Kranzberg Lecture by Robert Bud

Conceptual history, branding and technology as part of the public sphere

Robert Bud is Research Keeper at the Science Museum in London. As well as major permanent exhibits, he has been responsible for developing websites interpreting large collections, “Ingenious”, “Making the Modern World” and “Brought to Life” and acted as an advisor for the site, “Inventing Europe” of the Tensions of Europe network of which he was a founding member. He is a past winner of the Bunge Prize awarded by the German Chemical and Physical Societies, and the holder of the Sarton Medal and Sarton Professorship at the University of Ghent.   Holder of a doctorate in the History and Sociology of Science from the University of Pennsylvania, he has published extensively on the histories of applied science, chemistry, and biotechnology, including his books The Uses of Life: A History of Biotechnology (1993) and Penicillin: Triumph and Tragedy (2007).  His current research is on the history of the concept of “applied science” in the public sphere, over two centuries and he is also part of the international HoNESt project, which seeks to understand the changing engagement of societies with nuclear energy, and how the nuclear energy sector has engaged with societies.

Abstract: This paper reflects on the consequences for our discipline of taking seriously a large audience of citizens experienced in interpreting and worrying about rich technological brands, as an audience for our research and writing. Such an historiography requires us to focus on the fluid cultural categories of the public sphere as legacies of the past, to bear in mind the lessons of conceptual history and to follow its emphasis on the cumulation of meanings. To illustrate the implications, the presentation reflects on the meaning of the concept of “technology” itself in England. Such meanings of course need not be merely practical. They can serve too as measures of time. And indeed technology, more than any other outcome of human culture, has been used to calibrate the metronome of progress. Drawing on the presentation of technology in museums early in the twentieth century the paper reflects on how research on the history of technology can better inform talk about technology.