Making Safe: the dirty history of a bomb disposal robot

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In the Ulster Museum’s new gallery The Troubles and Beyond, the central display showcases a Wheelbarrow bomb disposal robot. This machine was invented by the British Army in Northern Ireland (NI) in 1972 and used by the officers of the 321 Explosive Ordinance Disposal squadron (321EOD) to defuse car bombs planted by the IRA. This paper offers an alternative history of that machine – a dirtier history – that critically assesses its role during the Troubles. Centrally, the paper contests the British Army’s preferred account of this machine as a ‘game changing’ technological innovation in counter-insurgency, and their understanding of themselves as benign peacekeepers. Rather than figure the Wheelbarrow robot as an unreadable ‘black box’ used instrumentally by the superior human operators of 321EOD, this paper seeks to foreground the unruly transfers of agency between the machine and its operators as they tested and experimented in the ‘exceptional colonial laboratory’ of NI. The paper further explores the machine’s failures during bomb disposal episodes, the collateral damage that resulted, and the multiple and often unruly reactions of local populations who watched the Wheelbarrow robot at work. Providing a ‘dirty history’ of the Wheelbarrow robot is an effort to demonstrate that war can never be fully cleaned up, either through militarized mythologies of technological innovation or hopeful museum displays.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)174-193
Number of pages34
JournalSecurity Dialogue
Issue number2-3
Early online date09 Dec 2019
Publication statusPublished - 01 Apr 2020

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