Between workshop and laboratory: Research and innovation in the electrical industry since the mid-nineteenth century

Mulhouse, 8-9 December 2005

Call for papers

It is a shared assumption among historians of technology and economic historians alike that during the first half of the twentieth century the mainsprings of innovation shifted from an activity pursued by a few highly creative individuals, most of them working as independent inventors, to one carried out by teams of specialists operating within industry, in structures specifically devoted to research.

In electrical technology, as in other fields, the transition was gradual and it has continued to the present day. Before 1914, in-house laboratories were still few in number, and their work was devoted not to the pursuit of novelty, but rather to routine tasks such as testing and quality control. Inventors, for their part, continued to play a significant role until well after the first world war, either preserving an independent status or working within or in association with firms. But in the course of the twentieth century innovation emanated increasingly from other sources as well. Often major breakthroughs were conceived and hatched by highly innovative small firms whose patents were later purchased by larger and more established companies, or assimilated by them through a process of merger. Important contributions also came from public research institutions, as well as the research laboratories of engineering and science departments in higher education.

This said, students of innovation and the history of the origins and development of organizational structures for R&D concur that by the eve of the second world war the mainstream of technological change came from industry. Laboratories were established in all the main electrical engineering firms, and the number of highly qualified personnel working within those structures increased steadily. The underlying assumption was that research was most effectively pursued within industry itself. American firms, especially large corporations, were especially prompt in recognizing the importance of the contributions emanating from in-house research, and they took the lead in this process; in fact, the early creation and growth of investment in such structures is regarded as one of the main factors in the commercial success of the American electrical industry. Typical historical studies in this vein are those by David C. Mowery and Nathan Rosenberg. Without detracting from the importance of an involvement in research activity of a fundamental character, this literature has also laid great emphasis on the D side of the R&D binomial: the main contribution of the research done within industry-based laboratories, it is argued, consists of a stream of evolutionary innovations, in the adaptation of existing technologies to new applications and in the quest for quality and effectiveness as well as cost reduction.

Yet, whether the focus is on major, radical departures or on incremental change, the attention of scholars of innovation and of R&D tends to focus on the laboratory as the locus of technological innovation. Accordingly, industrial research is taken to mean primarily an activity carried out in dedicated physical spaces, and the laboratories of the most successful companies are usually favoured both for study and as the bench-mark for the assessment of the effectiveness of any form of innovative work.

However, innovation – radical or incremental – did not necessarily emerge from departments designated as laboratories. In fact, many of the advances in electrical technology that took place before the first world war did not originate from settings that we could identify as devoted to research. And subsequently ,when research began to acquire a more prominent role within industrial establishments, the way in which it was organised and performed, its physical and institutional location, its philosophy and its practice, varied considerably as a result of the particular circumstances of the firms in which it was carried out. Its characteristics depended on a variety of factors: among them, managerial cultures, economic and geographical settings, patenting strategies, and the levels of relevant technological knowledge and know-how. If we want to explore the process by which such an extraordinary qualitative and quantitative growth was achieved, we have to adopt a broader, more flexible interpretation of the term research and of the way in which it was carried out.

—————————- Conference themes

The goal of the conference is to explore the variety of ways in which innovative activities were carried out in the electrical industry from its pioneering phase in the mid-nineteenth century to the present. While the electrical industry (including electro-metallurgy, electro-chemistry, and the applications of electronics) will provide the main focus, case studies from other industrial sectors will be considered in so far as they provide relevant terms of comparison.

Contributions drawing on current studies of in-house research laboratories, especially in European and European-based firms, will be welcomed. So will papers on interactions between industry and public or independent private laboratories. We especially invite presentations about work carried out at workshop level, in close connection with production.

Among the questions that we hope will be addressed are the following: – To what extent did the organization of research depend on particular stages in the development of a new technology? – How was innovation pursued in firms where engineering departments alone provided the environment for the formulation of production guidelines? – If we assume that the adaptation and adjustment of existing technologies require some form of engagement in research, how was this engagement pursued in firms that did not invest significantly in laboratories? Is it possible to identify firm-specific or location-dependent approaches to innovation? If so, who were the agents involved? – What do we know about the relations between industry and public and/or academic laboratories where in-house laboratories did not provide the interface? – Where laboratories were set up, to what extent did they reflect the specific approaches to innovation of the firms to which they belonged?

In the selection of papers, balance will be sought between themes and between the various periods from c. 1850 to the end of the twentieth century.

—————————- Organization

The meeting, extending over two days, will be arranged in sessions of three or four papers each. Ample time will be allocated for the discussion, which will be based on pre-circulated papers. It is one of the special aims of the meeting to encourage the participation of post-doctoral researchers and junior scholars.

Offers of papers should take the form of short abstracts of approximately 300 words, in either French or English. These should be accompanied by a short cv, including information on current research projects or publications on the theme of the conference. The abstracts and accompanying information should be sent before 25 February 2005 (using any version of Microsoft Word) to: Yves Bouvier, Chargé de mission Historie, Fondation EDF 9 avenue Percier, 75008 Paris


Scientific Committee

Robert Fox University of Oxford Anna Guagnini Università di Bologna Pascal Griset Université de Paris Sorbonne – Paris IV (CRHI) Muriel Le Roux Chargée de recherche, CNRS (IHMC) Yves Bouvier Chargé de mission Histoire, Fondation EDF François Caron Président du Comité d’Histoire de l’Électricité de la Fondation EDF, Professeur émérite de l’Université Paris Sorbonne – Paris IV. Dominique Barjot Université de Paris Sorbonne – Paris IV Alain Beltran Directeur de Recherche, CNRS (IHTP) Pierre Fluck Université de Haute-Alsace Pierre Lamard Université technologique de Belfort-Montbéliard, Florence Ott Directrice du CERARE (Centre Rhénan d’Archives et de Recherches Economiques) Serge Paquier Université de Genève Girolamo Ramunni Université Lyon Lumière – Lyon 2 Denis Varaschin Université d’Artois Claude Welty Directeur du Musée EDF Electropolis Ulrich Wengenroth Technische Universität, München