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Comparative Technology Transfer and Society 4.2 (2006) 194-195

Notes from the Field
William H. Thiesen

This essay underscores the prevalence of technology transfer that has been practiced across natural and man-made boundaries throughout much of recorded history. Dr. Ferriero's essay shows how marine technology has provided one of the best mediums for studying this transfer. For centuries, seafaring nations brought new technology to foreign lands in the holds of their ships and they copied or even captured the latest naval technology found in foreign vessels sailing the high seas. This situation began to change by the 1890s as countries began to protect their naval weapons secrets. For example, the British closed the Royal Naval School to foreign students and new naval weapons information became closely guarded secrets.

The post–Civil War era set the stage for the case described in Ferriero's essay. During the war, rapid expansion and technological development pushed the Union Navy to the forefront of world naval powers. In the immediate aftermath of the conflict, the U.S. Navy began a rapid decline in its naval technology and fleet size, so that by the 1870s it was considered a second-rate fleet and an embarrassment to the service. By the early 1880s, the Navy began a foreign naval intelligence and data-gathering program the likes of which had never been seen in a branch of the American military. For the next two decades, U.S. naval personnel traveled to Europe as students, attachés, and visiting officials tasked with sending home the latest naval weapons intelligence. These young officers returned home to lead a reformation of the American naval establishment and its technology.

From a technology transfer standpoint, the U.S. Navy's campaign to collect information, largely from its British and French counterparts, resulted not only in the adoption of new weapons technology, but also a progressive-style transformation of the design and engineering culture of the naval and industrial institutions that supported American naval development. The "Young Turks" who returned to the United States, such as the accomplished naval constructor David W. Taylor, became known for their training and skills and many of them retired early from the service to take well-paid executive level positions in the American shipbuilding industry during the boom years leading up to World War I. These individuals were [End Page 194] largely responsible for bringing home an engineering-based design and construction profession and they were instrumental in instituting methods and institutions that sustained this culture based on theory and research rather than practical experience. These new methods and institutions included the establishment of model ship basins, schools of naval architecture, professional marine industry associations, and the publication of industry journals and periodicals. The training of Americans and the transformation of the American naval engineering culture based on the British model ensured that data and information acquired in Great Britain could be rapidly assimilated by the American naval establishment during World War I and its aftermath.

This case and Ferriero's underscore the importance of government support for technology transfer. The transformation of American shipbuilding culture during the late 19th century resulted from the introduction of new methods and institutions by the Navy and its personnel during the rapid American naval buildup leading to World War I. A similar introduction of "modern" methods and institutions took place in Great Britain during the mid-19th century crisis years, when British naval authorities feared new French ironclads would overpower the Royal Navy's wooden warships. The British developed an engineering-based naval shipbuilding culture supported by new methods and institutions similar to the one established in the United States 50 years later. In both cases, domestic marine industries enjoyed the fruits of technological innovation in design and construction technology, but the means necessary to support this technological and cultural change had to be provided by the military. The phenomenon of military-supported technology transfer is fairly common during periods of international arms buildups. The years leading up to World War II and...


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