In the first post about our 2019 BSHS Engagement Fellowships, Lewis C. Smith, PhD student at the University of Essex, and Richard Anderson, Archives and Collections Lead at Essex Record Office, Chelmsford, describe the work Lewis did on the archives of the Marconi Company. That work will feed into a project to digitise the Marconi photographic collections, as well as celebrations for the 100th anniversary of Marconi’s first ever advertised public broadcast.
The BSHS Engagement Fellowships are opportunities for postgraduate students to collaborate with museums, archives and other heritage organisations. The collaborations generate new engagement activities, exhibition content or resources that are based on emerging scholarship in History of Science. Heritage organisations who might be interested in hosting Engagement Fellows in 2020 can contact Elizabeth Haines at [email protected]
Lewis C. Smith – BSHS Engagement Fellow
I started the fellowship with a single question, for which I am still not certain of the answer – what is in the Marconi Photographic Section’s archive? There was only one way of finding this out: to grab a box and start looking.
We take wireless communication for granted: we expect that our phones can make phone calls, our televisions to show us detailed images and our GPS systems to tell us where we are. The concept of wireless communication, that is, the communication of one thing to another without the need of a physical connection, was pioneered by the Marconi Company. Any technology that does this will in some way derive from the advances made by Marconi.
So, what did such an organisation take pictures of? The short answer is of their products and the inventions created by the organisation itself including marketing shots of circuit boards and machinery that the organisation were looking to sell. But this wasn’t a surprise, what was more important is everything else: the Photographic Section captured its employees at work, its premises across the planet, schematics, artwork and adverts. To me, the most fascinating was the box of ‘Historical Reprints’, which were pictures that had been continually reprinted since their original captures. This gave a real insight into the company values and directions, particularly in the images of the transcripts from some of the first messages and some handwritten notes from Marconi himself.
The key issue for the Record Office was that they wanted more people to use this collection, and there have been a couple of important outputs. I like to think that I already had an advantage in this because people like images – pictures make a much more publicly engaging historical narrative than words can (unless its of a Type 656 Short Wave Service Oscillator, which can somewhat deaden the imagination). I have written a couple of blog posts and in May I hope to raise the profile of the collection further through a Pint of Science talk in Colchester. I am working with other organisations to contribute to raising the profile of the history of science and technology in Essex, something for which history has mostly forgotten.
But there is more to this archive than simply a collection of images. The Marconi Company were global and intrinsically interlinked with the British Empire. My big question, which will form the basis of future research, is to consider what a corporation’s photography tells us about the corporation itself – what did they want pictures of? What does this tell us about the history of building images of an organisation? And how can we use these lessons to analyse current and future organisations? These are questions I hope to explore in-between my own doctoral research, and questions I hope to publish on in the (relatively) near future.
I would like to thank the British Society for the History of Science for the opportunity to spend time looking at the collection – a privilege that is extremely rare in academic research and often undermined by deadlines and a need to meet the REF scores. In addition, I would also like to thank the Essex Record Office for hosting the project and for allowing me to choose where I went with the content.
Richard Anderson, Archives and Collections Lead at Essex Record Office
Essex Record Office is the storehouse of Essex history, based in the centre of the historic county of Essex in Chelmsford. Foremost among Chelmsford’s historic industries was the mighty engineering concern Marconi, and prime among Essex Record Office’s most remarkable – but thus far least accessible – collections is the image library of the Marconi Photographic Section and its successors. At the Record Office we were therefore delighted to have Lewis Smith of the University of Essex with us for much of late 2019 as our first BSHS Engagement Fellow to explore this extraordinary asset. Lewis brought to his survey of the image collection a robust background in transport and engineering history, but also a great facility with datasets and diagrams. As he mentions, it’s a vast collection of glass plates and prints, but I think he underestimates how much more certain of the content of the archive we are now after his explorations into the archive!
As the Record Office moves into a phase of creating digital images of many of the prints, Lewis’s work is proving invaluable in allowing us to systematically select which images are most likely to be of wider interest, whether academic or lay. By grouping images geographically he has highlighted the breadth of the interregional and international importance; by highlighting important apparatus he has assisted in the selection of crucial engineering images; and by showing such assiduousness in working through the boxes he has broadened the potential knowledge base for later researchers.
2020 sees the 100th anniversary of Marconi making the first ever advertised public broadcast, and is also the Year of Science of Creativity in Essex. We’re looking forward to exploring these themes with the considerable aid of Lewis’s research into the Marconi archives