Technology and the Culture of Modernity in Britain and Germany, 1890-1945


"This book examines the obsession for new technology that swept through Britain and Germany between 1890 and 1945. Drawing on a wide range of popular contemporary writings and pictorial material, it explains how, despite frequently feeling overwhelmed by innovations, Germans and Britons nurtured a long-lasting fascination for aviation, glamorous passenger liners, and film as they lived through profound social transformations and two vicious wars." This innovative study will prove invaluable reading to anyone interested in German and British
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"This book examines the obsession for new technology that swept through Britain and Germany between 1890 and 1945. Drawing on a wide range of popular contemporary writings and pictorial material, it explains how, despite frequently feeling overwhelmed by innovations, Germans and Britons nurtured a long-lasting fascination for aviation, glamorous passenger liners, and film as they lived through profound social transformations and two vicious wars." This innovative study will prove invaluable reading to anyone interested in German and British history as well as the history of technology.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"...Rieger's book is well written, well researched and well argued. It not only fills an important gap in research but by following a comparative approach also pushes the boundaries of historiography further."
-Anselm Heinrich, Department of History, Lancaster University, H-German

" original and welcome contribution. ...[an] impressive engagement of scholarship."
-Business History Review

"Drawing on an extremely wide range of popular contemporary writings and pictorial material, it not only offers interesting insights into the debates on three technologies, but also uses a sophisticated and stimulating comparative approach to the cultural appropriation of technology."
-Barbara Schmucki, Technology and Culture

"Bernhard Rieger's new book is a far-reaching and penetrating account of how the culture of modernity forever remade Britain and Germany in the years from the late nineteenth century through World War II. The fascination with machines, speed, and industrial power, he convincingly shows, not only became a dramatic dimension of Anglo-German military rivalry but also spurred the creation of new national identities fashioned for the industrial age...Technology and the Culture of Modernity is a well-written and cearly argued account of the cultureal shock of the new, successfully charting as it does the diverse ways in whic hBritain and Germany feared and fantasized about technology's promethean powers in the not so distant past."
-Paul Betts, University of Sussex

"Rieger's ambitious and useful book is a comparison of how technology was perceived in Great Britain and Germany from 1890-1945." -Troy Paddock, German Studies Review

"The analysis and presentation of this complex yet coherent tapestry offers a fresh approach that takes the social and cultural history of techonology to a higher level. This, to my mind, is the book's most important contribution." -Eda Kranakis, Historie sociale

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521093149
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 1/8/2009
  • Series: New Studies in European History Series
  • Pages: 319
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Bernhard Rieger is Assistant Professor of History at the International University Bremen. He has coedited Meanings of Modernity: Britain from the Late-Victorian Era to World War II (2001) with Martin J. Daunton.
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Read an Excerpt

Cambridge University Press
0521845289 - Technology and The Culture of Modernity in Britain and Germany, 1890-1945 - by Bernhard Rieger


"A civilisation is known by its realised dreams. If another age than ours should ask, 'What did you do with your time?' here, in the more than Roman magnificence of our engineering, is one answer we can give." It was the new liner Queen Mary, awaiting its launch in front of 250,000 spectators in Glasgow on 26 September 1934, that prompted this celebration in the Manchester Guardian. Profoundly impressed, the journalist proclaimed the new vessel to be a revelation because the Queen Mary turned an intangible "dream" into a material "reality," and a formidable one at that - a structure over 1,000 feet (300 meters) long and weighing more than 35,000 tons (32,000 tonnes). Although large vessels such as the Kaiser Wilhelm der Große (1897), the Lusitania (1907), the Mauretania (1907), the infamous Titanic (1912), the Imperator (1913), the Bremen (1929), and the Europa (1930) had galvanized popular attention on both sides of the Atlantic with almost predictable regularity since the late nineteenth century, neither the press nor its readers had grown accustomed to these giants' ever-increasing size, speed, and luxuriousness. "Never before has the launch of a ship given the popular imagination so lively a thrill in anticipation," claimed one of Britain's leading broadsheets as the Queen Mary became ready to take to the water. This boat, every observer agreed, put all previous naval constructions to shame. Even the pouring rain that forced many onlookers of the launch to spend hours in "flooding cornfields, [mud] slowly oozing over their ankles," could not mar the universal mood of joyful anticipation. As the hull entered the water, "one long sigh [traveled] all down the mile long line of " soaked spectators. As much as the nation as a whole, the people of Glasgow stood in awe of their "grand" work. A fitting symbol of an age that prided itself on the "conquest of nature," the Queen Mary struck the Manchester Guardian, a newspaper that usually shied away from hyperbole, as a "secular miracle."1

