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Tim Powell

Limited, fragmentary and confined': the experience of the National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists with archives of scientists in industry

Late in 2006 I visited a warehouse of the music company EMI (Electrical and Musical Industries) at Hayes in west London to survey some archives.  It was rather a sad occasion. The company was in trouble, it had just made a financial loss of £260 million and was shortly to be taken over.  The complex at Hayes - offices, warehouses, factories, laboratories which once covered 60 hectares and employed 14,000 people - was reduced to a few offices and a couple of emptying warehouses, one of which I was in.

If you look at the History section of the EMI website it is virtually entirely devoted to their role in the recorded music industry.  It does briefly mention radar and the role of EMI in television but that’s about all.  As the website itself says, ‘EMI is a company that is focused exclusively on music’.

The Wikipedia entry on EMI, by contrast, sets out the company's many years of success with a wide range of electronic developments.  It gives rather more space for EMI scientist Alan Blumlein, killed in 1942 whilst conducting trials on experimental radar, and the company’s role in radar development, including postwar work on targeting systems for guided missiles.   The company was involved in broadcasting equipment, providing the first television transmitter to the BBC.  In 1958 the EMIDEC 1100, Britain's first transistorized computer was developed by EMI researchers under the leadership of Godfrey Hounsfield, and in the early 1970s, Hounsfield developed the Computerized Axial Tomography or CAT scanner, a device which revolutionised medical imaging and for which Godfrey Hounsfield won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1979.  Even in the late 1980s EMI’s research laboratories produced 3D positional audiotechnology for computer applications.  But since then EMI's development and manufacturing activities have been closed or sold to other companies.

Why all this history of EMI?  Well I was visiting EMI to examine archival material relating to Sir Godfrey Hounsfield.  EMI was vacating the site and in the process disposing of all its non-music related archives.   The warehouses had to be emptied by the end of the year, prior to demolition.  The British Institute of Radiology had offered to take EMI’s medical physics material, although only after heavy weeding, and had invited our involvement in connection with archives of Hounsfield.

A volunteer had identified six boxes of assorted medical physics material including fifteen boxes relating to Hounsfield.   I investigated these, with the aid of a boxlist to the archives.  The boxlist and the contents of the boxes did not always tally, an item marked ‘History’ appeared to be absent, as were some notebooks and some correspondence.  Although the EMI Archivist was present when I visited, his unenviable duty was to dispose of all EMI’s archives that did not relate directly to the music industry.

At Future Proof II, three years ago, Joe Anderson presented a paper on documenting physicists in industry.   In it he discussed issues around and challenges of, documenting industrial research and development.   You’ve just heard him bring this up-to-date.  As Joe Anderson pointed out in 2005, researchers who try to understand 20th and 21st century science by consulting solely archival sources will develop a view of a society that was rich in academic research and where the national government supported substantial science programmes.  Although his paper today was more positive, it remains true, I think, that research carried out in industry will appear, by contrast with university and government science, to be limited, fragmentary and confined to a few companies.

Limited, fragmentary and confined.  This could describe the experience of the UK’s National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists in cataloguing archives of industrial science.  From the Unit’s establishment in 1973 our work has focused primarily on the archives of distinguished scientists who made their careers in the academic environment.  This is because the Unit was set up specifically with a mission to locate, catalogue and find places of deposit for the personal papers of scientists.  In Britain by and large academic scientists own their archives.  Scientists working in industry have received less attention from us because the archives they create are much more likely to be considered part of the corporate records, and thus the property, of the company which employs them.

That said, as I prepared this talk, I was surprised to discover how many scientists whose papers we had catalogued had worked in industry.  A main reason is that the worlds of university and industry are not necessarily two closed worlds, or to borrow Menno’s metaphor, two neighbours separated by a vey high wall, but by a low fence with several gates between them.  How is this reflected in the surviving archival record?

A number of rough categories can be discerned.  There are those who spent just the initial part of their career in industry, serving an apprenticeship perhaps or studying for a degree in their spare-time and who then moved to a university post.  There are some who had a more substantial industrial experience before becoming an academic scientist.  Then there are those who worked for all or practically all their careers in large-scale industrial operations, and finally there are those who, while working in academia, built up a relationship with industry through consultancies.   I’ll examine these categories further with one or two examples of each.

An example in my first category, of scientists who spent only the early part of their career in industry, is the physicist and engineer Cecil Reginald Burch.  After graduation from Cambridge he went to work for the Research Department of the Metropolitan-Vickers Electrical Company, Manchester. He might have continued his careerin industry but following the death of his brother, Francis Burch, who worked for the same company, he moved to Imperial College London, then Bristol.   In such cases we rarely find much archival material and in this case almost all the archives from Metropolitan Vickers are those of Cecil Burch’s brother, and had been retained as a sort of memorial to him.

