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Expertise lost: an early case of technology assessment
An Early Case of Technology Assessment
Social Studies of Science, 24 (1), 1994, 96-104
In his beautiful book on the Eisenbahnreise
, Wolfgang Schivelbusch mentions the expertise of a
Königlich Bayrisches Obermedizinalkollegium
on the health hazards of railway travhis exper-
tise has played a certain role in the history of the railway and of technology more general. In this
Note, I want to place it squarely in the yet-to-be-written history of technology assessment (TA).
The Royal Bavarian medical expert report on the railways has been reproduced in various collec-
context of ridiculing southern German particularism, was none other then the great Prussian scholar
What did this early impact assessment claim and what was its impact?
The study's central claim, sometime around 1835, was that the railway is dangerous for your health
"Locomotion with the help of any kind of steam engines should, in the interest of public health, be prohibited. The rapid movements cannot fail to produce in the passengers mental unrest, i.e. 'delirium furiosum'. Even conceded that travellers voluntarily undergo this danger, the state must at least protect the onlookers, since the view of a locomotive, which races along in full speed, suffices to elicit this terrible sickness. It is therefore paramount that on both sides of the rails a
fence is raised of at least six feet height."
Paper written for the fifteenth anniversary of the FAST Programme, Commission of the European Community, Brussels, pre-print-version 1 Wolfgang
Geschichte der Eisenbahnreise
(München: Hanser, 1977), 198.
2 See, for example, Werner Pöls (Hg.) Deutsche Sozialgeschichte 1815-1970
, Bd. 1 (München: C. H. Beck,
1979); Wilhelm Treue and Karl H. Manegold, Quellen zur Geschichte der industriellen Revolution
(Göttin-gen: Muster-Schmidt, 1966); F. K: A. Schulze, Die ersten Deutschen Eisenbahnen Nürnberg-Fürth und Leipzig-Dresden
(Leipzig: Voigtländers Quellenbücher Bd. I, 1st edn 1912, 2nd edn 1917).
3 For example, see G. Koch and H. Hoffmann, 'Geschichte der Verkehrsmedizin für den Verkehr mit Land-
fahrzeugen von den Anfängen bis zum Ende des 2. Weltkriegs', Zentralblatt für Verkehrsmedizin
, Vol. 15 (1969), 129-59, 193-225.
4 Heinrich von Treitschke, 'Unsere Aussichten', Preussische Jahrbücher
, Vol. 44 (1889), 559-760; here. 582ff. 5 Quoted from R. P. Sieferle, Fortschrittsfeinde? Opposition gegen Technik und Industrie von der Romantik
bis zur Gegenwart
(München: C. H. Beck, 1984), 88, who quotes after Pöls, op. cit. note 2, 371, who cites
took, in other words, a deeply sceptical view and advised whoever
asked for their counsel to stop the infernal innovation of railways in the best interest of the public. A
principled stand. But a kind of 'consenting adults' principle was allowed for too. In order to resolve
the certain tension between the principles, the expertise suggests measures to protect the then major-
ity of passive onlookers by fencing in, and thus 'blackboxing' the inevitable. And that is indeed what
happened if not always with fences six feet high, then by other insurmountable measures. What did
not happen was the predicted 'delirium furiosum' from the early Trains à Grande Vitesse (TGVs), al-
though of course a great number of sicknesses whose outbreak happened to coincide with travelling
the railway were attributed to this technology
So far so good. One might say that nothing much has changed in TA's rhetoric since the early
days. But there is more to it, in terms of understanding the art, science, and politics of TA to this day,
In Search of an Expertise
As early as 1920, the historian Feldhaus expressed doubts about the authenticity of the said exper-
tise.reat number of researches were undertaken in order to locate the study in the Ba-
varian archives, alas to no avail. The document was never found and the Nuremberg Archive of
Transport finally decided, as reported by Sieferleer existed. But can we be satisfied with
that? No, we can not because this early case of TA has, if we trouble to analyze it more carefully, too
much in common with other cases of vanishing evidence provided by partial or impartial experts
(which cases I will refrain from naming here).