By acclaiming Britain's latest transatlantic liner as a "miracle," the Manchester Guardian aligned the Queen Mary with countless other prominent technological artifacts that had struck observers as "wonders" since the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Industrial machinery, railways, aeroplanes, airships, film, photography, electricity, motor cars, the gramophone, the radio - all these and more counted among the mechanisms that, as a plethora of commentators insisted, filled the world with new, "miraculous" objects. Throughout the nineteenth century and beyond, contemporaries expressed their astonishment at technological transformations by persistently describing innovative mechanisms as the "wonders" of the modern age. Yet the rhetoric of the "modern wonder" of engineering, despite all the fervent enthusiasm it generated, did not prevent the emergence of a profound sense of ambivalence that just as persistently accompanied the appearance of technological innovations. Characteristically, the correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, whom we have just encountered as he marveled at the Queen Mary's magnificence, also drew attention to a disconcerting discrepancy between the boat's creators and their creation. Reflecting on the ship's dimensions, he shuddered at the vessel's hubristic size, noting that mere "six-foot high human beings" were responsible for "this mountain of metal," a "sea mammoth" that dwarfed not only its makers but everything in its vicinity. Like many other spectacular new technological objects, the Queen Mary elated observers and sent shivers down their spines. While observers fervently admired many innovations, they simultaneously responded to novel mechanisms with anxiety and found spectacular innovations intellectually and emotionally confusing. Throwing contemporaries off balance, technology as a wonder contributed to a pervasive sense of dislocation that coincided with the advent of a time that struck contemporaries as a new, distinctly "modern" age.

Technological change mounted profound emotional and intellectual challenges to the popular imagination because boisterous mechanical progress created and subsequently intensified a novel dilemma in Western societies from the middle of the nineteenth century onwards. As technology played crucial roles in reshaping the external world, most people confronted this process of transformation from a position of profound ignorance.2 Very few individuals had the expert knowledge that would have rendered intelligible the machines that were changing their natural and social environments. Contemporaries not only lacked an understanding of the scientific findings on which many innovations were based; they also failed to comprehend how the new mechanisms that were coming into existence functioned. Although they figured prominently as symbols of change, many inventions remained beyond the grasp of the majority of the population. In addition to transforming the environment, technological innovation also created novel modes of representing and perceiving this ever-changing external world. The first third of the twentieth century witnessed the arrival and proliferation of innovative "representational technologies," which included the tabloid press, photography, film, radio, and the gramophone. As many new media quickly acquired a wide popular following, contemporaries faced the task of determining what kinds of knowledge these novel technologies generated. Commentators found it problematic to locate innovative representational technologies within existing hierarchies of knowledge production.3 In transforming the external world, as well as the means of representing and perceiving it, technological innovation thus created a problem of knowledge.

Of course, a restricted grasp of technological intricacies did not silence public debate; in fact, the opposite was true. Discussion often found ways of addressing technological issues that bypassed details of engineering but were nonetheless crucial to popular understandings of technology. This study examines the frequently passionate British and German public exchanges about technological innovation that, between the last decade of the nineteenth century and World War Ⅱ, ascribed meanings to technologies as symbols of change and rendered the material transformation of the external world intelligible to technological laypersons. Such public considerations of technologies' significance went far beyond instances of popularization when scientists and engineers explained to non-experts how certain mechanisms were produced and how they worked. Public debate performed the cultural work of advancing interpretations that determined technology's place in contemporary economic, political, and social life. Discussion about technological innovation represented negotiations of ignorance, in the course of which the participants inscribed social and cultural meaning into objects on the basis of a partial technical understanding of technology. Given their ambivalent nature, assessments of technology as a "modern wonder" possessed the potential to generate both public euphoria and technophobia. Public insecurity about technology, however, did not give rise to a cultural atmosphere that opposed change per se; instead, the broad range of the interventions that we shall analyze established a cultural climate conducive to innovation - albeit in the presence of deep ambivalence.

