AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXXV , No. 2, Fall 2003

 

Project to Document History of Physicists in Industry Completes First Year

Doug Allan (left) reviews one of his laboratory notebooks with AIP project historian Tom Lassman

Corning physicist Doug Allan (left) reviews one of his laboratory notebooks with AIP project historian Tom Lassman, May 2003. Photo courtesy AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Click on photo to see a larger version.

Industrial R&D remains the least documented of the three major theaters — academic, government, and corporate — of scientific research in America. Addressing this problem head-on, the History Center's three-year Project to Document the History of Physicists in Industry completes its first year this November. The study, like other documentation research work that the Center has undertaken, is designed to develop strategies and recommendations for saving hard-to-preserve records in the history of science, as well as to fill gaps in the existing historical record by conducting oral history interviews with scientists.

During this first phase of the study, we are concentrating on structured interviews with bench scientists, R&D managers, and information professionals at leading corporate labs. Using standard question sets, we are probing how research projects got started, how scientists and science managers communicated and worked with one another, what kinds of records have been created in the course of research projects and how scientists have used them, and what becomes of records when they are no longer active. Special areas of interest include the effects of e-mail and electronic record-keeping on communications, and the current role of the once ubiquitous laboratory notebook and other traditional records. These question-set interviews average about two hours in length. Along the way we are taking the opportunity to ask scientists about their education and career paths and inquire about such questions as how the organization and funding of industrial R&D has changed over the past several decades.

Project staff spent the first several months doing background research, selecting the 15 companies that we are inviting to participate in the study, and developing question sets. Gaining corporate permission to interview scientists was also an important activity, with gratifyingly cooperative responses. We began field work in March, and as of this writing we have conducted interviews with 33 scientists and R&D managers and 15 archivists, records managers and librarians at six major industrial labs: IBM, Xerox, Corning, General Electric, Eastman Kodak, and Lucent Technologies. During the next three months we are scheduled to visit the central R&D laboratories of Texas Instruments, Exxon Mobil, and 3M.

While it's too early to begin drawing any concrete findings, the initial interviews have been very informative and some initial patterns are beginning to emerge. A number of the scientists and information professionals have been frank in discussing a breakdown in record-keeping practices as electronic records supplant paper ones. In some labs, the traditional laboratory notebook has fallen by the wayside without being replaced by effective electronic equivalents. Many researchers also describe another effect of electronic communications and especially e-mail: a decrease in face-to-face interaction with coworkers, while long-distance collaboration has become easier. Differences are as prominant as similarities. As just one example, all high-tech companies are facing a tough economic environment today, but the effects of the current economic malaise on the companies that we're studyingand on their R&D programsvary markedly. As we complete the early interviews, we are reviewing and revising the question sets. Once the project is completed and we have analyzed these interviews for the purposes of the study, we will add them to the collections of the Niels Bohr Library (with the permission of the interview subjects) for the use of future scholars.

As we move into the second year of the study we will expand project activities. In addition to pursuing the structured interviews we will start conducting longer, autobiographical oral history interviews with a small group of especially influential industrial physicists and R&D managers. We will also begin studying public and private archival programs that currently collect and preserve the history of industry, and the project historian will continue work on a historiographical essay on American industrial research. For questions or additional information please contact project director Joe Anderson (rja@aip.org, 301-209-3183) or project historian Tom Lassman (tlassman@aip.org, 301-209-3167).


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