Let us begin by identifying the 'system actors' (meaning major interested parties). In this case: the
TA professional, the historian of technology, and the new sociologist of technology. And let us hear
Generations of historians, both professional and amateur, followed von Treitschke, citing his citation
of the ominous source. A well-known amateur, for instance, remarked:
Schulze, op. cit. note 2, 24, who does not give a source. All historical sources quoted here are from Sieferle, op. cit.
6 See Koch & Hoffmann, op. cit. note 3, for data on such things as the 'railway-spine', the 'railway-brain', 'pa-
ralysis of the nervus facialis' from chasing a train and so on.
7 Franz M. Feldhaus, Der Laie als Erfinder. Eine soziale Skizze
(Berlin, 1920) 8 See, for example, C. Nörrenberg, 'Die Sage vom delirium furiosum - eine Sage', Jan Wellem
, Vol. 5 (1930);
M. Beckh, Deutschlands erste Eisenbahn Nürnberg-Fürth
(Nürnberg: 1935);W. K. Mück, Deutschlands er-ste Eisenbahn mit Dampfkraft: Die kgl.priv. Ludwigsbahn zwischen Nürnberg und Fürth
(Fürth:, 1968); Sie-ferle, op. cit. note 5.
"All the anxieties of the eminent agencies of that time did not, as is well known, come true later: the travellers in the trains of the new 'steam horses' did not get vertigo, the onlookers did not be-come sick, and the wooden fences which were to make the new installations invisible, were abandoned - only the wooden fences blocking the foreheads of all these 'Experts' have still re-
But many entirely respectable historians have made use of this expertise, mostly in a context of show-
ing that early fears of technology turn out to be unwarranted once the technology comes to be mas-
In all these cases the authority of the argument was established by quoting a historical document
as quoted by preceding, presumably more authoritative historians. Truth lies in sources. And the
proof of a source is its credible citation. And the strength of a proof increases with the number of al-
lies an author can recruit into his, or her, citation cartel.
Other historians concluded from the absence of an original source that it never existed. The logic
is the same here: factual truth lies in the source. No source, no facts. And since the study does not ex-
ist, its alleged evidence can be discounted.
Of course it is not that simple. There must be other corroboration, and there was. First of all, the
expertise survived in the literature in two slightly differently worded versions.
hypothesis that the expertise might have been written in Latin and has survived in tow different trans-
lations. Sieferle pursues this trail but finds that at the time medical opinions were not written in Latin
anymore. He allows himself the footnote speculation, however, that 'one could presume vaguely that
this 'expertise' was invented in France or so and affected to be Bavarian. Sometime in the 19th cen-
tury it was then believed to the authentic and translated into German. But there are no concrete indi-
In the end, Sieferle, and presumably most historians of technology nowadays, tend to follow an-
other source, namely the 1985 Festschrift
in celebration of the Bavarian railway anniversary where
indeed initial warnings against health risks are recalled, coming, however, not from a Obermedizi-
but from a 'second class healer', a barber raging against the railway: 'He was of the opin-
ion that the steam and the speed would cause illnesses: even people who did not travel but only saw
the train pass by could be caught by vertigo'.ere may have been a source, but if there was, it was
not reputable, and being not reputable accounts for the dubiousness of the opinion.
A sophisticated way out: the rhetoric of truth/source/quote is preserved effacing the source, mak-
ing it into a non-source. The non-source's factual claims can safely be put aside, not so much because
10 Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf
(München: 1st edn 1925), 233. 11 For the politics of scientific truth see especially Latour, for example, Bruno Latour, 'The Politics of Explana-
tion', in Steve Woolgar (ed.), Knowledge and Reflexivity
(London: 1988), 155-77 and idem, Les Microbes, Paix et Guerre
12 The second version is quoted in Treue and Manegold, op. cit. note 2, 84, for example, who quote W. Strauß,
Einst und jetzt auf Stephensons Spur
13 Hagen, Die erste Deutsche Eisenbahn mit Dampfbetrieb zwischen Nürnberg und Fürth. Ein Beitrag zur Kul-
turgeschichte des 19. Jahrhunderts
retrospectively they turned out to be so much non-sense (that too) but because they never were prop-
erly conceived and documented, and published.
