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Comparative Technology Transfer and Society 2.1 (2004) 67-70

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World War II and Technology Transfer
A Historical Introduction

Bruce E. Seely

IN THIS ISSUE OFComparative Technology Transfer and Society, two articles provide varied perspectives on the subject of technology transfer in the aftermath of World War II. International transfers of technology have been important in many nations that sought to copy the British success in developing an industrial economy after 1750. But in some respects, the circumstances of the immediate postwar period may have witnessed some of the most concerted efforts to launch systematic transfers across national boundaries. The two articles illuminate different aspects of those efforts.

Clive Edwards' account of the British furniture industry's efforts to implement lessons learned during the two world wars contains a number of elements that resemble other industrial attempts to cope with technological and economic changes during the first half of the 20th century. Several scholars have examined the primary driver of such changes, the diffusion of Henry Ford's approach to quantity production. Lenin and Hitler both recognized the significant economic advantage of the assembly line, but many European producers struggled to make the cultural and social changes that accompanied the introduction of this mass production. English manufacturers and their workers alike seemed particularly resistant, but the lessons of World War II—both as witnessed in British factories and [End Page 67] on battlefields that showed the results of American productivity—were obvious to most firms producing consumer goods. Although reluctance characterized many transfer efforts, a combination of government encouragement and assistance, and private initiatives, brought changes to most European industries (including British furniture makers) (Hughes, 1989, pp. 249-94; Lewchuk, 1987; Sabel & Zeitlin, 1997).

Edwards demonstrates the real complexities lost in such an abbreviated and simple rendition, but there is one other aspect of the story that deserves to be highlighted. For postwar Europe, shattered by almost six years of fighting, economic recovery seemed a daunting task in 1945. And the slow pace of that recovery led to a number of policy adjustments, including the first halting steps toward European community in the form of the Schumann plan for the coal and steel industries. Concerns about recovery also led the American officials to initiate the Marshall Plan, which vastly accelerated the speed of recovery. Never just an altruistic gesture, American assistance to Europeans was motivated in large part by specific fears of Soviet aggression (as exemplified by the Berlin blockade and subsequent airlift in 1948), and more general Cold War anxieties about communism gaining a wider foothold in the devastated nations of Western Europe. Yet General George C. Marshall's plan as secretary of state also included much more than loans and requirements to "Buy American." Importantly, the genuine desire for European recovery led U.S. factories and firms to entertain scores of visitors who learned in sometimes extended stays how those establishments had served as the "arsenal of democracy" (Gimbel, 1976; Sawyer, 1954). And unlike in the 1920s and 1930s, many European industries did take advantage of the opportunity to learn how Ford's approach worked and adapted it for themselves during the period of general European economic recovery that characterized the 1950s (Zeitlin & Herrigel, 2000).

But the United States was not simply a source of technology for Europe in the postwar period; it was also a seeker of technology. That effort constitutes the other strand of the postwar technology transfer story, and is the core of Steven Koerner's article. Although he focuses on Canadian activities, the events he describes were part of a much larger, systematic program by the victors to exploit the fruits of the industrial and military technologies that had powered the Nazi war machine (Bower, 1987; Gimbel, 1990; Judt & Ciesla, 1996; Lasby, 1971). The story was long kept quiet in the United States, largely because of the concerns about public reaction to collaboration with German engineers and scientists who were Nazi party members. But Operation Paperclip, as the American effort was known, was immense [End Page 68] and especially worthwhile for the...


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