The Opportunities & Challenges of Studying the 20th-Century History of Science, Technology & Medicine

Student Led Activity: ‘The Opportunities & Challenges of Studying the 20th-Century History of Science, Technology & Medicine’, 5 October 2018, Nucleus archive, Wick, Caithness.

Early career historians of 20th-century science, technology and medicine gathered on 5 October 2018 for a one-day workshop at Nucleus, the new national archive for civil nuclear records in Wick, Scotland.

The day began with an introductory overview of the impact of science and technology on the area from co-organiser Linda Ross (University of the Highlands and Islands/Historic Environment Scotland). She highlighted the extent to which wind farms, hydroelectric power stations and the nuclear reactor site at Dounreay are an integral part of the Scottish Highlands, an area that is often portrayed as an unspoilt landscape.


Linda Ross welcoming delegates to the workshop

We then heard from Gordon Reid, Nucleus archivist. The archive is home to two very different sets of records: those that are being relocated from various nuclear sites across the UK to be housed together under one roof at Nucleus, and the historical archives of the county of Caithness. It will become the largest national archive after Kew, and its core purpose is to retain information about what the UK has done with its nuclear waste for as long as that nuclear waste exists. With two lorry loads of material arriving each week, the challenge is to amalgamate records from 19 independent archives, each set up along different archival methods, into one coherent system. With an airport, harbour and train station, Gordon pointed out that Wick is in fact easier to reach than other nuclear sites such as Sellafield in Cumbria. We had the opportunity to visit one of the Caithness archive storage rooms, and to view various items from the collections displayed for us in the public reading room.


Delegates looking at items from the archives

We then moved into a session titled ‘Using archives’: CDP student Rachel Boon (University of Manchester/Science Museum/BT Archives) spoke about the challenge of researching the history of an institution when vital information is classified. David Moats (Linköping University, Sweden) demonstrated how the multiple versions of a Wikipedia article on the Fukushima nuclear accident can inform our understanding of how the history of 20th-century science and technology is being written. Annie Gilfillan (PhD student, University of the Highlands and Islands) focused on the challenges she has experienced when accessing the archives of the nuclear energy industry.

All three papers in the second session ‘Using collections’ were from CDP students who spoke about their individual approaches to museum objects as starting points in their research. James Inglis (University of St Andrews/National Museums Scotland) discussed dismantling old typewriters as a valuable exercise in developing an understanding of the changing technologies used to produce these machines. Georgina Lockton (University of Leicester/Science Museum) highlighted the challenge of persuading the wider historical community to accept her use of objects as primary historical sources, while Laura Volkmer (University of Edinburgh/National Museums Scotland) explained the strategies she has developed when encountering unfamiliar scientific equipment in the NMS collections.

We finished with a keynote presentation from Professor Jon Agar, author of Science in the Twentieth Century and Beyond. He used examples of his own research in the National Archives to discuss the attitudes of Margaret Thatcher’s governments to the nuclear industry. In his opinion the 1990s saw an increased hostility to historians who sought to interpret the recent history of science, with the nuclear project being the most consequential of all 20th-century scientific projects that those historians choose to examine.


Group photo outside Nucleus

This event was generously supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council CDP student-led activity fund, the School of History, Politics and International Relations at the University of Leicester, the White Rose College of the Arts and Humanities and the British Society for the History of Science. It was organised by CDP students Emmeline Ledgerwood (University of Leicester/British Library), Helen Piel (University of Leeds/British Library) and Linda Ross (University of the Highlands and Islands/Historic Environment Scotland).


Organisers Emmeline Ledgerwood, Linda Ross and Helen Piel

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