The TA Expert
In the historical disciplines, the custom for every historian is then to quote other, preferably more
highly reputed ones, and that is that. And that is why the story could gather credibility over the dec-
ades by a string of citations into which very potent members of the profession were recruited and thus
contributed to the strength of the case. The matter was blackboxed and could be referred to like the
date of the year - until it became untenable when some young Turk historian cracked open the box.
For the professional TA man (rarely a woman) things are a great deal trickier. He takes his clue
from Hitler who, affirming the existence of the expertise and making sly use of established historical
truth, proceeds to deride the experts. Sneering at expert competence and, yes, the dignity of impartial
knowledge is a favourite strategy of those in power whenever expert advice is not welcome or an ex-
perts' private political stance is considered the wrong one.
For any seasoned TA professional it is more than obvious that the alleged expertise never existed
as such; but that it was a fabrication, faked by some party who was out to ruin the still young and vul-
nerable business of TA. The pretentious, pseudo-medical style ('delirium furiosum', put between quo-
tation marks at that), the crude 'have your cake and eat it too' style of political advice, the call for
enormous public expenditures and other features of the concoction all too obviously betray the inten-
tion to jeopardise TA's claim to play a role in the exploitation of technical achievements.
It cannot be denied that with few exceptions the historical profession has lent support to all this,
not only by authenticating the fake from one decade to the next but by insidiously deriding the injec-
tion of competent know-how other than that coming under the concept of 'learning from history', a no-
tion that notoriously must fail in the face of technical innovation and social prog
TA is not about analogies to historical precedents established by 20/20 hindsight, as practised by
historians. TA is responsibly prospective, or rather prospectively responsible. Since its beginnings,
TA has developed a set of techniques for enabling decision-makers to base their choices on sound
empirical analysis and prognosis, paired with accumulated, if tacit, professional expertise and hands-
on know-how. If TA experts are sometimes said to be the means by which expert reports generate
more expert reports, this must be seen as yet another move to discredit TA's contribution to the oiling
of the common wheel, to coin a socio-technical metaphor. Had it not been for attacks on the profes-
sion's integrity as already exemplified by the fake railway expertise of 1835, TA would not be com-
pelled to resort to extensive, sometimes, it cannot be denied, over-extensive reporting. It is important
to understand that TA's most accomplished practitioners prefer to communicate by way of privileged
14 This is of course a professional deformation not restricted to historians of technology. See, for example, R.
Neustadt and E. May, Thinking in Time: the Uses of History for Decision Makers
15 For variants of TA rhetoric see for instance contributions in Meinolf Dierkes, Thomas Petermann and Volker
von Thienen (eds.), Technik und Parlament
(Berlin: edition sigma, 1986).
counsel rather than published report. How else could factual accuracy, social responsibility and a cli-
The New Sociologist of Technology
Enters the sociologist of the new school. She (or he) requires us, first of all, to proceed symmetri-
callyThis means two things: to assume the same likelihood for health hazards as for the health
benefits of railway travele equal likelihood for the existence of the expertise and for
A word for the non-initiated must be added here. The new sociologist of technology cultivates
mostly post-modern sensibilities. This means that she generally celebrates 'aporia' - ambiguity, anar-
chy, contradiction, difference, discontinuity, discord, disparity, indeterminacy, irony, paradox, per-
versity, obscurity, opacity, in a word: chaos.he new sociologist will therefore seek out the odds,
the chance aspects, the manifold contingencies and, even more to the point, coincidences of the case.
It is important to note, however, that many new sociologists do not strictly adhere to the symme-
try principle or, as we may now call it, the principle of double coincidence. They often privilege that
horn of a dilemma which tends to be effaced by mainstream science and politics. For the present case
that means to pay special attention to the possibilities that indeed railway travel may cause brain
damage or other pests and that a genuine expertise did indeed exist.
