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Comparative Technology Transfer and Society 2.1 (2004) 71-98

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Technology Transfer and the British Furniture Making Industry, 1945-1955

Clive Edwards

The transfer of technology from both allies and enemies in a wide range of manufacturing industries has been a notable feature of the aftermath of both world wars during the 20th century. This paper investigates whether this pattern is as evident in the furniture trade as in other, more strategically critical products. The two world wars were significant factors in the development of the British furniture industry, particularly because of the transfers of materials and production technology that took place after each. While events of the 1920s and 1930s indicated the possibilities of significant advantages from such developments, the more important era followed World War II. This paper tracks the changes that occurred between 1920 and 1955, but emphasizes the decade after 1945. The results suggest that the manufacturing models from the United States were significant, but that the possibilities were unevenly adopted throughout the industry. Moreover, the government played a significant role in facilitating some of the most important transfers. This paper also assesses the impact that transfers to and within the furniture industry may have had in the longer term. The selected time period of the main case study relates to both the postwar adoption of new techniques and materials, and to a particular [End Page 71] moment when the British government specifically encouraged productivity as a goal.

Technology transfer is often seen as a phenomenon occurring between nations, but I am also using it to define the transfers within an industry where wartime emergencies sometimes became enabling factors. Much of my methodology has been derived from the work of David Jeremy (1992) and Everett Rogers (1983/1995). In particular, I follow Jeremy with the common questions that technology transfer raises (Jeremy, 1992, p. 3), but have applied them to my particular study. I also take heed of the cautions Jeremy points out in his example of the transfer of Fordist mass production to the United Kingdom, where the transfer was effective technically, but was hindered by particular social and political aspects of the receiving parties. Rogers, in his work on diffusion of innovations, has provided a similar framework that has informed my work. The idea that an innovation may be an idea, a practice, or an object is relevant to my case study, as is the notion that diffusion occurs through time, and that time is often an important variable in the process. In particular, the aspects of diffusion that relate to social systems and the boundaries of the members and their mutual goals are considered in relation to my case studies.

The adoption of new technologies requires a network of promoters and distributors who encourage the process, often in the face of hindrances from other agencies. Implementation depends on economic attitudes and financial resources, technical perceptions of appropriateness, as well as an ability to accept, adapt, and then apply new technologies. In addition, cultural factors such as education, training, personal attitudes, and political factors (including trade unions, state controls, and governmental intervention) all have an effect. Diffusion relies on breaking down barriers, developing change agents, and promoting and creating an infrastructure. A case study of the British furniture industry from 1920 to 1955, a period of considerable turmoil, offers an opportunity to see how firms in that industry responded to the opportunities that emerged in the aftermath of the two wars. There was no formal structured transfer process at work, but particular businesses transferred systems as appropriate to their local conditions. The ultimate impact of changes on the British industry prompted largely by wars and their aftermath was substantial. [End Page 72]

World War I and Furniture Production Technology

During the first half of the 20th century, the British furniture industry was often slow in embracing modern techniques. Wartime necessity, however, provided a powerful impetus for change; thereby hinting at the way wartime experiences could encourage the diffusion of new ideas and processes into furniture making firms. The diverse and varied...


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pp. 71-98
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