Sir Frederick Warner falls into my second category, of scientists with a substantial career in industry who only later in their careers moved into university life. Warner had a varied career with engineering and chemical companies from 1934, becoming Partner in the chemical engineering firm Cremer and Warner, in 1956, the company undertook work in the UK and abroad, on underground gasification of coal, large-scale plant contracts, air and water pollution, applied fluid mechanics and risk assessment.   From the late 1960s, Warner held a number of university appointments, later being based at Essex University where he worked on projects of the UN’s Scientific Committee On Problems of the Environment, SCOPE. It is the archives of SCOPE, extremely interesting and important, from the 1980s and 1990s, that dominate the collection.  Warner’s career as a chemical engineer was hardly represented in the archive, a common occurrence in such cases.  Warner told us that he had left records of this period with the company Cremer and Warner and that he thought virtually everything was destroyed when he left.  Happily, our work on his archives encouraged Warner to investigate further and he discovered that some records did survive.

Another example of a scientist with a significant pre-academic career in industry is William Sydney Elliott.  His postgraduate studies in physics were interrupted by the war when he joined the Air Defence Research and Development Establishment. Postwar, he did not enter academia but went into industry, with periods at Powell Duffryn Research Laboratories as Chief Physicist, Elliott Brothers Research Laboratories as Head of the Computing Division, Ferranti Ltd working on the Pegasus Computer and then IBM.   It was after experience with three computer industry companies that Elliott joined academia as Co-ordinator of the Titan (Atlas 2) Project in the Cambridge University Mathematical Laboratory.  His industrial ties were important as it was a joint project with Ferranti to provide a computer service for the university.   In the early 1970s Elliott, now Professor of Computing at Imperial College London, formed the consultancy company Graphical Software Ltd, bringing academic and industrial together.  In passing it is worth noting that computer science appears an area which offers particular opportunities for interconnections between industry and academia.  Another computer scientist whose archives we have recently catalogued was Neil Ernest Wiseman, who similarly worked in the computer industry before moving to the University of Cambridge, as Chief Engineer of the University Computer Laboratory.  In 1977 he too set up a consultancy company, Fendragon Ltd.  We are more likely to find archival material when the industrial research was significant in directly informing the nature of the scientist’s later academic work.

The Unit has catalogued the archives of some scientists who effectively spent all their careers in industry.  This is my third category.  The gas engineer Sir Kenneth Hutchison decided against an academic career and chose to work in industry, joining the Gas Light and Coke Company as a research chemist.  He had a distinguished career and during the 1950s and 1960s played a crucial role in transforming the fortunes of the nationalised gas industry.   The surviving archival material was that assembled by him specifically for his autobiography, High Speed Gas.

However, in a few exceptional cases, a good archival record of a scientist who effectively spent their whole career in industry has survived and come to us.  An outstanding example is that of the geologist Sir Peter Kent.  He joined the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (later British Petroleum, BP) as Assistant Geologist in the 1930s. He surveyed widely in the UK and overseas. In 1959 BP began investigating oil prospects in north Alaska.  BP Exploration was formed with Kent as its first President and the work of Kent and his team led to the discovery of two huge oilfields. Kent held a number of posts with British Petroleum including Chief Geologist 1966-1971 and Exploration Manager 1971-1973.  This very large collection covers almost all aspects of Kent's oil exploration and geological research with BP from work in Lincolnshire in 1936 to the North Sea discoveries of the 1960s and 1970s.   Kent’s postgraduate studies had fed directly into his first duties with Anglo-Iranian which may be why he understood the academic value and long-term significance of his surveying work.

Even in the few examples I’ve given we have seen a range of scientists working in industry and career patterns in which the academic and industrial careers intertwine and are not exclusive but could support each other.  In this context of close relations between academic and industrial science one thinks of the academic scientist as consultant.   This is the fourth category I identified.

Usually where documentation comes to us the scientist was acting as an individual.  One particularly well-documented interaction is that between UK physicists and the diamond exploration and trading group De Beers. The archives of Robert William Ditchburn and Sir Charles Frank contained good records of this relationship and the De Beers connection continues at present time with ongoing cataloguing of archive of E.W. J. Mitchell.  The records that arise are usually governed by academic rather than commercial ideas of ownership and hence good documentation often survives.

