country report : Sweden

Swedish History of Technology, a review

Thomas Kaiserfeld
Dep. of History of Science and Technology, Royal Inst. of Technology, Stockholm


Swedish history of technology may not be an oxymoron by definition, but is still a concept laden with such an unconformity as to make it virtually impossible to handle in a stringent manner. In Sweden, research problems connected to technologies of the past are pursued within such a wide range of institutions and intellectual fields that it is a hopeless task indeed to give a full account without missing important themes, topics and projects. The task is not simplified if one is to include all those historians of technology interested in empirical material that can be denoted Swedish in one way of another. Thus, the following is not to be regarded as a full report, but rather a superficial and personally biased review with ambitions set far too high. [1]
These problems of abundance, surely surfacing for anyone who wants to compose a survey of Swedish history of technology, are of course to be viewed as favourable. They are an indication of the institutional and intellectual multitude of history of technology in this country. The reasons for these developments over the past decades can only be speculated upon. The institutional spread can be attributed to strengthening interests in research at museums and authorities such as The Swedish National Heritage Board (Riksantikvarieämbetet) or The Swedish Energy Agency (Energimyndigheten). The intellectual spread can be attributed to traditional interests in history of technology in fields such as archaeology or economic history as well as centrally developed support for interdisciplinary research environments and projects, investments where history of technology are often seen as worthwhile to take on board.


In Swedish compulsory schools, history of technology is to be an important part of courses in technology according to a centrally formulated syllabus. [2] In practice, however, courses in technology deal far more with scientific principles and construction problems than with historical and present cultures of technology. Efforts to change this approach can only be successful by radical transformation of teacher training, a venture still to be launched by Swedish historians of technology.
History of technology in higher education is mostly taught at engineering schools. Courses are given at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Luleå University of Technology, Faculty of Engineering at Lund University, Mälardalen University etc. The courses given are typically survey courses, either structured thematically or chronologically.
Apart from courses exclusively devoted to history of technology, problems and literature from the field also arise in a number of courses given in other fields such as history of ideas, economic history, archaeology, history of architecture, history etc. Especially, themes from history of technology are enrolled in courses in the broader STS-field. Thus, history of technology exists in a larger number of courses in Swedish higher education than can be deduced from course titles only.
Despite the number of courses given in history of technology, it is usually hard to attract students to these classes. Engineering curricula are usually crammed and students are often enough instructed to add other engineering or science topics before turning to humanities and social sciences. One notable and important exception is engineering programme “Systems in technology and society” launched at Uppsala University in 2002 and focusing both on technology and its social aspects including adequate measures of history of technology. Where courses in history of technology are followed by a larger part of the student body, there are usually centrally coordinated efforts to encourage them to study history of technology, for instance at Lund University.
Important instrument to improve teaching potential are good textbooks. Fortunately, there are at least two such educational instruments in Swedish that can be used in higher education: Prof. Staffan Hansson’s Den skapande människan (first publ. 1987, 2002) and Prof. Bosse Sundin’s Den kupade handen (first publ. 1991, 2006). Both these textbooks have been used thoroughly by Swedish teachers in the history of technology on different levels of the educational system.
That history of technology generally speaking has a weak position in the different education programmes offered by engineering schools throughout Sweden is perhaps best shown by the lack of undergraduate programmes and master’s programmes exclusively devoted to the field. Launching master’s programmes in history of technology is another future challenge for Swedish historians of technology.


