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Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine

What is the history of science, technology and medicine?

The history of science, technology and medicine (HSTM) aims to reveal the connections between what are too often considered as two separate cultures of thinking. Scientific theories and clinical judgments seem to present a 'rational' or 'objective' quality which makes people think that they exist outside of time and human society — that they are 'views from nowhere'. To a historian, however, it's obvious that everything must have come from somewhere. Applying historical techniques to the histories of science, technology and medicine reveals explanations at a fascinating range of levels.

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Acorn Electron microcomputer packaging, circa 1984. Why were manufacturers keen to represent computers as reassuringly domestic technologies?

How, for instance, do the religious beliefs of scientists affect their work? Did nineteenth-century engineers focus on efficiency because of the belief that wastefulness was a sin? How has the military conquest of unknown lands affected plant-breeders? Would a professional scientific society ever reject a major new investment to avoid breaking up its members' routine? How do anti-vivisectionists build support among people happy to eat animals? Where do images of 'the nuclear industry' and 'anti-nuclear campaigners' come from, and how do they influence policy?

Doing HSTM does not simply mean making technical studies of specialist work from the past. Nor is it only for people with professional training in the sciences, engineering and healthcare, though it attracts many people from those fields. The HSTM profession benefits from the involvement with backgrounds in social history, records and archives management, philosophy, interview work, human geography and many other areas.
Good HSTM goes beyond the expected. Popular histories tend to offer the standard stories of 'great' men and women and momentous events: technological breakthroughs which advance society, scientific breakthroughs which provide a more accurate view of the world, medical breakthroughs which improve the quality of life for millions. Part of our work is to question this mythology, examining documentary evidence and alternative interpretations to arrive at a more nuanced and often more useful view of how change occurs. At the same time, we must be careful not to ignore the power of myth: similar stories existed in the past, and inspired the hopes, fears and actions of those we study.

On these pages, you will find descriptions of some of our projects to engage a wider audience with our HSTM activity. Much of this work relates to our research interest in local histories: the science, manufacturing and healthcare of Manchester and North West England present some stunning examples of the kind of multi-layered analysis discussed here (see Science, technology and medicine in Manchester for an overview). You are welcome to contact us to discuss your own research interests and possibilities for collaboration.

Some recommended books

Peter Bowler and Iwan Morus, Making Modern Science: a historical survey. Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2005.

David Edgerton, The Shock of the Old: technology and global history since 1900. London: Profile 2006.

Christopher Frayling, Mad, Bad and Dangerous? The scientist and the cinema. London: Reaktion 2005.

John Henry, The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science. Basingstoke: Macmillan 1997.

Jeff Hughes, The Manhattan Project: big science and the atom bomb. Cambridge: Icon 2002.

Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch, The Golem: what everyone should know about science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1993.

Thomas J Misa, Leonardo to the Internet: technology and culture from the Renaissance to the present. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press 2004.

Crosbie Smith and Ben Marsden, Engineering Empires: a cultural history of technology in nineteenth-century Britain. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan 2005.

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