To show how public enthusiasm for, and unease about, innovative technology interacted to further technological change in Britain and Germany between the 1890s and World War Ⅱ, this book investigates the intersecting debates about the following three technologies: aviation, transatlantic passenger shipping, and film. These examples have been selected for several reasons. The technologies in question either came into existence or embarked upon vigorous technological development during the 1890s and early 1900s. At this time, critiques of modernity increased significantly in both countries, and the debates under consideration, therefore, shed light on how contemporaries evaluated technology as anxieties about the "modern age" spread. Since public debate about technology underwent significant transformations after World War Ⅱ (as the concluding pages will briefly show), the year 1945 provides our chronological endpoint. Furthermore, combining aviation with passenger shipping and film brings into view technology's military and civilian dimensions. Developments in these sectors attracted strong public attention, and discussions about these artifacts, therefore, shaped central assumptions about technological change in times of peace and war. Debates about the technologies in question not only grant opportunities to explore how British and German public interpretations ascribed meanings to a changing world of objects; incorporating discussions about film also allows for an investigation of how contemporaries judged the most successful and most controversial representational technology. Given the speed with which this medium secured a mass market, film undoubtedly, in economic terms, counts among the most prolific technological inventions of the late nineteenth century. Curiously, film, despite its evidently mechanical nature, only rarely received extended consideration as a technological phenomenon in contemporary debate, and we shall chart how cinematography lost its status as a technology and came to be conceived as a primarily cultural phenomenon. Thus this study analyzes how the British and German publics evaluated both the artifacts that transformed the external world and the novel means of representing and perceiving these spectacular metamorphoses. Moreover, an analysis of luxurious ocean liners, aeroplanes, and airships illustrates that economic profits, or expectations of such gains, alone do not explain support for innovation, since the operation of these technologies consistently generated financial losses and, consequently, required substantial subsidies. Contemporaries shared the conviction that the importance of these technologies lay beyond narrow economic definitions, a belief sustaining enthusiasm even for financially costly innovations. There was much more to the love of technology than narrow economic calculation. Finally, the examples under scrutiny guard against an inquiry that employs the concept of "technology" in a reified manner. As technologies proliferated in contemporary society, they gained a wider range of public meanings than studies of one technology or of debates about "technology" in philosophical circles can capture. The debates about heterogeneous technologies bring out the multifaceted, context-related, and frequently contradictory meanings that the term "technology" denotes.

Historical research has not systematically addressed how, given the mixed receptions accorded to a plethora of technological devices, British and German public debate supported technological innovation. Recent work on technology as systems has placed artifacts in specific social and economic contexts by identifying which actors have shaped engineering solutions and applications, as well as, more rarely, by illustrating how these solutions and applications expressed their creators' values. Focusing on the actors who shaped innovations, the approach of studying technologies as systems achieves great insights when it details the choices that lead to the adoption of certain designs and uses in engineering, but it also has a blind spot: it tacitly regards general social and cultural support for innovations beyond entrepreneurial and engineering circles as a fact that requires little explanation in itself.4 Whereas the "systems approach" tends to examine specific engineering cultures, this book concentrates on the public cultures that arose from debates among technological laypersons upon whose consent technological change was contingent. The question posed here is different and, indeed, more fundamental: why and how did British and German societies foster a cultural climate conducive to innovation processes despite considerable public insecurity about technology between 1890 and 1945?

