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The 20th-Century Problem: Gowing and “Big” History December 14, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in 20th-Century-Science Historiography, Operations Research.
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Gowing, MargaretA rare but exciting event in researching the history of 20th-century science is when one finds other historians as historical actors.  In researching World War II and operations research, Henry Guerlac has turned up as the official historian of the MIT Rad Lab.  More surprising, Martin Klein, who just passed away this year, served in the U. S. Navy’s Operations Research Group when he was a physics grad student.  I also found that eminent British historian of science, Margaret Gowing—best known for her work on the British nuclear program—was an early contributor to the Operational Research Quarterly (now Journal of the OR Society) back when it was essentially a newsletter publicizing non-R&D modernization strategies and techniques in state and industrial work.

“Historical Writing: Some Problems of Material Selection,” OR Quarterly 4 (1953): 35-36 briefly discusses Gowing’s experience as an official war historian in the employ of the War Cabinet.  I don’t think any reference to this article will make it into my book on the subject, so I thought I would share it as part of this post series, to which it is well-suited.  For Gowing, facing up to what I am calling the “20th-century problem” required a distinctly 20th-century historiography.

Reading her article is like reading about the practice of history in an alternate universe, wherein historians’ self-conception, methods of work, and professional alliances are bizarrely different, much like that episode of Star Trek where Mr. Spock was evil and had a goatee.  Exhibit A, the first two sentences: “In 1942 the War Cabinet decided that the social, economic and administrative experience of the war should be submitted to scientific study. A team of independent and professional historians and economists under Professor (now Sir Keith) Hancock, undertook the task and all of them were given free access to official documents.”  “Scientific study”?  “Team”?  “Economists”?

Gowing goes on to discuss the mammoth chore to be confronted.  The Board of Trade alone had some 12,000,000 files requiring sixteen miles of shelving.  To tackle this problem to produce the multi-volume official histories, historians had to divvy up the work by subject-matter—“food policy, raw materials control and shipping, war production,” and so forth.  Gowing noted, “Teamwork is a commonplace of research in the physical sciences, but its systematic use for historical research is something new and something destined to grow.”  Historians also had direct access to the people they were writing about as they did their work, and thus historians “could draw on their own memories when they came to write.”  They also had access to actors to answer questions and “supply helpful comments on drafts”.

Despite free access historians were granted to documents, files were not always up to snuff, but, importantly, they understood how the filing system worked and why it was organized the way it was: “With the war-time multiplication and pressure of Government business and the employment of inexperienced staff, standards of filing fell sharply.  The names of files often bore little relation to their contents, and many important papers were not filed but were kept in private drawers.”

The close knowledge historians had of subject matter allowed them to address extremely specific questions, often without the ideal aid of files or actors’ clear memories.  For example, the historians sought explanations for sharp, unplanned drops in clothes rations around the end of the war, but were forced to play their own hunches and assemble evidence to support it.  This sort of detective work was not too different from wartime OR, and it’s easy to see how Gowing and the postwar British OR crowd crossed paths.

To me, Gowing’s article is a reminder of the kinds of historiography that, today, we would simply not be capable of carrying out, even if we wanted to do so.  It is now customary to speak of history in the 1950s as a sort of medieval netherworld of old-fashioned intellectual and political history wherein the sort of work Gowing and co. were doing was sneered at by academics as “current events” rather than history.  Yet, we now seem to wish vainly for more public relevance.

It is clear that in the postwar British environment, there was a real feeling—though not of course in every corner—that professional history could be integrated with other professions to clarify state work by asking pointed questions and presenting usable and timely answers.  Teams of historians working in regular contact with each other, with not just archivists but the people responsible for maintaining files, and with the people about whom they wrote were capable of performing this task.  The questions may seem unsexy, but there is a palpable sense of excitement in what Gowing did because it was relevant.  This is a style and function of work that has clearly been more-or-less abdicated to others in the intervening decades.  Gowing’s team-based historiography was not the wave of our future.

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