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Technology and Culture 42.2 (2001) 333-334
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Laboratories, Workshops, and Sites: Concepts and Practices of Research in Industrial Europe, 1800-1914
Laboratories, Workshops, and Sites: Concepts and Practices of Research in Industrial Europe, 1800-1914. By Robert Fox and Anna Guagnini. Berkeley, Calif.: Office for History of Science and Technology, University of California, Berkeley, 1999. Pp. 214. $24.
Three of this book's four chapters deal with academic research in science and engineering, while the introduction and the last chapter soberly assess their contribution to economic performance. Unlike many authors, Robert Fox and Anna Guagnini are not carried away by their subject, and they do not hesitate to argue for deflating its importance among the sources of growth and innovation in nineteenth-century industry.
It is a well-established belief that research in laboratories substantially contributed to accelerating industrial growth and helped Germany and the United States to take a fast lane. The pioneering case of this orthodoxy was the German dyestuffs industry--thanks, as Fox and Guagnini wryly observe, to the wealth and accessibility of the archives of Bayer in Leverkusen. In syllogisms worthy of eighteenth-century theology, the perceived importance of research to the success of Bayer led to the conclusion that academic research in laboratories became the linchpin of nineteenth-century industrial success. While ample evidence exists for potential scientific input in industry, research output is much harder to verify, and the fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc lies everywhere in wait for the unwary. Fox and Guagnini carefully skirt these traps and through careful reading in recent German publications give a much more cautious account of research-driven innovation in the chemical industries. Stressing the defensive character of most laboratory work in the context of German patent law, marketing considerations, and, last but not least, economic weight compared to the traditional chemical industry, they strip this early showcase of "science-based industry" of much of its authority.
Most of the authors' original research and about half of the book focus on the development of higher education, research, and physics and electrical [End Page 333] engineering laboratories in Europe. Inspired by the early success of French academic chemistry, whose protagonists had convinced the public that chemistry played an instrumental role in overcoming some of the effects of the maritime blockade of revolutionary and Napoleonic France, physics followed a strategy of professionalization in stressing its usefulness to industry. With electricity at the center of scientific debate in physics and telegraphy, and electric light demonstrating the economic potential of these new phenomena, physics laboratories--which had to rely on private support from the chair holder until well into the 1850s--were being created and supported from the 1880s at institutes of higher education. The emphasis was on laboratory-based pedagogy, with research coming second.
Just as chemistry came to face growing competition from chemical engineering, these new physics laboratories came under pressure from academic electrical engineering during the 1890s. Again, laboratory-based teaching rather than research dominated these new institutions. Fox and Guagnini side with Wolfgang König, who has argued--among other places in Technology and Culture 37 (January 1996): 70-101--that electrical engineering at the turn of the century resembled an industry-based science more than science-based industry. Innovation increasingly arose from industrial application and, as Fox and Guagnini stress, more often from workshops and the construction site than from research laboratories in industry. Overcoming the problems of getting machinery to work proved to be the most important source of knowledge instrumental to successful innovation.
If the title of the book lists the sources of technological knowledge in other than alphabetical order, it certainly does not establish a hierarchy among them. What looks like a confirmation of the linear model according to which innovations originate in academic science and make their way to the real world of engineering through research laboratories in universities and industry turns out to be a loosely coupled system with individuals, ideas, and data moving freely between the realms of theoretical...