technicians were ready to help out.
How Has Technology Shaped the Global Citizen—and the Other Way Round?
In many respects, then, users in the Global South did not necessarily differ from those in Europe. Ruth and my research emphasizes that users, consumers, and tinkerers all around the world tried to make technology their own - which is not to say that there were no differences. In colonial settings, people belonging to different ethnic groups did not only have different degrees of access to certain techniques. As customers and users, they were also treated differently by resource providers and authorities. If we employ the “racial” categories of the colonialists, “Europeans, Indians, and Africans” were not treated in the same manner. Few Africans had access to electricity in those days and the Indian merchants did have a harder standing than European customers. The utility trusted that European customers would not tamper with their meters to save money. Indians, by contrast, did not enjoy the same trust.
Our research is still in progress. Whereas Ruth’s network will continue publishing studies of Cycling Cities around the world, my project groups will publish a number of monographs. We will keep you posted! For more information about our global research, please visit: