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Life in the Slow Lane: Research and Electrical Engineering in Britain, France, and Italy, CA. 1900

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Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science book series (BSPS, volume 144)

Abstract

This paper is a reflexion on an assumption that has run through studies of industrial technology ever since the First World War. The assumption, broadly stated, is that in the age of science-based industry a strong and preferably expensive commitment to research and development is an essential ingredient of a nation’s technological prowess. The corollary is that technological success and, by a deceptively easy extension, economic success have come to be seen as being dependent on a capacity for autonomous innovation. A serious commitment to research has assumed, in the process, an almost symbolic and, as we shall argue, exaggerated importance. Among historians of the period that concerns us here — the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries — it has come to be regarded as one of the main touchstones dividing the countries we traditionally see as the technological pacemakers — in particular Germany, the U.S.A., and Switzerland — from those, of which Britain, France, and Italy are typical, which are usually portrayed as limping along in their wake.

Keywords

Electrical Engineering Shop Floor Electrical Industry Foreign Technology Electrical Machinery 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    John Joseph Beer, The Emergence of the German Dye Industry, Illinois Studies in the Social Sciences, No. 44 (Urbana, I1l., 1959), Chapters 7 and 8.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    See David S. Landes, The Unbound Prometheus. Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present (Cambridge, 1969), especially pp. 323–326, and David C. Mowery, `Industrial Research, 1900–1950’, in Bernard Elbaum and William Lazonick (eds.), The Decline of the British Economy (Oxford, 1986), pp. 189–222.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Mowery, ibid., p. 189.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    I.C.R. Byatt, The British Electrical Industry, 1875–1914 (Oxford, 1979), pp. 150 and 166, and Peter Hertner, `Il capitale tedesco nell’industria italiana fino alla prima guerra mondiale’, in Bruno Bezza (ed.), Energia e sviluppo. L’industria elettrica e la Società Edison (Turin, 1986), pp. 213–256.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    The point appears on p. 172 of the English edition of the Catalogue, published as International Exposition. Paris 1900. Official Catalogue. Exhibition of the German Empire (Berlin, 1900).Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Luigi Gabba, ‘L’insegnamento della chimica nelle università e negli istituti superiori’, Atti del I° Congresso Nazionale di Chimica Applicata (Turin, 1903), p. 64.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    ‘See, for example, the report of the committee chaired’ by R. B. Haldane, published as Final Report of the Departmental Committee on the Royal College of Science. Volume I: Final Report with Appendix I(London, 1906). On the parallel campaign for the improvement of scientific (as opposed to purely technological) education and research, see Roy M. MacLeod, ‘The Support of Victorian Science: The Endowment of Research Movement in Great Britain, 1868–1900’, Minerva 4 (1971), pp. 197–230, and Peter Alter, The Reluctant Patron. Science and the State in Britain, 1850–1920 (Oxford, Hamburg, and New York, 1987), especially Chapters 2 and 3.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Typical statements include: Albin Haller, `L’industrie chimique à l’Exposition de Chicago’, in Ministère du Commerce, de l’Industrie, des Postes et des Télégraphes. Exposition Internationale de Chicago 1893. Rapports publiés sous la direction de M. Camille Krantz. Comité 19. Produits chimiques et pharmaceutiques, matériel de la peinture, parfumerie, savonnerie (Paris, 1894), especially pp. 10–17, and Henry Le Chatelier, `Rapport sur les laboratoires nationaux de recherches scientifiques’, Comptes rendus hebdomadaires des séances de l’Académie des Sciences 163 (1916), pp. 581–588. Cf. the laudatory comment on in-house laboratories as founts of both innovation and effective quality control in the German chemical and metallurgical industries in Victor Cambon, L ‘Allemagne au travail (Paris, 1909), pp. 42–45.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    International Exposition ... Exhibition of the German Empire, op. cit. (note 5), p. 172. It is relevant to the thrust of our argument that the work of even this small proportion of the scientifically trained employees is described not as innovation but as “examining new inventions, testing and examining material”.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    See the report by Le Chatelier cited in note 8, above. For a statement of Le Chatelier’s views on the education of industrial scientists and engineers, see his preface to Léon Guillet, L’enseignement technique supérieur à l’après-guerre (Paris, 1918), pp. 9–28.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Carlo Lacaita, ‘Giuseppe Colombo e le origini dell’Italia industriale’, in Carlo G. Lacaita (ed.), Giuseppe Colombo. Industria e politica nella storia d’Italia. Scritti scelti, 1861–1916 (Bari, 1985), pp. 5–86. For a typical statement of Colombo’s views, see ‘Le gallerie delle macchine del lavoro e del materiale ferroviario all’Esposizione Nazionale di Milano (1881)’, in Colombo, Scritti e discorsi scientifici (2 vols., Milan, 1934), Vol. 2, pp. 1060–1087.Google Scholar
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    Anna Guagnini, ‘Higher Education and the Engineering Profession in Italy. The Scuole of Milan and Turin, 1859–1914’, Minerva 26 (1988), pp. 512–548.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. 13.
