Introducing ‘Made Modern: Science and Technology in Canadian History’

Canadair 'North Star' aircraft CF-TCM of Trans-Canada Air Lines, August 1946. Library and Archives Canada / PA-061645.

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In this post, Edward Jones-Imhotep and Tina Adcock, the editors of Made Modern: Science and Technology in Canadian History (UBC Press, 2018) describe the volume’s origins and evolution and why it will be of interest to environmental historians.

Edward Jones-Imhotep: Like so many before it, this edited volume had its origins in a conference. In late April 2015, I invited a group of historians to York University for two days of lively talks and good-natured discussion. Our work covered an unlikely collection of topics: weapons systems, infrastructure, cities, oceans, aviation, agriculture, exploration, atmospheric surveillance, animals, genetic engineering, health. What united us, more or less directly, was a common theme—the “modern”—and a goal to understand how our work might extend and complicate the work of my late colleague, Richard Jarrell.

Tina Adcock speaks at “Science, Technology and the Modern in Canada” at York University on April 24, 2015. Photo: Dorotea Gucciardo.

Over four decades, Jarrell was one of the most vital forces helping to create and shape the field of the history of Canadian science and technology. His energy and curiosity drove him into a varied collection of research topics, regions, and periods, but he returned again and again to the central place of science and technology in the social and cultural development of Canada. Those investigations had an urgency about them. Jarrell was anxious to explore Canada’s place and significance in a world at once defined and transformed by the practices, priorities, and products of modern science and technology. But his writing also hinted towards powerful undercurrents and related tensions that were still unexplored when he passed away suddenly in late 2013.

Taken as a whole, Jarrell’s work pointed us to a broader and even more complex history exploring the relationship of Canadian science and technology to the experiences and aspirations of the modern in Canada: hopes for transformation and independence; risks and threats to tradition and history; and the recurring anxieties of arriving too late in the scientific and technological worlds of contemporaries. Our 2015 event underlined the enormous potential, already being realized in conferences and workshops and special issues that brought together histories of science and technology with histories of environment. But we wanted to see what might come out of exploring those connections explicitly and directly around a single overarching question: what kinds of histories would emerge if we took the “modern” as an object of our studies, rather than the taken-for-granted assumption of our writing?

A conference, though, is not a book. To think about how the transformation from event to text might happen, I turned to Tina Adcock’s exceptional talents and asked if she’d co-edit the volume with me. She immediately saw the three axes that would ultimately scaffold the book—bodies, technologies, and environments. And in the months that followed, we elaborated and reworked our ideas about the book in a set of absorbing conversations between Vancouver and Toronto. We grappled not just with how to think about modernity, nature, and technology in Canadian history, but also with how to understand the historical place of Canadian natures, technologies, and infrastructures in the global experience of modernity. Blessed with a remarkable set of collaborators and authors, and with a masterful epilogue from Dolly Jørgensen pushing our explorations even further, we ourselves were thrilled to learn just how science and technology have formed the sites for Canadians to imagine, renounce, and reshape themselves as modern. Made Modern is the fruit of those fascinating investigations and we’re delighted to see it out in the world.

Tina Adcock: When Edward invited me in June 2014 to co-edit the volume that would become Made Modern, I was both excited and intrigued. Excited, because I’d long admired Edward’s super-smart writings on nature, technology, and nation (as one of his articles is titled), and intrigued, because it gave me the opportunity to become more familiar with the historical literature on science and technology in Canada. I had first learned of history of science as a specialized field during my doctoral studies, and subsequently plowed through a lot of the literature on European and global histories of the natural and field sciences after 1500. I found the field’s signature questions, approaches, and insights wonderfully stimulating, not to mention useful in structuring my own study of exploration in the twentieth century.

Mixed in with that excitement and intrigue was nervousness, of a kind that other interdisciplinary scholars will recognize. The history of science has its own institutional infrastructure within the larger discipline of history: not merely its own journals and conferences, but also its own departments and programs in which students learn the field’s distinctive historiography, theoretical vocabulary, and methodologies. I’m not a trained historian of science, I thought. How can I possibly edit a volume on this subject? But Edward was, and he clearly believed I was up to the task, so I said yes.

As I dug deep into the Canadian literature on the history of science and technology, I was glad I had. Nervousness fled, and surprise took its place, at how little historians had written on these topics. Historians of science and technology had, by and large, eschewed Canadian case studies; Canadian historians had, by and large, eschewed the subject of science and, to a lesser degree, technology. As one scholar commented recently on Twitter, not all lacunae need to be filled. In this case, however, there was clearly both need and scope for much, much more research into these topics.

I share all this to underscore a key point: you need not be a historian of science or technology to get something out of this volume. Our contributors largely tell social and cultural stories about these topics. Jan Hadlaw’s chapter about how urban Ontarians had to be taught to use a dial telephone, or Dorotea Gucciardo’s chapter about how Canadians used electrotherapy to ease the pains and stresses of modern life, would enliven any post-1867 Canadian history syllabus.

But I think that environmental historians will find special interest and value in Made Modern, not least because they’ve done much in recent years to bridge the gap between the history of science and technology and Canadian history. The collection has a whole section on environments in which Stephen Bocking, Andrew Stuhl, Blair Stein, and Dan Macfarlane each delineate fascinating case studies in the environmental history of science and technology. James Hull’s chapter on Canada and the Second Industrial Revolution and Eda Kranakis’s chapter on the legal history of agricultural biotechnologies will also repay the attention of readers interested in modern environmental issues. Finally, Dolly Jørgensen’s epilogue, which positions Canada as a nation-state of the Anthropocene, sets out a bold new comparative agenda for all historians of Canada, environmental ones included. Edward and I think she’s right on the money—literally speaking, as she uses a Canadian five-dollar bill from 1935 to make her case. We can’t wait to hear what you think.

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Assistant professor in the Department of History at Simon Fraser University. I research and teach Canadian and environmental history, with a special focus on the Arctic and Subarctic.

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