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Dr. Nathan Wood presents 53rd Annual Callahan Lecture

On March 27, the Department of History hosted Nathan Wood to present “Backwardness and Rushing Forward: The Age of Speed in a Suburb of Europe” for the 53rd annual Callahan Lecture. Dr. Wood, professor of history at the University of Kansas, explored the trenchant irony of the history of transportation in Poland from 1885-1939: that the quintessential experience of the age of speed—and of modernity generally—just might be the sensation of feeling left behind. 

Nathan Wood

Wood explained that when the age of speed came tearing through on foreign-built machines and without much infrastructure to sustain it, Poles, like many others, had a hard time steering its course. They may have had dreams of rushing forward, but generally the best they could do was to go along for the ride. He argued that typical histories of technology focus on the “firsts,” innovators such as Starley, the inventor of the “safety bicycle,” Benz, Daimler and Maybach, Ford, and the Wright Brothers, without fully grasping the context in which their ideas arose, and often floundered.

Wood demonstrated many examples of Poles who had grand technological dreams to advance transportation, but for varying reasons did not come out on top. They fully participated in the race; however, were not the leaders. Taking Poland, “a suburb of Europe,” a place intimately connected to Western technical civilization but not at its core, as the center of investigation allowed Wood to demonstrate the history of the age of speed not from the position of the victors, even if Poles occasionally experienced triumphs, but rather from the perspective of the “also rans.” And in this, Professor Wood argued, the experience of Poland is actually more evocative of the way most of us experience modernity: as a thrilling and often terrifying race in which we participate, but rarely come out on top.

 Dr. Robert Blobaum has known Dr. Wood for several years as a professional colleague and a marvelous scholar. Dr. Blobaum was invited to speak at University of Kansas by Dr. Wood and sought to bring Dr. Wood to West Virginia University.

"Bringing him to WVU to talk about his new book project on technological change in a region of Europe often considered peripheral also provided an opportunity for the two of us to continue our collaboration in a related area: the impact of the First World War on urban infrastructure and culture in East-Central European cities," Dr. Blobaum added.

Luke Gramith, a Ph.D student who attended both the lecture and a luncheon seminar lead by Dr. Wood, appreciated the approach taken by Dr. Wood to "de-center" the narrative of technological progress to those who competed in the race for modernity but did not finish first. It was a new approach to Luke.

Callahan crowd

In the seminar, Luke found it useful to consider how the Great War transformed and disrupted everyday lives and spurred people to consider "big ideas."

 “In this particular discussion, the subject was how various forms of modern transportation ceased functioning during the war due to resource shortages, and how this forced people to think about what it meant to be modern. I found the approach to be very interesting and it is similar to my own approach, which focuses on how everyday experiences of Italians during World War II shaped their understanding of "big ideas" like communism,” Luke said.

Nerissa Askamit also attended the luncheon said, “[Luncheons] are a great chance for early scholars to get familiar with trends in the field, and for outside scholars to familiarize themselves with a field of history that might not be their primary focus. The luncheons are a great way to engage with history in new ways, and foster the sense of "academic community.” I’ve attended quite a few in the past, and I really enjoy them. “

Nathan Wood is intrigued with the ways that East Central Europeans have grappled with the challenges and opportunities stemming from industrialization and urbanization. His first book, Becoming Metropolitan: Urban Selfhood and the Making of Modern Cracow (Northern Illinois University Press, 2010) explores press representations of the city in the early twentieth century, including depictions of urban expansion, electric streetcars, automobiles, airplanes, and big-city crime and filth.

His current book project and inspiration for this lecture, “Backwardness and Rushing Forward: Technology and Culture During Poland’s Age of Speed, 1885-1939,” investigates the attitudes of early adapters, enthusiasts, journalists, the public, avant garde artists, and the nationalizing state toward bicycles, automobiles, and airplanes from their introduction until WWII.

The Callahan Lecture was established in 1964 in honor of historian James Morton Callahan. Callahan served as the Department of History chair from 1902 to 1929, Dean of the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences from 1916 to 1929 and University Research Professor from 1929 to 1956. This lecture is presented by the West Virginia University Department of History and the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences.