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Christian Hillen

R&D holdings in German regional business archives

When Peter Harper asked me to give a paper on the R&D holdings of regional business archives in Germany I thought: great, I’m going to talk about all the exciting R&D documents we have in our repository. Then, on seconds thoughts, I tried to figure out which would be the kind of documents that would be of interest for this audience, and the number of things I could think of dropped dramtically.

Why, you might ask yourself, do Regional Business Archives in Germany have so few records on research and development althought theirs holdings comprise a large number of innovative companies, small as well as large, sometimes even global players, as they might be termed these days. I will try to answer that question with this paper. But don’t worry, I will not only talk about what you can’t find in our archives. I will definetely talk about what you can find in Regional Business Archives. In fact that will be the emphasis of my paper.

Knowing the number and extent of our own research and development holdings quite well, I did not have any idea about what the situation was like in the other Regional Business Archives. So I conducetd a small survey and asked my colleagues what kind of records on R&D they have, how much it is, what they think can be done with that material. I was quite surprised to learn that the situation in the other archives was similar – with the execption of the Baden-Württembergische Business Archive maybe. Then I also asked why my colleagues thought that this was so. Therefore my conclusions are not solely mine; I owe my colleagues a lot for their input and ideas.

But before talking about our R&D holdings you might want to learn something on what we in Germany term Regional Business Archives, because this is a rather not so common type of archive and it might help to understand why research and development records are comparatively rare. So let me start telling you about the history and the structure of Regional Business Archives.

The first Regional Business Archive, the Rheinisch-Westfälische Wirtschaftsarchiv in Cologne, was founded in 1906, which makes it the oldest Regional Business Archive of the world. Initiated by the chambers of commerce in Cologne and Düsseldorf, the Handelhochschule which later was to become the University of Cologne, and the municapal archives of the cities of Cologne and Düsseldorf the other chambers of commerce from the Rhineland and Westfalia cooperated in the foundation of a archive dedicated to the safe-keeping of busieness records. This was not limited to company records but also – and this makes the concept rather special – records of the chambers of commerce. Other Regional Business Archives followed after the second world war. Today there are six established institutes of that kind: in Cologne, in Dortmund, in Wiesbaden, in Stuttgart, in Munich and in Leipzig. Number seven has just been founded in Hamburg and is about to reach full operability this year. In Berlin there are also efforts to establish a Regional Business Archive which have not been successful up to this date. Braunschweig claims to have such an archive, but since the chambers of commerce do not work together with this institution it can hardly be a real Regional Business Archive, because the records of the chambers are essential to this type of archive.

This leads me to a few words about the concept. As I said the records of the chambers of commerce are essential, because with their help the economic structure of a certain region can be reconstructed, at least to a certain degree. Without these records it would be impossible. Why? As you know for every business in Germany it is mandatory to be a member of the chamber of commerce since 1897. That means every business has its own file as a member of the chamber. These files are usually not very voluminous but contain at least a certain minimum of information on the particular business: when was it founded, who founded it, the nature of the business, and when it went out of business. As you will understand the available information allows you to paint a rough picture of the regional economic structure but not of the R&D activities of a single company. Roughly 20-30% of our holdings are holdings from chambers of commerce and therefore do not contain any material on research and development. This holds also true for the records of the chambers of craft, which most of the Regional Business Archives also hold, and personal records of entrepreneurs and managers. Neither do – for obvious reasons – records of unions and others business associations contain R&D information.

By far the most records stored in Regional Business Archives are those form businesses. But since Regional Business Archives understand themselves as institutions that try to preserve a region’s economic structure and character, records from all kinds of businesses are saved. Among them – of course – businesses that have no research and development departments, because they don’t need it, such as banks, wholesale or retaildealers and companies from the service sector.

Now let us turn from the holdings where no R&D material can be expected to those which actually contain the desired matter.

In almost all companies which conducted research and development patents and technical plans have survived. Sometimes these plans and the descriptions of the invention that has been patented are quite detailed. One of our holdings, the A. Nattermann & Cie. GmbH, a pharamceutical company from Cologne, is 95% patents on chemical and pharmaceutical products. Also very detailed are the reports of the TÜV, the Technical Inspection Authority, whose task was and is to test all kinds of technical equipment and report on its safety. In the past, i.e. in the 19th century, that refers mainly to steam-engines, later lifts, converyor belts and – as I said – all other kinds of machines were added to the portfolio of mandatory testing by the TÜV. This means that quite a lot can be learned about the products companies developed. It does not mean we learn anything on the process of invention, or on the way these products were developed. Most of the time we only have the end product of the development process in our records.

Rarely do we have lab diaries or other technical notes on the research process. Lucky is our archvie to possess the some of the rare notebooks of engineers: the notebooks of Eugen Langen. He invented the sugar cube and the suspension railway, the only model of which, that has been built worldwide, can still be seen and used in Wuppertal. Theses notebooks contain Langen’s idea about the things he was working on or had in mind. He also put down sketches. In addition we also have copy books of his correspondence with other engineers and inventors.

