About this meeting.
When we think about the history of technology, and particularly about the history of railway technology, we tend to imagine steaming locomotives or diesel railcars, bringing passengers, goods, and overall progress to previously remote and God-forsaken areas of the land. We also imagine their evolution as modern bullet or high-speed trains, passing at incredible speeds through bucolic countryside. To paraphrase David Edgerton’s The shock of the old, we think about invention (the creation of a new idea) and innovation (the general use of a new idea), but seldom about regression or obsolescence, or about revival as something new. In Edgerton’s use-centred history, technologies not only appear, they also disappear and sometimes reappear. Railways around the globe are changing, some are thriving whilst others are closing. This process presents both opportunities and challenges not only for scholars, but for the general public as well.
Edgerton observed that history needs a place for failed inventions; for failed, obsolete innovations that were invented or created, evolved to a certain point, but eventually stopped evolving, were rendered obsolete by the development of competing and rival technologies, and possibly came back to life with different features. Or, as Bertolt Brecht wrote in his poem Parade of the Old New, “I stood on a hill and I saw the Old approaching, but it came as the New”. There has to be a space in history for old abandoned railways and the new uses that were given to them after their closure. This workshop is being held at one of the world’s great railroad museums, the National Railway Museum in York and we will address the issue of how railroads in different contexts and countries were lessand less used over the years until they came to a complete halt and were eventually shutdown. However, instead of just being abandoned and forgotten, they were brought back to life as part of heritage
programs or even with different purposes, with different uses and providing for different needs. In some cases they even paved the way for reverse engineering studies (for example, learning how bridges were made by dismantling them), a new and promising field of research. In this workshop we hope to add to the discussion by thinking about the use of things, rather than about technology per se, as Edgerton put it in his 2008 book. A debate that “connects us directly with the world we know rather than the strange world in which ‘technology’ lives”.