Energy History Project

Joint Center for History
and Economics

Harvard University Center
for the Environment



Marian Aguiar
Technology, Culture and India's Decolonization

In India's late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, the train became a focal point for two groups of nationalists. Indian and British writers narrated the history of the Indian railway as a way to voice the political economic critique of underdevelopment known as the "drain theory." A second group that included Swami Vivekananda, Aurobindo Ghosh, and Mohandas Gandhi moved away from the pro-industrialization politics of their forerunners to radically question technology as a way of being. These spiritual leaders represented empire as a machine that was dangerous because it begat a culturally alien way of being that was mechanistic and thus devoid of moral truth. This paper interprets the political and creative writings of these nationalists to reveal important historical counter narratives of modernity, rooted in revolution and religion but articulated through a discussion about technology


Jakobina Arch
Facing the Stormy Pacific: Shipwrecks, Castaways and the Boundaries of Early Modern Japan

Residents of coastal Japan, particularly those who work on the water, have historically contended with regular storms and typhoons with the potential to wreck single boats as well as the larger events which could sweep away whole fleets. During the Tokugawa period, when shipping was supposed to be constrained to nearshore waters, such storms reshaped the boundaries of Japan by wrecking ships and carrying them long distances. While the government may have tried to keep sailors and fishermen close to the shore, this attempt at restricting movement paradoxically led to the use of large coastal traders which tended to lose steerage in winter storms and drift very far out to sea, beyond the control of the shogunate. Even if local fishermen and sailors intended to stay close to shore, the strong possibility of storms that could damage their ships and bring them far beyond the limits of their known waters made the farthest boundary of "nearshore" waters potentially quite distant and porous. Furthermore, storms brought in castaway sailors from outside of Japan and forced contact with other places that shared the larger maritime space of the Pacific. This paper looks at the experiences of select castaways and shipwrecks in early modern Japan, both Japanese and foreign. By exploring the ways frequent storms moved people away from and into the waters near Japan, we can see how such climatic forces problematized attempts to define the outer boundaries of Japanese territory.


Tarini Bedi
Motoring, Materiality, and Policing Mobility in Bombay/Mumbai's Taxi Trade

This paper traces the history of Bombay/Mumbai's taxi trade from the early-twentieth century to the contemporary period. Using archival and ethnographic data, it argues that for over a century, the growth and development of the city's taxi trade has intersected with discursive registers of decay and obsolescence deployed materially through colonial, postcolonial, and now neoliberal strategies of governance, policing, licensing and permitting. The taxi trade has been one of the most highly regulated domains of urban life in Bombay. Therefore, it is a particularly useful site through which to explore the histories of state control and the different temporalities of movement and regulation in the Indian city over the last century. However, the paper argues that while state discourses of obsolescence and decay have been expressed through amplified practices of regulation of the mobility of the taxi and the taxi driver, these have also been accompanied by various forms of counter-narratives and counter practices. The paper looks at these embodied counter-narratives, through theories of repair, maintenance, and tinkering. It argues that these have produced various forms of material innovation and improvisation for the taxi trade and have been vital in shaping the life of taxi transport in Bombay/Mumbai through the twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries. These embodied practices have also shaped the motoring experience and the political and social life of the taxi driver and serve to counter the state's dominant discourse of decay and obsolescence.


Sakura Christmas
Lines in the Sky: Aerial Territoriality, Mobility, and Photography in Inner Asia

