AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXXVI , No. 2, Fall 2004

 

Project to Document the History of Physicists in Industry Reaches Halfway Mark
by Joe Anderson

The AIP Center for History of Physics' three-year Project to Document the History of Physicists in Industry is now in the middle of its second year and making good progress (see this Newsletter, Fall 2003). Meanwhile we're laying plans to continue work with industrial physicists once the current, grant-funded undertaking ends. The study is designed to develop realistic strategies and approaches for preserving historically valuable records of physicists who work in the corporate sector and, at the same time, create a collection of oral history interviews that helps document their work.

The main work completed so far:

• We completed site visits at nine industrial laboratories (3M, Corning, Eastman Kodak, ExxonMobil, General Electric, IBM, Lucent Technologies, Texas Instruments, and Xerox) out of the fifteen that we're targeting in the study,

• Staff conducted question-set interviews with 54 physicists and R&D managers and 18 information professionals at the companies we have visited,

• We finished the first two of fifteen or more longer autobiographical interviews with eminent industrial physicists,

• We began visits to selected public archives that collect and preserve industrial records, and

• The American Institute of Physics launched a campaign to create a small endowment to continue our work to preserve the history of corporate physicists after the current study is finished.

Although more than half of all physicists work in industry, only some 10% of the physicists represented in the oral histories in the History Center's Niels Bohr Library have had careers centered in industry. We aim to systematically strengthen this collection during the project and beyond. Under the project's grant funds, we will conduct a total of at least 15 career-length autobiographical interviews, and when the endowment is funded it will insure that we can continue to target distinguished industrial physicists in perpetuity. We're currently compiling a master list of significant physicists in industrial R&D with whom we would like to conduct full autobiographical interviews, and we have solicited advice and recommendations from more than 30 distinguished physicists and historians of science. We welcome input from others as well. We have found that, unlike the academic physicists we have mainly dealt with in the past, few industrial physicists have an overview broad enough to identify many leading figures outside their own immediate corporate environment.

Project staff have been editing the transcripts of more than 50 structured, question-set interviews that we have completed so far during the site visits. With the permission of the people interviewed, these will also be added to our oral history collection at the end of the project. Analysis of the interviews using appropriate analytical tools is getting started, and will be a central activity during the second half of the project.

Although we have only begun formal analysis of the interviews, we have an initial impression that the records-keeping patterns in most of the companies that we have visited are highly diverse. In general, we have found little provision for systematically preserving the history of industrial research and development. In addition, all of the firms are grappling with the transformation of communication from paper to electronic form and the accompanying problems of data appraisal, storage, and retrieval. At the same time, the scientists and managers we have met during the site visits generally show interest in preserving the history of their own work and that of their labs. We hope through this study to stimulate their interest and give them guidelines and tools that they can use to take action.

For additional information, contact the project director, Joe Anderson (janderso@aip.org, 301-209-3183), or the project historian, Thomas Lassman (tlassman@aip.org, 301-209-3167).


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AIP History CenterCenter for History of Physics
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Phone: 301-209-3165
American Institute of Physics 2004 American Institute of Physics, One Physics Ellipse, College Park, MD 20740-3843. Email: aipinfo@aip.org
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