In some other cases, the academic scientist conducts a consultancy through their own company.  We have seen this in the examples of Elliott and Wiseman in computer science.  Two further examples, from more traditional industrial activity, are documented in the remarkable and huge collections of the geotechnical scientists Edgar Morton and Peter Rowe.  These Manchester University scientists were involved in a wide range of geotechnical consultancies, chiefly dams and reservoirs, though also including underground water, road construction problems, subsidence from coal mining and salt extraction, land stability, refuse disposal, and site assessments for power plants and housing developments, chiefly through the consulting company Edgar Morton and Partner.  It is in this context that the archive survives.

There is not time to explore all the relationships that could exist between industry, academia and indeed government science, but I should mention a final example that does not really fit any of the categories.  This is the archive of the industrial chemist Oswald John Silberrad.  This remarkable archive documents in detail the work of the Silberrad Research Laboratories which he founded in 1907, and his company Ergite Ltd, which undertook research and production of explosives.  The archives of the companies are in effect Silberrad’s personal archive.

So, based on this very brief overview of archives of industrial science in the personal archives of scientists we have catalogued, can I make any general observations?

I think it is worth stressing that the distinctions between scientists working in industry, in universities and in government science are not always clear-cut.  Not only do individuals move back and forth during their careers, but they can be working in more than one sector at once.  This is a trend likely to continue in the UK as universities encourage their staff to pursue partnerships with industry and, indeed, set up their own companies.  It is true that where a scientist does have a cross-sectoral career, it is the records of their industrial period that are, on the whole, less likely to survive.  In most of the cases where a significant industrial component has come to us in the archive, it is because the scientist or their archive is in some way exceptional.  There is a greater chance of survival where the material relating to industrial activities can be considered also to be personal papers, as for example when it’s the scientist’s own company that is being documented.

  It is worth observing that there are virtually no examples of any significant documentation of scientists who had connections with the pharmaceutical industry, for example, This almost certainly reflects the legal requirements in this area as much as it does the demands of commercial confidentiality. 

It has helped that there are repositories willing to take these archives.  Three repositories, Churchill Archives Centre in Cambridge, Imperial College London and the Science Museum have taken just over a third of the archives catalogued by us that had a significant industrial component.

It helps if the scientist is a Fellow of the Royal Society, as this gets him or her into the Unit’s normal system for making enquiries.  The fact that the Unit is well-established and well-known is also a factor.  Some of the archives I mentioned, those of Edgar Morton and Peter Rowe, are cases in point, may well have been languishing still had colleagues at Manchester University not been able to turn to us.  We were able to find the staff to do this specialised cataloguing and they were better able to secure money for the work once they had established our participation.

Recognised archives principles argue that archives of scientists in industry form a part of the corporate archives of the industrial concerns for which they work.  However, Joe Anderson set out some of the difficulties faced by archivists in preserving such archives, the lack of a legislative requirement for retention of records, the lack of repositories interested in such records, the fear of litigation, the proprietary nature of much corporate research and the unwillingness to spend money on non-commercial activity.  Now, the strategy recommended to archivists in the UK has been to stress to the management of a company the value of its past.  There are cases where this has worked well in persuading companies to retain and make use of archives. However, this strategy, it seems to me, is based upon a model of industrial companies that is, at least in Britain, perhaps a little old-fashioned.

Let me return to the example with which I began, that of EMI and the archives of Sir Godfrey Hounsfield.  The company EMI was the product of a series of mergers and takeovers over many years.  This is nothing new.  However, the company which took over and now owns EMI, Terra Firma Capital Partners, is not another electrical, electronics or even music company.  It is a private equity firm. It buys and sells companies with little or no long-term interest.  The EMI experience, moreover, is not an isolated one.  As EMI’s website shows, it is ruthlessly recasting the company’s past in terms of present commercial interests.  So a model of archives in industry that implicitly assumes stable and long-lived companies with a vested interest in their past, if only they realized it, may be less valid now.   In this environment, do we need a different approach to preserving archives of science in industry and, particularly of scientists in industry?   Or is it inevitable that we shall see more examples of companies recasting their history and assigning archives solely in terms of immediate financial interests?

In the next year or so we anticipate bringing to Bath the archive of Sir Gareth Roberts, Sir Godfrey Hounsfield’s successor as Director of Research at EMI, a scientist whose career saw him move several times between university posts and industry.  He told us before his death that he had felt no confidence in EMI’s record-keeping while working for them and consequently had ensured he retained relevant material from his time with that company.  It is now waiting for us in his garage.  Perhaps in some situations there is, after all, a case for focusing on the individual scientist?