Historians of Britain have recently rejected claims that the dominance of purportedly "rural" and "gentlemanly" ideals predisposed British culture against technology and industry with grave results for the country's economic performance in the twentieth century.5 British society, the argument runs, promoted technological innovation through military research, by training large numbers of graduates in engineering subjects and, most relevant to the topic under consideration, by fostering strong enthusiasm for new machines in general. Furthermore, ideas of scientific and technological superiority pervaded imperialist thought and played a crucial role in defining notions of British modernity.6 Studies in design history have also alerted us to the modernist aesthetic impulses that often openly celebrated technology as an artistic and cultural inspiration.7 While recent work has stressed Britain's overwhelmingly pro-technological cultural disposition, little work has analyzed in detail how fascination and fear interacted in the public promotion of novel artifacts. Patrick Wright's book on the cultural reception of the tank is a rare exception, as is Dan LeMahieu's examination of the reactions of the British educated elite to the development of a commercial gramophone, radio, and cinema culture.8 Current scholarship, whether it deals with technology implicitly or explicitly, has often foregrounded innovative dimensions in British society, politics, economy, and culture in the first half the twentieth century, thereby touching on a developing field of inquiry: the study of British modernity, long thought of as a contradiction in terms.9

In German history, inquiries into public evaluations are embedded in wider examinations of the ways anti- and pro-modern sentiments contributed to the rise, consolidation, and consequences of National Socialism. Recent work has extensively critiqued research that focused on an unfolding narrative of technophobia, claiming that hostility to technology played into the hands of National Socialism with its purportedly anti-modern, agrarian, and anti-urbanist ideology.10 Jeffrey Herf was among the first to begin a theoretical reorientation by identifying a "reactionary modernism," during the Weimar Republic and in National Socialism, which combined anti-democratic politics with militaristic and productivist notions.11 Because Herf's focus on intellectual history rendered it difficult to support some of his wide-ranging conceptual claims empirically, other historians have taken up related lines of inquiry in examinations of debates about industrial rationalization in early twentieth-century Germany, metaphorical descriptions of the human body as a machine, enthusiasm for aviation and military equipment, and widespread demands for an ethos of Sachlichkeit (sobriety or matter-of-factness) that celebrated the functionalism of the machine as an exemplary model for individual conduct in the interwar years.12 These approaches, which have demonstrated the pervasiveness of technology in contemporary thought and culture, complement scholarship that emphasizes that the National Socialists strove to bring into existence an "alternative modernity" that blended a disdain for rationalism, individualism, parliamentarianism, and feminism with a fascination for mass politics, social engineering, pronatalism, eugenics, productivism, and technology.13 These studies have greatly enhanced our understanding of how the Nazi movement appropriated and reshaped enthusiasm for technology so as to cast itself as visibly "modern." Still, it remains unclear why a passionate fascination for technology existed in Germany in the first place, despite deep anxieties about the "modern age" in general and prominent critiques of technological innovation in particular since the late nineteenth century.

The distinct research agendas in British and German history have produced investigations that focus on different aspects of national debates about technological change. Although this contrast renders it necessary to launch a comparison of the public meanings of technology in Britain and Germany from two distinct platforms, studies of both countries have shared an interest in the complexities and ambiguities of modernity. As scholarship on modernity provides a crucial theoretical framework for this study, it is essential to define how this inquiry comprehends this concept to avoid confusion that can arise from several sources. To begin with, theories of "modernity" have been used in many analytical contexts, a practice that has frequently endowed the term with contradictory meanings. Furthermore, affirming "the 'modernity' of this or that historical phenomenon," as Fredric Jameson has recently observed, often awakens "a feeling of intensity and energy that is greatly in excess of the attention we generally bring to interesting events or monuments in the past." Considerations of modernity are prone to fuel contentious debate because they tend to touch on highly politicized assumptions about the character of the present.14 Although figuring simultaneously as a multifaceted analytical category and as a polemical term, modernity does not have to prove a treacherous concept on which to build a comparison - quite the contrary.