From the 1930s, Japanese developments in the aerial realm evidence the increasing integration of photographic technology with geographic understandings of Inner Asia. The expansion of Japanese flight paths across the continent, most notably through Manchukuo National Airlines, demonstrates the scope of surveillance from the sky during the occupation. The land below became a highly abstracted milieu, which allowed for the delineation of space in new calculative regimes. The MNA photography bureau, in particular, led the industry in turning out aerial assemblages and quantifying the terrain pictured in them. Through these images, state planners could stage large-scale environmental interventions from extending rail lines to standardizing land registers to building gravity dams. For the ecologist Imanishi Kinji, who worked with the MNA photography bureau during his scientific expeditions to the Mongolian territories, these images helped inspire a new theory of cooperative evolution between land and nomad. This "cartographic way of thinking," as derived from aerial photographs, blended speed into scale, revealing the origin and course of hunters and herders across mountain and steppe. Ultimately, the view from above was no longer an imagined perspective, but a documented experience, producing some of the most powerful social relations of sight and knowledge for the Japanese empire to date.


Chihyung Jeon
Dams and Bikes: The Four Rivers Bikeway and Contested Mobilities in South Korea

The bicycle and the bikeway usually stand for environment-friendly forms of mobility, especially in urban settings, as bike riders fight for their space and right against unyielding, industrial forms of transportation. Recently in South Korea, that association was a little twisted as the government constructed a national network of bicycle roads along the country's four major rivers. It was part of the Four Rivers Restoration Project, which included serious dredging work and the construction of many weirs and dams. While environmentalists and citizen groups protested what they considered as an "environmental catastrophe" on the rivers, the cycling community were excited to be able to "traverse the national land" on bicycles. The rivers stopped flowing, the critics would claim, while the bicycles were running smoothly. How does the government promote a particular mode of bicycle mobility with the Four Rivers Bikeway while suppressing other kinds of mobility? What forms of landscape, desire, and politics do bicycle riders experience as they traverse the country along the rivers that have been ruthlessly under construction? In this paper, I examine how this new kind of bicycle mobility reflected and shaped the Korean bicycle riders' ideas of environment, national land, politics, and a kind of "cycling citizenship." The Four Rivers Bikeway effectively masked, or drew attention away from, the environmental politics of the Four Rivers Restoration Project in public discussion. The bicycle and the bikeway were depoliticized into leisure rather than livelihood, which in turn lent a political support for the contested engineering project.


Elisabeth Köll
Chinese Railroads as Economic and Social Infrastructure during Wartime

When the Japanese occupation started in 1937, railroads became an important means to evacuate Chinese refugees from the occupied or soon-to-be occupied areas into the free provinces in the interior and the south. At the same time, railroads were necessary to keep especially the urban economies going and to secure the supply lines of the Japanese occupation forces. This paper explores how railroad lines in northern China adapted to the war situation in terms of their line operation, physical presence, and workforce management to the challenges of war and occupation. Apart from an institutional approach to crisis management, my analysis also investigates the change in economic flows in the new areas created by artificial spatial organization along transportation corridors and military/political demarcation lines in wartime China. I argue that many of the new economic channels and methods of exchange were part of wartime crisis management with transportation corridors developing into economic lifelines that created new hubs for exchange between regions in the form of railroad stations and river crossings. Of course, these new economic frontiers shifted according to the trajectory of military campaigns but also continued to create new business opportunities, especially for small-time currency traders and commodity smugglers.


Trent Maxey
Constructing Automobility in Modern Japan: A Prelegomenon

The automobile ranks as the iconic artifact of the twentieth century and Japan stands as an iconic manufacturer of that artifact. Yet, while the history of the Japanese automotive industry has been well documented and much debated, the social history of the automobile in Japan remains largely ignored. While a wealth of literature considers the way in which the automobile refracted and shaped experiences individual subjectivity as well as constructions of gender, citizenship, safety and liability in North America and Europe, the multivalent role of the car in twentieth-century Japan remains to be explored. Taking a 1917 scandal involving a married aristocratic woman and her chauffeur as its starting point, this paper sketches the social and cultural history of mobility in modern Japan from the Meiji Restoration through the interwar period. First introduced as the plaything of the wealthy, the automobile provided a prominent focal point for debates about the socio-economic implications of technological advancement as it joined urban transit systems in the 1920s and 30s. Automotive journals, with titles such as Speed and Motor, promoted the integration of automobiles into Japanese life and in doing so, constructed automobility in ways that were intended to bridge the technological modernity of the "West" and the socio-economic realities of Japan. By tracing these journals from the interwar period through to their postwar reincarnations, this paper asks how does the technological narrative of automobility intersect with the cultural narratives of a society? In answering these questions, we have an opportunity to relatetransportation to the narratives of individual subjectivities and the constructions of social life more broadly.