Methodologically the new sociologist of technology is a hermeneut. A hermeneut proceeds on
the assumption that 'Wo Rauch ist, ist auch Feuer'
(where there is smoke there is fire too). In other
words, the basic hermeneutic suspicione that an original technology assessment
of the risks of railway travel did once exist and that the fake (if one can, as a new sociologist, apply
the concept of 'fakes' at all) lies in its attribution by modern historians to a figaro style quack. I would
even go further here: the fact that the expertise could not be found until today proves (if one can use
the concept of 'proof' as a new sociologist) that it really existed (to the extent that the concept of 'real-
The question arises why the expertise was suppressed. Here the new sociologist starts talking
with the TA expert. She is much taken with the latter's hunch that the expertise must not have been in
the interest of those who paid for it and that for this reason it never was properly archived. By the
16 See also Bernward Joerges, 'Romancing the Machine', International Studies of Management & Organization
17 For a general notion of symmetry in science and technology research see the relevant contributions in Andrew
Pickering (ed.) Science as Practice and Culture (Chicago, IL:The University of Chicago Press, 1993).
18 Why not, indeed, a 'railway cure' for the victims of other forms of locomotion. 19 I have taken this by no means exhaustive list (and alphabetised it myself) from Gertrude Himmelfarb's coura-
geous attack on post-modern history 'Telling it as you like it' in Times Literary Supplement
No. 4672 (1992), 15.
20 For a theoretical treatment see Umberto Eco, The Limits of Interpretation
(Bloomington, IN:, 1990), but also,
for a more narrative exposition, idem, Foucault's Pendulum
same token, the search should, according to this interpretation, be reopened, focusing on old table
It is entirely possible, however, knowing certain academic practises that have survived to this day
in Bavaria, that the expertise has indeed been discovered by some doctoral student in the history of
technology but was effaced for the second time, as it were, under the pressure of a Doktorvater who
above all wanted to preserve the reputation of his discipline. In which case the chase might as well be
called off because the expertise will probably have ended up in the shredder of some Bavarian ar-
As to the issue of health risks, the new sociologist for once can rub shoulders with the men from
TA. It is hard to dispute, and a matter of historical record, that railway travel has caused tremendous
anxiety and damage in terms of health and livrue, early calls to 'reduce risk (Wagniß
)' in rail-
ways 'under all life circumstances to a minimum' in a Europe where 'general security' reigns have in
the long run led to noteworthy improvements and deriskification of that particular technology. But
this could not have happened without the antecedent health threat and, by the same token, early (and
probably relatively cheap) TA studies. So right from the beginning, TA was less about the impacts of
technology then the impacts on technology.
A future for TA
TA has come a long way. Its early, and as the case of the lost expertise shows, risky analyses of tech-
nological and environmental hazards, have developed into an art, a science, and a politics. Attempts
to undermine its moral and intellectual integrity largely belong to the past (although one must always
keep a vigilant eye on the historians). But there is room for improvement.
The future (think of business in the next century) needs a poetics of TA. This means above all a
healthy dose of irony and self-reflection. TA's general tendency to mimic scientific objectiveness
looks by now a bit dated, to say the least. In order to bring TA safely into the next century, it would
help, if its practitioners and ideologues realised that it is not only post-modern historians and new so-
ciologists of science, but old-European historians and TA experts as well who 'tell the story as they
like it', as Professor Himmelfarb so succinctly put it.
There can be little doubt today that conventional expertise in matters of technical progress has
become somewhat obsolete. The scientistic convictions and rhetoric of TA have become shaky, and
in this far more fundamental sense, the profession may rapidly be losing its expertise. It is time to un-
derstand that the most valuable expertise at the end of the millennium (and one which will in time
find its lucrative markets, too) is a particular competence: to be able to demonstrate in non-aggressive
21 For the terrible accidents and loss of life see especially Max M. von Weber, Die Technik des Eisenbahnbe-
triebs in bezug auf die Sicherheit desselben
(Leipzig, 1854); for an early assessment of environmental dam-age see R. Hasenclever, 'Über die Beschädigung der Vegetation durch saure Gase', Chemische Industrie
, Vol. 2 (1879), 225-31, 275-80.
ways that, in any given case, the versions of reality advanced by its interested parties are, as they say,
'socially constructed'. In TA terms this means: they are negotiable.