Swedish history of technology is decisively research oriented. Different research institutions including the Royal Institute of Technology, Linköping University, Lund University, Luleå University of Technology, Uppsala University, University of Gothenburg etc have been very successful in conquering research funding for projects involving history of technology. Research in history of technology is thus pursued at different institutions also reflecting a vast multitude of research themes. In some of these, approaches from history of technology are central. In other they play a supporting role, although still clearly visible.
For instance history of technology is important in many studies on work environment, especially changes in working conditions. In addition, programmes in energy policy have often enough had a component of history of technology. Moreover, history of technology is to some extent related to topics in innovation management as well as research policy. Other important research themes where history of technology often is viewed as an important supporting discipline include history of science and environmental history.
More specifically, history of technology has been of central interest in a rather recently terminated decade-long effort to supply alternative models for the interaction between science, technology and industry, the so-called VTI-programme. The programme was successfully launched in the late 1990s by one of the founding fathers of history of technology in Sweden, Prof. Svante Lindqvist, who managed it as a joint venture between Department of History of Science and Technology at the Royal Institute of Technology and Department of History of Ideas and Department of Business Studies at Uppsala University resulting in circa 20 PhDs as well as a number of anthologies and related articles.
Systems and networks of different kinds have historically attracted attention from Swedish historians of technology and continue to do so to this day. This is especially valid for energy and transportation systems. Another historically important and presently still very lively theme within Swedish history of technology is research in industrial heritage. A third theme with heavy historical weight that continues to make strong imprints on Swedish history of technology is history of science, some years ago strengthened with a donated professorial chair at Uppsala University.
Other more recently surfacing themes in the history of technology include media technologies as well as the mediation of knowledge in the 19th and 20th centuries. In addition, historical research on the exploitation of the polar areas are expanding in Sweden and includes strong components of history of technology as do indeed research of urban environments, not the least efforts connected to research in sustainability and resilience. In this vein is also an on-going research programme on the history of biofuels at Umeå University.
Research in Swedish history of technology is to a large extent financed by soft money provided by research councils, foundations as well as agencies and other authorities. This implies that history of technology is exposed to short-term trends in the Swedish research sector, for example including regionalization and interdisciplinary efforts. Nevertheless, historians of technology have often enough proved not only well adapted to new trends, but also very able in using possibilities to create new opportunities. Thus, over the past years, important studies of regional systems of innovation and technology have been produced over for instance Dalecarlia and Northern Sweden. [3]
Another important trend is internationalization. In comparison to many other fields in humanities and social sciences, Swedish history of technology has been very successful in reaching out and creating lasting projects in cooperation with scholars from abroad, especially Europe. When the European Science Foundation made a call for applications to the EUROCORES-programme “Inventing Europe”, the Swedish Research Council funded one collaborative research projects under the management of Prof. Arne Kaijser at the Royal Institute of Technology, “Europe Goes Critical”, and one more research project connected to “European Ways of Life in the ‘American Century’”.
In addition to research themes, projects and programmes pursued by Swedish historians of technology, it is important to point out that much research in Sweden is achieved by Ph.D. students enrolled in graduate programmes. There are graduate programmes in the history of technology at the Royal Institute of Technology, Chalmers University of Technology and Luleå University of Technology. In addition to these programmes, there are strong STS-programmes at for instance Linköping University and programmes in history of science at for instance the universities of Lund, Uppsala, Umeå and Gothenburg well suited for advanced students in the history of technology as well.


It is no exaggeration to claim that Swedish history of technology was born out of museums and an interest in industrial history. The field was introduced in engineering education in the 1960s by the first director of The National Museum of Science and Technology in Stockholm, Torsten Althin. There are still close connections between the museum sphere and different institutions of research and higher education in Sweden. This is evident not only from projects pursued at for instance the Nobel Museum in Stockholm, founded and managed by Prof. Svante Lindqvist, or The National Museum of Science and Technology, but also from corresponding investments at universities, for instance Museion at University of Gothenburg and Theme Cultural Studies at Linköping University. Although museum tours are regularly used in education, connections can be developed further still. Coordinated research programmes involving both university and museum resources, intellectual as well as material, are scarce to say the least. Here is evidently another future challenge for Swedish historians of technology.

Associations and Journals

There is one major association supporting Swedish history of technology, the National Committee for the History of Science and Technology affiliated to ICOHTEC and the Division of History of Science of the International Union of History and Philosophy of Science and under the auspices of the Swedish Royal Academy of Science. There are about 15 members of the committee (the number varies over time) evenly distributed geographically as well as intellectually. The most important undertaking of the committee is its biannual conferences in history of technology and science where junior scholars as well as senior ones participate. The latest occurrence of such a meeting was in April 2008 when almost a hundred scholars, predominantly Swedes, convened at the National Museum of Science and Technology in Stockholm. Next meeting is planned for the spring of 2010 in Umeå.
In addition, the Committee has been publishing a Swedish quarterly in the history of technology named Polhem established by another founding father of history of technology in Sweden, Prof. Jan Hult. In order to qualify for necessary financial support, it has been transformed into a peer-review publication. In recent years, Polhem has been published as a yearbook and today, there are discussions regarding its future, not the least its form of publication.