    The thrust of Nathan Rosenberg’s approach is expressed very clearly in the collection of essays by him: Perspectives on Technology (Cambridge, 1976).Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Leonard S. Reich, The Making of American Industrial Research. Science and Business at GE and Bell, 1876–1926 (Cambridge, 1985), especially Chapters 3 and 4. See also George Wise, Willis R. Whitney, General Electric, and the Origins of U. S. Industrial Research (New York, 1985), Chapters 5–7.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    David Cahan, An Institute for an Empire. The Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt 1871–1918 (Cambridge, 1989);Google Scholar
  16. 15a.
    Crosbie Smith and M. Norton Wise, Energy and Empire. A Biographical Study of Lord Kelvin (Cambridge, 1989), pp. 684–698 and passim; M. Norton Wise and Crosbie Smith, ‘Measurement, Work, and Industry in Lord Kelvin’s Britain’, Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences 17 (1986), pp. 147–173;Google Scholar
  17. 15b.
    Graeme Gooday, ‘Precision Measurement and the Genesis of Physics Teaching Laboratories in Victorian Britain’, Brit. J. History of Science 23 (1990), pp. 25–51.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. 16.
    On Regnault, see Robert Fox, The Caloric Theory of Gases from Lavoisier to Regnault (Oxford, 1971), pp. 295–302. Kohlrausch’s work as an experimental physicist is discussed in David Cahan, ‘Kohlrausch and Electrolytic Conductivity: Instruments, Institutes, and Scientific Innovation’, Osiris 5 (1989), pp. 167–185; see also Cahan, An Institute for an Empire, op. cit. (note 15), pp. 128–132. For a comment on the relations between industry and the traditions of precise measurement in physics, see Kathryn M. Olesko, `Industrial Demands and the Political Economy of Exact Experiment’, read at the conference on “Writing the History of Physics”, held at St John’s College, Cambridge, 3–5 April 1991.Google Scholar
  19. 17.
    On the laboratories that Siemens & Halske maintained from the earliest days of their existence in the mid-century, and on the development laboratories of Schuckert before the amalgamation with Siemens in 1902, see Georg Siemens, Der Weg der Elektrotechnik. Geschichte des Hauses Siemens (2 vols., Freiburg and Munich, 1961), Vol. 2, pp. 58–59. The very different character of AEG’s policy is brought out in Ulrich Wengenroth’s recent biographical sketch of Emil Rathenau; see Wengenroth, ‘Emil Rathenau’, in Wilhelm Treue and Wolfgang König (eds.), Berlinische Lebensbilder — Techniker (Berlin, 1990), pp. 193— 209, especially pp. 203, 204, and 207.Google Scholar
  20. 18.
    Ulrich Wengenroth, ‘L’électrification dans l’industrie textile’, in Fabienne Cardot (ed.), Histoire et structure économique de l’électrification (Paris, in press), and ′shaping a Technological Potential: R & D in Electric Drives, 1890–1930’, a paper read to the historical group of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, London, in October 1991 and now awaiting publication.Google Scholar
  21. 19.
    Thomas P. Hughes, Networks of Power. Electrification in Western Society, 1880–1930 (Baltimore and London, 1983), pp. 238–247. Other accounts of Ferranti’s early innovations and their technical and economic implications include Gertrude Ziani de Ferranti and Richard Ince, The Life and Letters of Sebastian Ziani de Ferranti (London, 1934), pp. 54–68; R. H. Parsons, The Early Days of the Power Station Industry (Cambridge, 1939), pp. 21–41; and W. L. Randell, S. Z. de Ferranti (London, 1943).Google Scholar
  22. 20.
    Hughes, ibid., pp. 443–460.Google Scholar
  23. 21.
    The point is reflected and developed in Albert Broder, ‘La multinationalisation de l’industrie électrique française, 1880–1931. Causes et pratiques d’une dépendance’, Annales ESC, 39e année (1984), pp. 1020–1043.Google Scholar
  24. 22.
    See the brochure announcing the formation of the company: Compagnie Générale d’Electricité. Société anonyme en formation. Notice (Paris, 1898), pp. 3–4.Google Scholar
  25. 23.
    The policy of the company emerges very clearly from the annual reports and the rich collection of cuttings from the financial press in the file on the CGE in the Archives Nationales (65 AQ. G.160). The case of the CGE is discussed in Broder, ‘La multinationalisation de l’industrie électrique française’, op. cit. (note 21), pp. 1031–1032.Google Scholar
  26. 24.
    The point emerges briefly from the company history, La belle histoire de la CEM (Paris, 1950), and even more strongly from the annual reports and newspaper cuttings in the Archives Nationales (65 AQ. M.118).Google Scholar
  27. 25.
    The growing resentment at the dominant position of senior German staff in French industry on the eve of the First World War is reflected in Louis Bruneau, L’Allemagne en France. Enquêtes économiques (Paris, 1914), p. viii and passim, and in the papers concerning the Compagnie Générale d’Electricité de Creil (not to be confused with the CGE) in the Archives Nationales (65 AQ. G.207). Feelings ran so high at Creil that they prompted the resignation of four of the French members of the Conseil d’administration in March 1912.Google Scholar
  28. 26.
    Claudio Pavese, ‘Le origini della Società Edison e il suo sviluppo fino alla costituzione del “gruppo’”, in Bruno Bezza (ed.), Energia e sviluppo, op. cit. (note 4), pp. 65–167.Google Scholar
  29. 27.
    Guido Semenza, ‘L’impianto di Paderno’, Atti della Associazione Elettrotecnica Italiana 1 (1897), p. 121, and Note sui nuovi impianti della Società Generale Italiana Edison di Elettricità, 1895–1898 (Milan, 1899).Google Scholar
  30. 28.
    Alberto Pirelli, La Pirelli. Vita di una azienda industriale (Milan, 1946), and Hector Sacchetto, History and Development of the Oil Filled Cable (n.p., n.d. [1969]), Chapter 2.Google Scholar
  31. 29.
    On this case, see Vent’anni di vita della Ditta Ettore Marelli & C., Milano. 1891–1911 (Milan, 1911).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1992

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of OxfordUK

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