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Book Review: Science for Welfare and Warfare: Technology and State Initiative in Cold War Sweden, ed. Per Lundin, Niklas Stenlås, and Johan Gribbe January 25, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
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The following book review appears in Economic History Review 65 (2012): 398–399.  © 2012 The Economic History Society.

Per Lundin, Niklas Stenlås, and Johan Gribbe, eds., Science for welfare and warfare: technology and state initiative in Cold War Sweden (Sagamore Beach, MA: Science History Publications, 2010. Pp. vi + 314. 3 figs. 26 illus. 6 plates. 1 tab. ISBN 9780881354256 Hbk. £60.95/$49.95)

In the 1950s a nation of seven million people possessed the world’s fourth-largest air force. This fact is a particularly remarkable manifestation of Sweden’s postwar status as a technological power disproportionate to its size. Given the importance ascribed to technology as means of improving nations’ competitiveness, the historical strategies of the Swedish state and industry should be of considerable interest. This volume provides a valuable service by presenting original research into some of these strategies. In doing so, it also builds on and references a substantial existing literature, much of which is only available in Swedish.

Some chapters focus on policy with only an indirect connection to technology development. Hans Jörgensen sketches a history of Swedish agricultural policies and the building up of expert organizations for implementing those policies. Carina Gråbacke and Jan Jörnmark review and critique the Swedish state’s housing subsidy and rent control policies. Stenlås traces the history of Sweden’s military-industrial complex. Per Högselius recounts the state’s evolving strategies to promote industry and innovation. The titular ‘science’ seems to be a tertiary concern. Most chapters outline the histories of particular institutions, technology development projects, and procurement and construction decisions. The book’s ‘glossary’ comprises a useful list of the English and Swedish names of key institutes, agencies, committees, and professional and advocacy organizations. Business history also features, including new work on the exclusive public–private partnerships that Mats Fridlund has termed ‘development pairs’. Many of the chapters structure their accounts with an eye toward elucidating larger intellectual and political contexts thought to have enabled the history at hand. Thomas Kaiserfeld’s organizational history of science and technology in Sweden suggests that a ‘fad for fashion’ (p. 57) caused the country to imitate other nations’ institutions rather than forge an independent path. Stenlås, meanwhile, argues Sweden was overcommitted to military independence, making its arms industry self-perpetuating. Sverker Sörlin and Nina Wormbs recount the history of Sweden’s rocket programme, first in the context of funding from the American military for rocket-based research, and later in the context of regional economic interest and participation in the European space programme.

There is an effort throughout the book, including in the editors’ introduction, to find analytical rubrics that might make sense of Sweden’s postwar technological history as a whole. Different programmes’ relationships to ‘warfare’ and ‘welfare’ are assessed, as is the inclusion of policies under an ideological umbrella of ‘modernity’ and ‘neutrality’. While all chapters are informative, analytical concerns sometimes divorce the subject matter from seemingly important questions. In his history of the building up of food preservation research, Gustav Holmberg is frustratingly evasive about actual problems and methods in food preservation. Ulla Rosén examines technical and economic schemes to alleviate housewives’ laundry burden, but leaves it unclear to what degree these schemes shaped or expedited the commercial impact on rapidly changing domestic experiences. The volume’s most informative studies carefully target their analyses. Kristoffer Strandqvist’s account of the strategic and circumstantial factors bearing upon the success of the Saab 29 Tunnan jet fighter explains how Saab overcame Sweden’s lack of jet expertise by capitalizing on British willingness to trade in jet engines. Maja Fjæstad and Thomas Jonter chart the course of Sweden’s nuclear reactor development programme alongside the arc of its desire to preserve its option to develop nuclear weapons, and the growing willingness of the US to sell nuclear reactors and fuel. Tom Petersson gives a fruitful juxtaposition of Datasaab’s close relationship with the Swedish state with office equipment manufacturer Facit’s attempt to compete in the international digital computer market.

The best questions posed in this volume forgo extended engagement with unsurprising or even misleading contexts, such as Sweden’s commitment to militarism. Strandqvist explicitly chafes at a ‘neutralism’ preoccupying Swedish historiography, which he compares to the rubric of ‘decline’ that once constrained the historiography of twentieth-century Britain (p. 107). Productive questions instead address the deeper choices facing the Swedish state and industry: to what extent its military and military industry should be autonomous, in what areas it could rely on trade with other countries, by what means the state should support domestic industry, how the state should foster domestic technical expertise, and by what means the state could best improve the lot of its citizens. Answering these sorts of questions helps establish independent periodizations for different policies and projects, while avoiding the possibly specious assumption that technology history can be structured primarily by reference to shifts in political rhetoric. However, without any evaluation of the scale of sectors within the national economy, and quantitative comparisons between policy alternatives as well as between Sweden and other nations, it remains difficult to gauge how the government, the military, commercial firms, and other institutions chose between options and constructed budgets. Economic historians will be disappointed by this volume’s dearth of numbers, but should consider it a crucial resource nevertheless.

William Thomas

Imperial College London


1. William Burns - January 27, 2012

Interesting post, again. Have you seen the Swedish feature film ‘Kitchen Stories’ about post-war efforts to modernize/rationalize housework? Its quite funny but also rather insightful and touching. (See: http://www.amazon.com/Kitchen-Original-Norwegian-Subtitles-kj%C3%B8kkenet/dp/B000639N3Q)
This book looks like it fits that film’s story into a wider framework(!)
I think I have the DVD lying around if you haven’t seen it and want to borrow it.
Best wishes, William

2. Will Thomas - January 28, 2012

William, very interesting! — actually, the Home Research Institute, which is evidently the subject of the film, is in fact featured in Rosén’s piece on laundry. It’d be interesting to know how iconic this sort of research is/was, and what the scale of its effects was.

So, yes, the book very much would provide some context on that. If you have the DVD, I’d be interested to have a look next time we meet up.

3. Gustav - February 15, 2012

William: yes, the Home Research Institute fits into a wider framework involving public health efforts and attempts to rationalize the lives of Swedes at the time. Home economics meets national economics, as it were.

An important policy mechanism in this was the large ‘Malm’ committee, which, among other things, proposed ways to rationalize and modernise the food sector through various combinations of state and private sector actors.

4. Will Thomas - February 15, 2012

Thanks, Gustav! By the way, do you have any expanded treatment of your work on food preservation published or forthcoming? I had a resurgence of older projects I needed to attend to since I last posted about the subject here, but I’m starting to get back into UK state food and agricultural expertise now, and am most interested in international comparisons.

5. Gustav Holmberg - February 27, 2012


Not published, but I will be able to spend some time this summer and autumn on the subject. I am interested in exploring expertise at the industrial laboratories in the major food processing and conservation companies in Sweden and charting the connections between them and the Swedish institute for food preservation research (SIK), led by Georg Borgström.

I am also most definitely interested in international comparisons – let’s stay in touch!

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