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  • De l’atelier au laboratoire: Recherche et innovation dans l’industrie électrique, XIXe–XXe siècles
  • Andrew Butrica (bio)
De l’atelier au laboratoire: Recherche et innovation dans l’industrie électrique, XIXe–XXe siècles. Edited by Yves Bouvier et al. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2011. Pp. 141. $38.95.

The goal of this slim installment in Peter Lang’s History of Energy series is to explore the nature and loci of electrical industry invention, innovation, research, and development and to challenge the accepted view of nineteenth-century lone inventor-geniuses and twentieth-century richly endowed corporate laboratories. It substantively broadens and deepens the work of Robert Fox and Anna Guagnini’s Laboratories, Workshops, and Sites: Concepts and Practices of Research in Industrial Europe, 1800–1914 (1999). The contributions represent revisions of half the papers read at a [End Page 933] December 2005 conference in Mulhouse, France, the other half appearing in a 2007 issue of Annales historiques de l’électricité. The authors of the six articles succeed superbly in relocating and redefining industrial research.

W. Bernard Carlson, in a study of Nikola Tesla’s AC motor and wireless transmission of high-frequency power, argues the case for the inventor’s advantages over big firms, advantages that arise from being unhampered by the constraints of production and marketing. Tesla exemplified Joseph Schumpeter’s separation of invention and development by allying himself with promoters and selling or licensing his patents rather than establishing manufacturing plants.

Alain Cortat analyzes Swiss cable-making firms in the context of a national (eventually international) cartel. Research and quality control evolved side-by-side until their separation during the 1930s. The firms overcame their small size and limited finances to innovate by purchasing patents from industrial groups (Bell, Siemens, Philips), collaborating with universities and technical schools, and contracting research with the Battelle Institute (1960s).

Serge Paquier reminds the reader in a study of long-distance electrical power transmission that not all research took place indoors. Building up to the Frankfurt electrical exposition of 1891 (and so accenting the importance of these expositions for technological advance), Paquier focuses on hydroelectric installations as laboratories “hors les murs.”

In an inquiry on the Toulouse electrical engineering laboratory (LGET), Marie-Pierre Bès calls attention to the critical role played by government policy and sponsorship in France between 1955 and 1985. The research carried out legitimated a nascent discipline in applied science and served the needs of industry (chiefly the electric monopoly EDF) with public underwriting largely from the Ministry of Industry and Research, the CNRS, and research agencies in the critical space, telecommunications, and nuclear sectors. The research never led to patents or the conception of new products or processes, but did fulfill the electrical industry’s strategic needs.

Graeme Gooday revisits Marie Sklodowska Curie’s original contribution to the science and fabrication of permanent steel magnets (which too often proved to lack permanence), underwritten by the Société d’encouragement pour l’industrie nationale in the 1890s and carried out in the Sorbonne and École de physique et de chimie. His main attention is on the received notion in “narrow folklore” (p. 107) that Sydney Evershed in 1920 and 1925 solved the permanent magnet problem and established their manufacture on a scientific basis through decades of designing and redesigning electrical instruments. Here British trade secrecy collided with (and obscured) the results of Curie’s science-based open and systematic approach that relied on an assortment of samples donated by industry.

Gabriel Galvez-Behar tackles Clément Ader, a telegraph, telephone, and automobile innovator too often associated solely with aeronautics. He [End Page 934] focuses on Ader’s changing contractual relationships with the Société générale des téléphones and the Société industrielle des téléphones to provide patentable inventions on demand. Ader successfully and simultaneously performed aeronautical research for the army because he operated as an “inventor entrepreneur” (like Edison) acting as both inventor (and insisting that his name be on all patents) and an entrepreneur who managed multiple research teams working on different problems (telephony, air transport, automobiles) at separate locations. A firm’s lack...


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