Quentin (Trais) Pearson
Transport Tort: Loss of Life & Limb on the Tracks of the Bangkok Tramway Company (c. 1887-1897)

When the tramcars of the Bangkok Tramway Company, a British-registered limited liability corporation, began plying the streets of the Siamese capital in 1888, they left a trail of dead and dismembered in their wake. These cases of injury and death yield important insights into the brutal and unpredictable calculus of loss and liability in a cosmopolitan treaty port. At that time, Siam was subject to unequal trade treaties that granted extraterritorial legal rights to foreign residents and their corporations. The vast majority of those injured or killed, however, fell into the de facto category of Siamese legal subjects, defined by their inability to register with a foreign consulate. By attending to the victims of this new mode of urban transport, this paper elucidates the practice of civil law in a colonial treaty port. The foreign managers of the Bangkok Tramway Company understood the nature of their liability for these tragedies in the terms of western legal traditions. In practice, however, the company's managers were able to appeal to local customs and institutions in order to define their liability in more advantageous terms. Inquiring into the aftermath of quotidian tragedies along the tracks of the Bangkok Tramway Company, this paper reveals the existence of a form of customary civil law, which is an overlooked facet of modernizing legal change in Siam.


Stéphanie Ponsavady
From Desire to Drive: Colonial Automobilities in French Indochina

This paper documents the nature and extent of motoring in French Indochina, often overlooked in iconic depictions of the automobile experience. Relying on several case studies (from a 1908 expedition from Saigon to Angkor to the 1930s road safety surveys in Tonkin and the persistence of filmic representations of automobiles in the 1990s), it demonstrates the diversity of colonial drivers and passengers, European and Asian, the purposes of their journeys, their common experiences and the symbolism of automobiles. Colonial automobilities in French Indochina involved Europeans who traveled for work, for pleasure, or to promote road construction, often as tests of technological engineering, resourcefulness, and quite simply luck. Motoring quickly extended to all parts of the population, including colonial subjects, and it helped define new roles and identities in relation to one's place on the road and in the automobile. The potentials and localizations of colonial automobility point to a new technology of empowerment mitigating colonial governance, mediating science and leisure, across racial and social lines.


Victor Seow
Socialist Drive: Automotives in the Early People's Republic of China

How did the planned economy move? How did the leaders of the new Chinese socialist state envision the circulation of people and goods in an arrangement ostensibly distinct from the capitalist system and its market forces? The transformation of the transport sector, particularly through the expansion of motorized mobility, was a pivotal part of the larger industrial modern ideal that drove those who saw from the standpoint of the revolutionary state in 1950s China. This paper examines the history of the First Auto Works, China's first automobile manufacturing plant, which began operations in the city of Changchun in 1956. Automobile production in the early People's Republic sat squarely at the center of multiple processes that came to define the nature of Communist Chinese rule, from the alteration of the built environment and the pursuit of industrial modernity to the coordination of the planned economy and the division of city and countryside. The paper argues that although the establishment of the First Auto Works and the emergence of the automobile industry remade urban landscapes in accordance with the industrializing aspirations of China's leaders, the effects of motorized mobility were most keenly felt in rural areas. There, the increased connectivity and accessibility meant a heightened vulnerability to the extractive endeavors of the centralizing state. This was to come to a head with the famine that ravaged the countryside during the Great Leap Forward (1958-61) – a famine enabled and exacerbated by socialist automobility.