In his podcast last week, Maarten van Rossem said: “Most historians have no interest whatsoever in technology. […] Take the introduction of the automobile in the Netherlands, for example, [..] that’s of no interest to them at all, in their view that relates purely to pointless material things. In the history world nowhere near enough attention is devoted to technology.” All the more reason for the Philips Museum to highlight the history of technology in a series of mini lectures!
Olga Coolen, director of the Philips Museum, explains enthusiastically about how important the history of technology is. Whereas other countries have for some time embraced this history as a significant part of their culture, it would seem that people in the Netherlands are now starting to devote more attention to it too. “Countries like Germany, America, France and Great Britain have traditionally felt more connected with the history of technology in their country. To some extent they even derive a part of their identity from it,” Olga explains.
The Netherlands has been lagging behind in this respect for a long time. And that’s despite the fact that the first half of the 20th century is also known as the second Golden Age. In the first two decades Dutch scientists won various Nobel Prizes. Furthermore, there were a lot of technical inventions and innovations during that time. Olga Coolen explains: “And you can also see this reflected in major organizations. In the 20th century, for example, Philips was the biggest industrial employer in the Netherlands. Shell, DSM, Koninklijke Hoogovens, and Unilever were also all founded in the 20th century.”
In the 1980s historians started to realize that technology had a major role to play throughout the course of history. “Technology students are now taught a certain amount about the history of technology as a standard part of their studies, although nowadays it tends to be referred to as ‘transition studies’. History is, after all, about transition, about change.”
In an effort to make this history accessible to all, the Philips Museum has put together seven mini lectures. “These mini lectures each focus on specific developments in technology. We have selected a number of topics in which Philips has played an important role,” Olga explains. The lectures offered by the DWDD University served as a source of inspiration for this: “We wanted to create accessible stories about specific parts of the history of technology. And we have succeeded in doing that.”
There are seven topics: the power of glass, from analog to digital, the invention of radio technology, the power of innovation, from radio tube to LED, the invention of television, and the development of X-ray.* The lectures each last between thirty and forty minutes, and each lecture is given by an expert in that specific field. “The experts are six museum lecturers who have expertise in the relevant subject. In order to keep things simple but to also make the lectures interesting, they will be showing you various everyday objects as part of the lecture.”
The fact that the information is presented in an easily accessible way means that it will be easy to follow both for professionals and for people who are not yet quite so ‘techwise’. “The rapid rate at which technology has developed has made it abstract and put it out of reach for many people,” says Olga. “This complexity can mean they no longer feel involved and this can make technology seem increasingly alien to them. As a result, people may find it frightening or simply shut it out. In order to prevent this kind of alienation, we need to educate people. This creates a greater sense of involvement. We believe it is crucial that, at the very least, people are impressed by technology.”
Olga quotes the radio as an example. “When the radio was first launched this was the first time people had been able to communicate wirelessly with one another over long distances. All of a sudden it was possible for someone in Indonesia to hear what the queen was saying in the Netherlands. The amazement people felt back then made people appreciate the impact technology can have. The technology on which the radio is based is also relatively easy to explain. You could almost say that the radio connection back then was a bit like a wifi connection today. Further still: wifi would not have been possible without radio. By making comparisons like this we can make technology a lot more tangible and easier for people to understand.”
However, it is not just people who don’t know very much about technology that will learn a lot from these lectures. After the preliminary run of lectures it became clear that professionals were also amazed. “That was a real eye-opener for me,” explains Olga. “Various technology specialists came and told us that they had learned something new. It gave them a sort of helicopter view, a better insight into how things fit together within technology."
This insight probably emphasizes more than anything how important it is to know about the history of technology. Olga explains: “Nearly everything we do and everything around us has been made possible by technology. Take, for example, communication, transport, water management, or even food and drink. Everything has its roots in technology. It makes our lives easier and more efficient and we use it to find solutions to problems.”
Today there are still a lot of problems we need to solve. “We want to be able to cure diseases, improve the quality of our living environment, produce enough food to feed the entire world, and we also want a decent standard of living. Technology has a crucial role to play in this.”
Before you can find an effective solution to a problem you need to first analyze the problem carefully. Olga explains: “It starts with an analysis of the context. To do that you can look back at the near or the distant past. It may be necessary to look further back in time for one problem than for another, but the analysis is always linked to how society has dealt with things. The user, the environment and the technology form a three-way unit.”
A knowledge of history is therefore essential. “We have to keep learning in order to be able to shape our future. And if you want to learn, you are going to have to look back at history. A lot of solutions come from improving and following up on something that has already been decided in the past.”
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