AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXXIV , No. 2, Fall 2002


History Center Begins Project to Document the History of Physics in Industry

This fall the AIP Center for History of Physics launches a projected three-year effort to create a national documentation strategy to preserve the historically valuable records of physicists in industry. Supported by lead funding from the Avenir Foundation and the National Science Foundation, the study represents the first systematic investigation of records-keeping practices and needs in high-tech industry. It is a continuationin an especially complex areaof the Center's ongoing work to develop strategies for saving hard-to-preserve records in physics and allied fields.

More than one-third of all the physicists in the U.S. today are employed in industry, and the country's economic dominance rests on a brilliant century of corporate research and innovation. Scientists in industry, like their peers in academe and government labs, are proud of their history, but industrial R&D is one of the least documented areas of our society. In contrast to European practices, very few American corporations maintain in-house archives to document their own programs, and perhaps even fewer academic and public archives in the U.S. actively collect and preserve the history of industry.

The lack of adequate documentary sources has discouraged historians and other scholars from exploring industrial research. Poor documentation also means that corporate scientists themselves are not able to profit from their usable past. Further, the transition to electronic records systems in corporate research, as in other aspects of business, is creating a critical need to identify and preserve extant paper records. For the electronic records themselves, front-end appraisal and preservation models are needed. While electronic systems offer the opportunity to preserve important records as they are created, without adequate planning they increase the risks that records will be deleted as soon as they become inactive.

The study's key activities will consist of: 1) question set interviews with records creators, records users, and information professionals at the 15 high-tech corporations we will include in the study; 2) career-length oral history interviews with 15-20 senior industrial physicists; 3) records surveys to identify extant corporate records, laboratory notebooks and other sources, in both paper and electronic form; 4) cataloging of records that we identify in our online International Catalog of Sources (ICOS); and 5) study of existing public and private archival programs that document industry in the U.S. and Europe. The 15 companies in the study will be selected from the 25 major employers of physicists in American industry, to create a stratified sample of current high-tech companies.

We plan to interview three scientists and two R&D managers at each of the companies in the study, plus archivists, records managers and other information professionals. Meanwhile we will conduct on-site records surveys. The project is led by the AIP History Center's Associate Director, Joe Anderson, with help from The Center's Director, Spencer Weart, and three staff archivists (including a specialist in archival automation and electronic systems). Much of the work will be carried out by a full-time Project Historian, Tom Lassman. He completed a Ph.D. in history of science at Johns Hopkins in 2000 with a thesis addressing mid-twentieth-century industrial physics administration. An advisory committee composed of distinguished corporate scientists, archivists and historians will play an active role in advising the staff and shaping the development of the project.

A principle product of the study will be published reports that present our findings and endeavor to outline new frameworks for identifying, appraising, and preserving historically valuable industrial R&D records, both past and present. The recommendations will be broadly applicable to corporate science in general and will place special emphasis on cost-effective approaches that build on existing records-keeping systems. A second main product of the study will be the approximately 100 oral history interviews with senior corporate scientists and science managers. Also useful to future historians will be the online descriptions of extant records that we will identify through the course of the study.

As we get underway, the Center is continuing to work to raise money for the final phase of the study. We are especially grateful to the Avenir Foundation and NSF for providing lead funding.

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AIP History CenterCenter for History of Physics
Phone: 301-209-3165
American Institute of Physics 2003 American Institute of Physics, One Physics Ellipse, College Park, MD 20740-3843. Email: Phone: 301-209-3100; Fax: 301-209-0843