Methodologically, the practise of constructionist TA (CTA) hinges on the strict observance of
the aforementioned principle of double coincidence (PDC).
M. Beckh, 1935, Deutschlands erste Eisenbahn Nürnberg-Fürth.
Alfons Bora and Rainer Döbert, 'Konkurrierende Rationalitäten: Politischer und technisch-
wissenschaftlicher Diskurs im Rahmen einer Technikfolgenabschätzung von gentechnisch er-
zeugter Herbizidresistenz in Kulturpflanzen', Soziale Welt
, Vol. 44, No. 1 (1993), 75-97.
Meinolf Dierkes, Thomas Petermann and Volker von Thienen (eds), Technik und Parlament
Umberto Eco, The Limits of Interpretation
Franz M. Feldhaus, Der Laie als Erfinder. Eine soziale Skizze
R. Hagen, Die erste Deutsche Eisenbahn mit Dampfbetrieb zwischen Nürnberg und Fürth. Ein Bei-
trag zur Kulturgeschichte des 19. Jahrhunderts
R. Hasenclever, 'Über die Beschädigung der Vegetation durch saure Gase', Chemische Industrie
Gertrude Himmelfarb, 'Telling it as you like it', Times Literary Supplement
, No. 4672 (1993), 14-16.
Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf
(München: 1st edn 1925, 33rd edn 1933).
Bernward Joerges, 'Romancing the Machine', International Studies of Management & Organization
G. Koch and H. Hoffmann, 'Geschichte der Verkehrsmedizin für den Verkehr mit Landfahrzeugen
von den Anfängen bis zum Ende des 2. Weltkriegs', Zentralblatt für Verkehrsmedizin
, Vol. 15
Bruno Latour, 'The Politics of Explanation', in Steve Woolgar (ed.), Knowledge and Reflexivity
Bruno Latour, Les Microbes, Paix et Guerre
W.K. Mück, Deutschlands erste Eisenbahn mit Dampfkraft. Die kgl. priv. Ludwigsbahn zwischen
Nürnberg und Fürth
Andrew Pickering (ed.), Science as Practice and Culture
(Chicago: The University of Chicago Press,
Werner Pöls (Hg.), Deutsche Sozialgeschichte 1815-1970
, Bd. 1 (München: C. H. Beck, 1979).
R. Neustadt and E. May, Thinking in Time: the Uses of History for Decision Makers
23 German TA researchers, holding fast (!) to a realist view of things, prefer to talk about "competing rationali-
ties"; cf. Alfons Bora and Rainer Döbert, 'Konkurrierende Rationalitäten: Politischer und technisch-wissenschaftlicher Diskurs im Rahmen einer Technikfolgenabschätzung von gentechnisch erzeugter Her-bizidresistenz in Kulturpflanzen', Soziale Welt
, Vol. 44, No. 1 (1993), 75-97.
C. Nörrenberg, 'Die Sage vom delirium furiosum - eine Sage', Jan Wellem
, Vol. 5, (1930), 150.
Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Geschichte der Eisenbahnreise
(München: Hanser, 1977).
F.K.A. Schulze, (Hg.), Die ersten Deutschen Eisenbahnen Nürnberg-Fürth und Leipzig-Dresden
(Leipzig: Voigtländers Quellenbücher Bd. I,1st edn 1912, 2nd edn 1917).
Rolf P. Sieferle, Fortschrittsfeinde? Opposition gegen Technik und Industrie von der Romantik bis
(München: C.H. Beck, 1984).
W. Strauß, Einst und jetzt auf Stephensons Spur
Heinrich von Treitschke, 'Unsere Aussichten', Preussische. Jahrbücher
No. 44 (1879), 559-76.
Wilhelm Treue and Karl H. Manegold, Quellen zur Geschichte der industriellen Revolution
Max M. von Weber, Die Technik des Eisenbahnbetriebs in bezug auf die Sicherheit desselben
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