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Physicists in Industry February 17, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
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links to .pdf file

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In light of my recent discussion of Steven Shapin’s Scientific Life (Part 1 and Part 2), I thought it might be useful to promote something rather different on pretty much the same topic: the project report just released by my employers at the AIP History Center on their multi-year “History of Physicists in Industry” project, assembled through the efforts of Joe Anderson, who runs the Niels Bohr Library and Archives, and Orville Butler, who has the office next door to mine.  Some early work on the project was done by Tom Lassman, who is now at the Air and Space Museum downtown in DC.  Click on the image to access the report in .pdf form.

The project’s aim was to survey industrial researchers and research administrators with the goal of finding out what historical records industries preserve, and how; as well as to undertake a preliminary survey of industrial research activities and attitudes since World War II.

I would describe the report as an empirical extraction of “trends” from interview data.  Insofar as it analyzes commentary, it is actually quite similar to Shapin’s work, except that it uses no devices such as the “moral life” of researchers as an analytical hinge. It is, though, maybe more engaged with the terms of previous conversations than might be valuable.  For example, it has an immediate reference to Vannevar Bush’s supposed advocacy for the so-called “linear model”, which is a point on which I follow David Edgerton’s analysis that the “linear model did not exist”.  (Joe and Orv actually point to the same book in which David’s essay appears—Grandin, Worms, and Widmalm’s The Science-Industry Nexus—when they invoke Bush’s support of the linear model).

On the whole, though, I would say that Joe and Orv’s work is an important source for anyone interested in the history of industrial research.  They do not seem to have been constrained by any prejudiced “view from the tower”, and their emphasis on empirical details of institutional history provides a firm foundation on which future work can be built.  I would hope this report becomes known to people doing work in this area.

In approaching the topic of industrial research, I think historians’ next move should be to pay more attention to individual problems and projects, which, if one reads memoirs and official histories, seem to be overwhelmingly the level at which actors think about their work most consciously.  In the available histories the most interesting details of decision tend to be black-boxed; so a good project would be to try and get at those scientific/engineering/business decisions, and put them within the context of specific projects.

In particular, I think this would be valuable because overarching “trends” in industrial commitment to exploratory versus directed work probably hinge not only on a general appreciation of the worth of exploration versus product development (although economic pressures clearly bear influence on whether one explores or entrenches), but also on whether it is clear that there is much that is “not known” in a company’s area of specific expertise that promises benefits if an effort is made to explore unknown areas.  To find out whether that’s true, it would be necessary to delve into the nitty-gritty of some manifestly unsexy science and engineering: thin films, and stuff like that.

One final note: Joe and Orv are now starting up a new, related project on physicist entrepreneurs.

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