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Origins and Evolution of Artificial Cold in Europe, 1870-1970: Exploring Science/Technology/Industry Interfacing

Final Activity Report Summary - EUROCOLD (Origins and Evolution of Artificial Cold in Europe, 1870-1970: Exploring Science/Technology/Industry Interfacing)

This project focussed on the history of the scientific, technological and cultural impacts of artificial cold, covering the period from approximately 1870 to 1919 in Europe. The goal of the project was to add a new dimension to the existing literature through the examination of two fundamental historical and sociological themes:

1. the interplay between academic research, engineering, industry and their social repercussions
2. the convergence between assertive national science and the internationalisation, or Europeanization, of science.

I used the case of the International Association of Refrigeration (IAR) as an exceptional window into these dual processes. The study of the early history of IAR allowed us to examine many dimensions of the intricate relations between science, technology, industry and the economics involved with artificial cold and gave us a convenient tool to map the related activities on an international and transnational scale. The IAR was, therefore, a privileged field for a study that was both interdisciplinary and transnational and could benefit from the collaboration of scholars from various fields. Despite the difficulties in accounting for its efficiency in acting as an arbiter between different nations and different groups of interest, we could not disregard the fact that IAR managed to bring together an amazingly large number of individuals, associations, companies and governments and undertook the administrative task to coordinate them towards the solution of problems that demanded international consensus. Its continued existence and activities after a century was perhaps evidence of its pivotal role in the complex framework of ‘applied’ artificial cold.

My work on IAR was based on extensive archival research and examined the ways in which national and international interests were interweaved within the context of international organisations during the early 20th century, as well as the attempt of the scientific section of IAR to establish a professional identity of low temperature scientists, who, at the time, lacked alternative international institutional spaces. Being interested in low-temperature physicists, I also revisited the history of low temperature research, focussing on the period between the liquefaction of oxygen in 1877 and the liquefaction of helium in 1908. The period under examination was a period when physical chemistry was articulating its own autonomous language with respect to both physics and chemistry, charting its own research agenda and formulating its own theoretical framework. It was the time when the disciplinary and sub-disciplinary boundaries were drawn and re-drawn and these processes were deeply influenced by the different cultures of physicists and chemists. By arguing that the history of low temperature research was an integral part of the history of physical chemistry, I questioned the commonly assumed position that the numerous developments in early low temperature led in a straightforward manner to the establishment of a new branch of physics, namely the one of low temperature physics.