I crashed in on a lecture the other day, on the topic of theTechnological history of Stockholm seen through the perspective of KTH. It was interesting. Here are a few nuggets I picked up:
Nobel grade teaching: One of KTH’s first teachers was father to Alfred Nobel (as well as to the equally successful entrepreneurs Ludvig and Robert). His name was Immanuel Nobel, and he’s thought to be the most brilliant technologist / inventor since Christopher Polhem.
Middle class target audience: When KTH was founded, the universities in Uppsala and Lund had already been around for a couple of centuries. While these old schools catered to the upper class, the students flocking to KTH came from the middle class. Or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that they constituted the core of what would become the middle class.
Harsh discipline: Teaching the middle class, people felt at the time, would be an uphill battle. Stern lessons in appropriate behavior would have to be part of the core curriculum, since students hadn’t been socialized into the ruling class.
Students revolting: KTH’s heavy handed discipline would have been unthinkable at the older universities but was long accepted by students as a fact of life. The first real push-back came in 1902, in what would become known as the Student revolt. One of the points of contention was the practice of handing out fines for missing lectures.
Built to make an impression: When main campus was built, it was the second largest edifice in Stockholm; only the royal castle was bigger. Inaugurated a decade after we “lost Norway”, some historians see it as was partly a manifestation of wounded national pride.
On budget, only just: In today’s value, the new campus came with a price tag of about five billion kronor. One sacrifice that allowed the builders to stay within the planned budget, was to cast the main court carillon in plaster (it could be replaced by the current version in bronze much later, thanks to a donation). In comparison, the original budget for Nya Karolinska was 14 billions and some claim that the final price tag ended up being more than four times that amount.
A statement with style: Did you ever think how different campus feels compared to the posh area of Östermalm, which it borders to? That’s no coincident. The stark, austere and ‘honest’ style was widely criticized at the time, but chosen exactly to associate KTH with the new and to contrast it to the stagnant old bourgeoisie across the road.
A master builder: The parts of campus that were inaugurated in 1917 and which still defines the whole feeling of KTH, was designed by Erik Lallerstedt. If the name seems familiar it’s probably because of his namesake grandson who’s a celebrity chef and restaurateur. It’s thanks to old Lallerstedt that KTH is filled to the brims with interesting art. He felt it would play an important role in forming well rounded individuals fit to meet the complexities of modern society. (In this, he was a good two decades ahead of Statens Konstråd; the most wonderfully quixotic of governmental agencies).
State of the art ventilation: When you’re standing in the middle of the main court yard and raise your gaze, you notice this long continuous row of funny looking holes just at the ridge of the roof. They look like something you would aim crossbows out of in a medieval castle. In fact however, they’re the defunct exhausts of a ventilation system that was far ahead of its time. It was so advanced and expensive, that the firm responsible for its design and construction went belly up.
Child of its time: It’s no coincidence that KTH was founded in 1827; lots of other prestigious technological universities popped up around the same time. They were all answering to an explosion in the demand for skilled workers that could help deliver on the promises of the industrial revolution. “Engineering” wasn’t conceptualized back then, instead the institutions that would become technical universities started out as “slöjdskolor”. Slöjd roughly translates to craft.
Fragmented beginnings: We like to think of KTH as one integrated institution. That wasn’t always so. Confusingly, what we know refer to as Civil Engineering—the art of building roads and canals—started out as a military discipline. Meanwhile, the roots of chemical engineering are to be found much closer to the realm of (civilian) business interests. In the case of Stockholm, represented by the booming success of Liljheholms stearinljusfabrik.
Not altogether misogynist: I think it’s fair to say that engineering is generally lagging behind when it comes to gender equality, even if things are slowly moving in the right direction; 35 percent of KTH’s students were female in 2021, up from 13 percent in 1979. Zooming in from the aggregate level though, it’s interesting to note the local differences. While the school of architecture accepted its first female student—Agnes Magnell—in 1897, it was only in 1962 that the school of civil engineering formally started accepting applications from women.
Gradual path towards multidisciplinarity: Chemical and mechanical engineering were the only options to pick between two centuries ago. Mining engineers were trained locally wherever the valuable ore was found. The construction of roads and canals was taught exclusively to military cadets. Architecture was seen as an art form. Then gradually over the first century of its existence, the gravitational pull of KTH grew to attract one after another of these specialty disciplines. As they folded into the mothership, KTH became what was known continentally as a Polytechnic.
Science vs. craftsmanship: The tension has always been there, both inside and outside of academia (here’s a post about an early manifestation), but nowhere is it more apparent than at a technical university. The words Vetenskap och Konst is right there in the middle of the KTH logo, but vs. might have been more appropriate. Because while some say “practice makes perfect” and make the case for more lab work, others will claim that only pure abstract science will penetrate nature’s truly important mysteries.
TV was practically invented here: When the PhD students Hans Werthén and Björn Nilsson were sent on a study trip to USA in 1946, they brought back with them the advent of the shiny new technology television. They approached it with a hacker mindset; running experimental broadcasts from KTH starting a good six years before the official launch of Swedish television.
Deep learning was practically invented here, too: This last nugget I didn’t pick up at the lecture but from a book I recently read. I’ll squeeze it in for good measure, because it seems like a little known piece of KTH trivia. Ulf Grenander, who was a professor of applied mathematics at KTH from 1969 to 1974, made key contributions in the field of statistics that would later make possible what we now know as deep learning. (More on that in this post).
I want to close this post by pointing to an empty hole in the weave that is the history of KTH: I’m still waiting to discover literary depictions of what it feels like to either work or study here. I’m sure there must be good stuff out there, stuff that does for KTH what Pepper White or Rosalind Williams did for MIT in their outstanding accounts The Idea Factory : Learning to think at MIT and Retooling : A Historian Confronts Technological Change (both of which I’m busy trying to write posts about). If you happen to know, please give me a ping at hannes_at_slow-thoughts.com!
This post was inspired by Per Högselius gave excellent an lecture at the course Stockholms Teknikhistoria. Other entries also inspired by the same course include Making Belief : A Brief History of World Expos, What We Need Libraries For, and Atomic Swing : A Brief History of the Shifting Swedish Nuclear Policy..