Technology, History, and Place

Tag: China

Nepal Himalaya, 2009

The Cold War at 8,848 meters

The summits of the tallest mountains in the world, all of which are located in the great Himalayan range from northeastern India to Pakistan, remained inviolate until the 1950s and early sixties, when all of them were climbed for the first time. In 1950, Annapurna in central Nepal became the first peak higher than 8,000 meters to be climbed (there are fourteen in all) when a French team reached the summit. Next, in 1953, a British expedition reached the top of the highest of them all, Mt. Everest or Chomolungma.1

It was by an accident of timing and geopolitics that these great mountains were first climbed in the fifties and sixties. Major European and American expeditions had made attempts on several of the 8,000-meter peaks in the twenties and thirties, but then the outbreak of World War II put these expeditions to a halt. When they resumed after the war, the Cold War had begun, and the subsequent mountaineering conquests took place in the context of this global struggle of ideologies.

In 1960, the Chinese government launched an expedition on the north side of Mt. Everest, which stands in Tibet. This was the first expedition on the Tibetan side since China had annexed the country in 1950. The government reported that three climbers reached the top of the mountain and left a plaster bust of Chairman Mao there as a memento of their visit. Mountaineers in the West generally doubted that the Chinese party had actually made it to the summit, as the only accounts released were party propaganda with a little mountaineering on the side. (The Chinese summiting is more widely accepted as veritable now.) Whether or not the Chinese climbers really reached the top, the expedition was a geopolitical coup, an assertion of China’s sovereignty over Tibet.

Three years later, a very different expedition attacked Everest from the southern side, through Nepal. This was the American Mount Everest Expedition 1963, or AMEE for short. Well-equipped, well-staffed (with 20 expedition members, 37 high-altitude Sherpas, and 909 porters), and well-funded by donations and government grants, the expedition was also highly-publicized. The expedition leader, Norman Dyhrenfurth, was a cinematographer by trade; he produced a movie about the climb and got Orson Welles to narrate it. One of the six members of the team to reach the summit was National Geographic Society photograph Barry Bishop. The expedition even had its own chronicler, mountaineer-author James Ramsey Ullman, who wrote a piece for Life magazine, the script of Dyhrenfurth’s movie, and a full book, Americans on Everest (which is a good read).

In his official account, Ullman repeatedly emphasized that AMEE’s climbing of Everest was not a nationalistic endeavor. For example, this passage:

The Chinese, on their climb of three years before, had declared that “we thought of Comrade Mao, took strength, and moved onward and upward”; but such sentiment would not do for AMEE. With due respect to our Chief Executive, and due allowance for the politics of the various team members, it is highly doubtful if anyone was climbing Everest for the President of the United States.2

Yet even if the men who actually climbed the mountain did not do so for national glory, the expedition had to present itself in a national context in order to get funding. The American public and government asked: Why climb Mt. Everest? It has already been climbed. To which AMEE replied: Because it has never been climbed by Americans before.

The rhetoric convinced individuals, mountaineering clubs, companies, and the US government to donate $400,000 to the expedition. The State Department funded expedition costs in Nepal with a grant of $82,000 in Indian rupees, which the US government had earned from the sale of American wheat and other agricultural commodities to India under the PL-480 Food for Peace program. The State Department also funded a goodwill tour of selected expedition Sherpas around the United States after the climb.

A great, friendly American expedition to Asia aligned well with then-President John F. Kennedy’s internationalist agenda, which also produced the Peace Corps and USAID. When Kennedy presented the National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Medal to the expedition after the successful climb, he emphasized the international character of Himalayan mountaineering, citing other nations that had preceded the Americans to Everest. But he omitted the Chinese, as China was on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain and this was the Cold War after all.

Nawang Gombu presents a kata scarf to President Kennedy at the ceremony for the presentation of the National Geographic Society Hubbard Medal to members of the American Mount Everest Expedition. (Source: Abbie Rowe, White House Photographs, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.)

Nawang Gombu presents a kata scarf to President Kennedy at the ceremony for the presentation of the National Geographic Society Hubbard Medal to members of the American Mount Everest Expedition. (Source: Abbie Rowe, White House Photographs, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.)

  1. The two actual summiters were Edmund Hillary, a New Zealander, and Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa from Darjeeling. []
  2. James Ramsey Ullman, Americans on Everest: The Official Account of the Ascent Led by Norman G. Dyhrenfurth (New York: J.B. Lippincott, 1964), 237-38. []

Does Technology Have History?

I wrote the following article for The Collegian, the student newspaper of my alma mater, Walla Walla University. In the article, I show why I think it is important to study the history of technology. In a way, the article is my manifesto. (This version is slightly edited from the version that appeared in print.)

When I tell people that I am working on a PhD in history of technology at Auburn University, I get a variety of responses. Those who are in the know say “Oh, Auburn!” because Auburn is well-known in academia for its history of technology program. Most non-historians react with a range of startled or confused responses. More than one person has said: “Oh! that’s interesting. I’d never thought that you could study history of technology before.” Others have been more overtly confused: “So you don’t have anything to study before the 1960s then, right?” Some, hearing “technology” and being vaguely aware that I was an engineering major once upon a time ask whether this is an engineering program or a history program. (It is a history program.) And a few have even gone so far as to ask incredulously: “Does technology have history?”

The short answer: yes, definitely.

All of the confusion about my field of study tells me that there is deeper confusion about the two terms “history” and “technology.” If I define both of these terms as I understand them, then I think I can clear up the confusion about what “history of technology” means.

First: history. The general public’s perception of history tends to be much narrower than the diverse range of topics that historians can actually study. Once when I met a Chinese woman and told her that I was studying history, she snapped, “Why!” It wasn’t so much a question as an accusation. “Why history!” I’d obviously touched a nerve somehow.

Somewhat taken aback, I didn’t know what to say. “Well, um,” I stammered.

“It’s all so pointless!” she went on. “All of those names of emperors and this dynasty and that dynasty. Who cares?”

If emperors and dynasties were all that there was to history, I would have trouble caring too.

Fortunately, history is much more than that. Emperors and dynasties—as well as presidents, prime ministers, kings, queens, and communist party leaders—belong to political history, which is just one way to look at history. There are many, many other ways to consider the past, including social history, cultural history, environmental history, labor history, and also a huge variety of sub-specializations like urban history, history of childhood, history of romance, and history of smell (really!).

Where does this leave our emperors and their dynasties? Don’t get me wrong; they are still important. They just aren’t all-important.

Too often history gets mixed up with the Great Man theory, which says that most or all historical events were caused by the brilliant actions of one great man, or several great men working together. People identified as great men were often politicians or generals. George Washington, arguably America’s greatest “Great Man,” was both. Not all great men were either politicians or generals, though: They could also be religious leaders, explorers, scientists, or even inventors, engineers, and innovators—men like Columbus, Einstein, and Edison.

Anybody living in politically-correct 21st-century America should have no trouble spotting one of the major flaws of Great Man theory: it ignores women and minority groups. In response, women and minorities have come up with their own great women or great men of non-European descent.

Even when Great Man history becomes Great Person history, there are still significant flaws to the whole theory. By focusing on one person out of a million, Great Person narratives are simplistic. They ignore the common people, who contribute to history just like the Great People. Furthermore, these narratives tend to inflate ordinary, flawed human beings into idealized, unrealistic, larger-than-life heroes.

Our English word “history” comes from a Greek word that originally meant “inquiry.” This is still what history means: an inquiry into all aspects of the human past, not just politics or the actions of great people.

Then what about technology? Popular views of technology are also narrower than I feel they should be. This is what the word “technology” means to me and many other people in my field: anything that people make or adapt from nature for their own practical use. It also includes ways of doing things (like how to grow corn) and ways of thinking about things or organizing knowledge (systems of writing, calendars, the periodic table of the elements, and so forth).

By this definition, technology is not just Steve Jobs’ and Bill Gates’ smartphones and computers. It is also more than just the machines and products of modern industry. People were making and using technology long before there were phones, computers, cars, or even steam engines. Dugout canoes are technology. Ox-driven plows are technology.

As you should see by now, history of technology is a diverse field that ranges from ancient times and runs right up to the present. It can be about any part of the inhabited world, because all people use some kind of technology. This is the long answer to the question, “Does technology have history?” Yes, technology definitely has history; its history is parallel to and inseparable from the history of humanity.

Of course, I cant study the history of all technology. The field is so huge that I have to specialize. Im going to write my dissertation (the book that I have to write to get my PhD) about technology in the early independence period of India (1947 to about 1965). In next weeks Collegian, Ill use an example from my research to show how I think about technology historically.

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