For a start, modernity must be distinguished from artistic modernism, a term that describes the anti-academic, innovative, initially iconoclastic, and stylistically heterogeneous aesthetic movements that sprang up with increasing frequency towards the end of the nineteenth century.15 In our context, artistic modernism presents a concern only to the extent that it left an imprint on wider public debates about film, aviation, and passenger shipping. Furthermore, this investigation, while focusing on public attitudes to technological modernity, does not claim to contribute to long-standing scholarly exchanges in British and German historiography about the impact of cultural trends on long-term modernization, be it in the form of economic performance, social change, or democratization.16 In German history, studies of modernization have not only sought to assess to what extent the National Socialist regime succeeded in systematically transforming the country's economy and society after 1933; they have also given rise to heated exchanges over the question whether these structural changes accidentally laid the economic foundations for the success of democracy in the Federal Republic after 1945.17 While scholarship on Britain has been more hesitant to embrace modernization theory, it has highlighted a plethora of dynamic socio-economic developments to call into question assertions that the country headed for inevitable national decline from the 1890s.18 Although these studies have invalidated assertions that Germany and Britain suffered from vastly dissimilar forms of traditionalism in the first half of the twentieth century, their claims tend to rest on problematic foundations. To begin with, it has often proved difficult to pin down causal links between cultural attitudes and the patterns of social, political, and economic behavior that serve as indicators of modernization. More importantly in our context, research on modernization frequently operates with normative concepts of modernity that prioritize one model over another and thereby risk obscuring alternative interpretations of the modern that coexist at a given point in time.19

Since a wide range of phenomena struck Britons and Germans from many political backgrounds as "modern," normative concepts cannot capture the rich inconsistencies that shaped public debate about modernity. In fact, since the late nineteenth century it was semantic breadth rather than analytical precision that characterized the use of the term "modern" in the public sphere from the political Right to the Left. Virtually omnipresent in the public arena, the epithet "modern" provided an elastic category to celebrate and denounce a plethora of transformations and transitions in British and German society. Consequently, a vast number of interpretations of modernity were in public circulation at any given moment. While semantic flexibility contributed to the category's public ubiquity, and while everyday use often rendered the term vague, it still possessed a solid core meaning. Most importantly, the word "modern" captured the widespread conviction that the historical present was first and foremost an era of profound, irreversible, and man-made changes. In industrialized turn-of-the-century Europe, public calls for a straightforward return to the past had an increasingly unrealistic and anachronistic ring, because fewer and fewer people believed that the past provided recipes for present and future problems. As a consequence, history, as Jose Harris has written, became a "lost domain," and commentators across the political and cultural spectrum proclaimed that Europe had entered a new, unique historical era: "modern times."20

Of course, this sense of living in a novel age was not ahistorical. A host of historical tales threw into sharp relief the exceptional character of the modern age, no matter whether they stipulated a fundamental rupture between the present and the past, explained the outstanding features of the present as the culmination of continuous, incremental change, or construed heroic or tragic analogies between ancient mythology and the historical present.21 The proliferation of historical narratives indicates that many contemporaries considered modernity as highly problematical because, as a time of transformation, it appeared unstable. The widespread sense of the instability of modern times hinged on conceptualizations of change. While many commentators emphasized the creative and positive dimensions of innovation, they were equally conscious of its disruptive aspects. In order to create the new, the old or traditional had to be displaced and often destroyed. From this perspective, public debate about technological change can be read as emblematic of contemporary ambivalence about the modern that resulted from perceptions of change as both creative and destructive.22 After all, technological innovation added to the environment novel artifacts that signaled an end to previous eras. Technological change appeared literally to substantiate change and to lend physical expression to enunciations of "progress" and "decay." As was the case with architecture, technological artifacts objectified modernity in many contemporaries' eyes. As public debate about technology revolved around the key premise that radical change constituted modernity, there existed what at first sight may be viewed as a discrepancy between, on the one hand, the fast pace of technological developments and, on the other, a considerable degree of continuity in discussions that reflected upon these developments. Although they did not engender a sense of temporal stability among contemporaries, public debates displayed important structural continuities that played a crucial role in the embrace of technological innovation: they furnished widely applicable and persistent patterns of perception, thereby easing the burden of reflection in the face of frequently unsettling transformations. Despite the longevity of certain ideas, debates about technology were by no means static, and we shall have to pay particular attention to the turning points in assessments of the three technologies in question.

© Cambridge University Press
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Table of Contents

1 Introduction 1
2 "Modern wonders" : technological innovation and public ambivalence 20
3 Accidents : the physical risks of technology 51
4 Elusive illusions : the cultural and political properties of film 86
5 Pilots as popular heroes : risk, gender, and the aeroplane 116
6 "Floating palaces" : passenger liners as objects of pleasure 158
7 Fantasy as social practice : the rise of amateur film 193
8 Technology and the nation in Britain and Germany 224
9 Conclusion 276
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