Swedish history of technology stands strong in national as well as international comparison. It is no coincidence that the president-elect of the Society of the History of Technology (SHOT) is a Swede and that there are two additional Swedes in the SHOT executive council as well as two other in the executive council of ICOHTEC. Also intellectually, Swedish history of technology is represented in EUROCORES-programme “Inventing Europe” sponsored by the European Science Foundation. Still, there are important challenges for the future. Most importantly, to raise visibility in different programmes of higher education, especially engineering programmes, and to create a master’s programme in history of technology, perhaps in cooperation with existing programmes in Europe and elsewhere. Another challenge, probably not altogether disconnected from the effort to raise visibility in higher education is to involve museum resources not only in education, but also in research activities.
As should be evident from what has been stated here, both universities and engineering schools constitute important institutional foundations for Swedish history of technology. There are indeed strong links between them, but more often than not relying on personal ties rather than institutional bridges with the National Committee for the History of Science and Technology as a notable exception. In order to further strengthen the institutional status of the field, it would advantageous to create even stronger institutional links, for instance through active electronic billboards or email-lists. In doing this, it is however important to formulate goals where such links are necessary. Only with lively and all-encompassing discussions regarding the future of Swedish history of technology can its position be strengthened even further, making it a resource for intellectuals and practitioners alike, both at universities and outside.


Althin, Torsten: Teknisk-historisk forskning och undervisning, in: Suenoni Lübeck Sexagenario. Vänners skrift, Stockholm 1937, 51-58.
Avango, Dag / Lundström, Brita: Inledning, in: Avango, Dag / Lundström, Brita (eds.) Industrins Avtryck: Perspektiv på ett forskningsfält, Eslöv 2003, 9-17.
Ehn, Billy / Löfgren, Orvar: Hur blir man klok på universitetet, Lund 2004.
Götlind, Anna: Vardagens teknik, Exemplet Dalarna 1700-1900, Hedemora 1999.
Hansson, Staffan: Innovationer och industriell utveckling, Om elektricitet, överföringsteknik och industriell utveckling i nor—Porjus Smältverk 1917-1958, Luleå 1999.
Hansson, Staffan: Den skapande människan, Om människan och tekniken under 5000 år [1987], Lund 2002.
Hägerstrand, Torsten: Perspektiv på teknik och teknikhistoria, Polhem, Tidskrift för teknikhistoria 12 (1994), 2-72.
Jakobsson, Eva: POLHEM 1983-1989, Polhem, Tidskrift för teknikhistoria 8 (1990), 342-351. Lindqvist, Svante: Teknikhistoria som akademisk disciplin, in: Forskning i ett föränderligt samhälle, Hedemora 1990, 398-417.
Olsson, Carl-Axel: Teknikhistoria som vetenskaplig disciplin, Några kommentarer, Meddelande från Ekonomisk-historiska institutionen, Lunds universitet 11, Lund 1980.
Olsson, Lars O.: Teman och perspektiv i Polhem 1983-1996 och tidskriftens spegling av den svenska teknikhistoriska forskningen, in: Hedin, Marika och Larsson, Ulf (eds.): Teknikens landskap, Stockholm 1998, 333-348.
Sundin, Bosse: Den kupade handen, Historien om människan och tekniken [1991], Stockholm 2006.
Sörlin, Sverker / Öckerman, Anders: Jorden en ö: En global miljöhistoria [1998], Stockholm 2002.



[1] There have been some previous efforts to review Swedish history of technology, see Hägerstrand, Jakobsson, Lindqvist, L.O. Olsson and C-A. Olsson in the bibliography.
, June 9, 2008.
[3] Hansson, Staffan: Innovationer och industriell utveckling, Om elektricitet, överföringsteknik och industriell utveckling i nor—Porjus Smältverk 1917-1958, Luleå 1999; Götlind, Anna: Vardagens teknik: Exemplet Dalarna 1700-1900, Hedemora 1999