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The Engineer

The Life and Times of Donald F. Simmons

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Amsterdam - Part II

The Society for the History of Technology Conference took up my first 3 days in Amsterdam. The conference hotel was only 10 minutes walk from mine, and almost all of it through a pedestrian mall (Amsterdam is laid out for people walking).

Thursday was the opening wine and snack reception (they believe in meat at these things in Europe) and the opening address by the president of SHOT. Most of his talk went rather over my head, as it was primarily concerned with historical theory that I don't know anything about. I did catch that he thinks (and has apparently written a great deal about) that the field is still being defined, and there is too little work being done on agriculture and too much on space rockets.

Friday started the presentations, which were organized thusly: a session,
which lasted 1.5 to 2 hours would have a theme, and three or four papers
addressing that theme would be presented, each about 20 minutes long. A
commentator would offer a critique of the papers, and we'd have a Q&A. There was two coffee breaks a day (free!), with all the (good!) coffee you could handle, and pastries as well. And they even provided a computer to check your email.

As an engineer, I was most interested in the papers on the history of gadgets, although I was surprised with the number of non-gadget theory papers that I found interesting. My favorite was presented by a fellow Canadian, and was on the history of the nuclear-powered artificial heart. You read that one right, they were researched back in the late 70s. The idea was to have a completely self-contained system that would run for years (for maximum quality-of-life) and a nuclear power source was the only thing that could last that long. The power source would be implanted in the abdomen, be connected to the heart by a cable, and would use between 50 and 100 grams of plutonium as a heat source to drive a small heat engine. As you might assume, it never got near human testing (although they did implant one in a cow that lasted about a day) due to concerns about radiation exposure to family members and the public (the patient almost doesn't count, because you only got an artificial heart if you were on the verge of death anyway, so what's a little radiation?).

At one of the receptions, I looked up the author to tell her how much I liked
the paper. As soon as I mentioned I was an engineer, she was all over me
(figuratively speaking), as she was a historian, and wanted some feedback from a technical person about her presentation. She's working on a book on the history of medical implants I'll have to keep an eye out for.

The agriculture line from the president was echoed to me later by a woman I was talking to who was presenting a paper in the only agriculture session of the conference, on the history of milking machines, and why they took nearly a hundred years to become widely used in a field that involved lots of hard manual labor (problems with keeping them clean enough to prevent
transmission of infections from cow to cow, a huge problem, was the biggest one).

Saturday night was the awards dinner and the dance. The dinner was quite good (salmon, a mushroom the size of your fist, veal) and one of the awards, for the best paper by a first time presenter (presented last year) was won by a friend of owlfish. They had a live band for the dance, all female except for the keyboardist, who were pretty good. Apparently it's rare to have a dance at the SHOT conference, but they got so much good feedback from it there's a movement to have one every year.

There were something like 250 people attending, which is on the low side
compared to a conference held in North America, but just over half the people attending were European, a much higher percentage than usual. For one thing, they were a lot less knocked out of wack by the time change. This guy from Stockholm I met was even in the identical time zone for home. It didn't look like many people were using the conference hotel though, at 180 Euros a night I didn't blame them. Most people I met were staying in hostels or grad student housing (sometimes in the next town over, and they were commuting by train each day).

I had a lot of fun there, met some people, and learned a bunch of stuff. Next year in Minneapolis, which will certainly be a lot cheaper to get to.