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R&D, please May 7, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in History 174.
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A couple of weeks ago, in my Intro to History of Science course, I gave a lecture on the rise of research and development as perhaps the most socially significant arm of the scientific enterprise. It was one of my favorite lectures of the semester. In some ways it extended off the “culture of invention” lecture that I gave with my industrial revolution lecture, but emphasized how tightly intertwined laboratory/workshop work had become with the invention/development culture.

The invention lecture emphasized loose connections, and was given in the same week as the 19th century physics lecture–the non-textbook readings of the week were from Smith and Wise’s Lord Kelvin biography on William Thomson and the telegraph. The R&D lecture started off with the fairly familiar story of BASF and the German chemical industry and the emphasis at places like the KWG on more applied kinds of research. I also brought in Dave Kaiser’s recent work on the growth and “suburbanization” of physics in the postwar period as being specifically oriented around R&D-type activities (which he doesn’t devote much attention to, emphasizing the pedagogical angle instead).

However, I began the lecture by emphasizing the complexity of the relationship between “basic science” and “applied science”–where a “simple narrative” tells you basic leads to applied, the “complex narrative” has more to do with basic science facilitating the leap from technology to improved technology, than with unveiled secrets of nature leading to fabulous new technologies. I emphasized that the complex narrative was well-understood by anyone with real knowledge of R&D activities. David Edgerton’s “The Linear Model Did Not Exist” was the reading for the week (along with a 1928 article in United Empire called “Scientific and Industrial Research” by British science administration luminary, Henry Tizard).

I was especially satisfied with the lecture, because I don’t think it would appear in too many courses or historical overviews, and yet is both simple to understand and extremely important. I pointed out that even though R&D dominated scientific culture, and to a remarkable degree in the postwar era, Bowler and Morus devote pretty much zero attention to it. Their “Science and Technology” chapter ends just when the story is getting interesting! Beyond the scope of the class, I don’t think we’ve come to terms with R&D as a part of scientific culture, which is a part of our continuing historiographical difficulty in really understanding and describing science in the 20th century in general. Edgerton’s article is not a bad place to start thinking about the issue–a draft of it can be found here (see #41 under articles).

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