A few exceptions are the follwing examples which are certainly not complete but present a pretty good picture of the overall situation. If a few more test reports and lab diaries can be found in Regional Business Archives it becomes quite clear that real R&D records survived only for the minority of the company holdings, and even if they did their tradition is only very sparse.

A company where you wouldn’t expect any kind of research is the construction company Beton- und Monierbau from Stuttgart. But contrary to the expectation they obviously had a Betonlabor, a concrete laboratory, of which records have survived.

The records of the Sächsische Porzellanwerk Freiberg GmbH, Freiberg, the Saxonian China-Works from Freiberg actually contain application for R&D subsidies by the State.

Hahn & Kolb GmbH & Co. from Stuttgart, a wholesale company for tools and machine tools kept their records of the development of several of their machines. Obviosly they did not only sell machines but must have constructed them.

An examle of a company where you would expect R&D records and indeed find some are the Hüttenwerke Königsbronn, the smelting works in Königsbronn. Here reports of serveral of their test form 1808 to 1889 have survived. The same applys to the Hüttenwerke Wasseralfingen, the smelting works Wasseralfingen. Their records of chemical test are from 1828 to 1885.

For the Paul Jaeger & Co. KG, a paint factory from Möglingen, even the lab-diaries are still available.

Very good is the situation for the Voith Machine Works from Heidenheim. Records of inventions, patents, correspondence with enigneers and inventors and a lot more on the development of their products (which are mainly turbines and propellors) can still be found in the Regional Business Archive of Baden-Württemberg. The reason for this – so to speak – abundance may be that Voith is still a living  and thriving business which works closely thogether with the archive. Maybe this situation has influence on the choice of records to be archived.

Quite exciting are the records on the development of liquid fuel rocket engines of the Christian Wagner Metall Works from Esslingen, because they give proof af the cooperation with Wernher von Braun, as you know one of the pioneers, if not the pioneer of rocket technology.

Companies from the textile sector sometimes have a few records on research and development, because the need to adapt to the changes in fashion quickly and flexibly forced them to systematically reserach new technologies of production or dyeing of textiles, either themselves or in colaboration with universities. For example Wülfing & Sohn, a company I will talk about later in a different context, did have their own laboratory and therefore a few lab reports have survived. But they did not conduct all their research by themselves. They were member of different assiciations supporting research at universities. As a paying member they profited from the results in the form of regular newsletters, or they could have their own individual research project been conducted, for which they probably would have has to pay, I think.

The Leop. Krawinkel GmbH & Co. KG from Bergneustadt, in the Bergische Land as well, also held different memberschips in such associations such as the Verein Deutsches Wollforschungsinstitut an der Technischen Hochschule Aachen, the Friends and Supporters of the German Institute for Wool-Research at the Technical University of Aix la Chapelle.

Another example: records related to the dyeing of textiles would be the archive of the doubling mill J.J. Anner from Reutlingen in which dyeing recipies have been passed down to us. So called Rezeptbücher, book with recipies, have also survived sometimes in chemical companies, for example the in the Bostik Oberursel AG from Oberursel, a factory producing chemicals for the conservation of leather, or the Arzneimittel Dresden GmbH, Radebeul, specialized in penicillin and other pharmaceuticals. Of course recipie books are, similar to patents, only the result of research and development. Rarely do notes on how these recipies were „composed“ survive.

A slightly differnt picture is presented by the companies whose business it is to sell technology. By that I mean companies who do research while they are producing. That is definetely true for the suppliers of energy, or electric energy to be specific. They always had to deal with imponderabilities and had to develop their plants or networks while they were building them. It seems that therefore more of the R&D records have survived.

The records of the Electricity works Argenwerke from Wangen im Allgäu contain plans for their power supply systems, their hydroelectric power plants along the river Argen and the so called Dampfkesselrevisionsbücher of the TÜV inspections, i.e. the steam engine revsion reports by the Technical Inspection Authority. I mentioned this type of sources earlier.

The archives of the Badenwerke similarly contain records on the different plants, only that this time not only hydroelectric but also nuclear power plants are among them. The Elektrizitätsversorgung Württemberg AG have passed on notes of a series of tests in cooperation with the Studiengesellschaft für Höchstspannunganlagen (the Organization for High-Voltage Facilities) in 1935, and on experiments with short circuits in power grids.

Methods of energy generation caused new technological developments. Sometimes records have been passed down on us by companies where you wouldn’t expect it, for example the spinning company Johann Wülfing & Sohn from Remscheid located in the socalled Bergische Land. The Bergische Land has a lot of rainfall and the many rivers and brooks have always been used for the generation of energy. Since Wülfing & Sohn were situated near a river fit for energy generation the company did of course exploit this source. In the the early 19th century the stream was used to generate mechnical energy. With the „invention“ of electricity Wülfing switched to the production of electrical energy for their own machines by building their own, small heydroelectic power plant. Since they had their own engineer to design the methods of energy generation plenty of records especially concerning the river and its suitability for this puropse have survived. It is a special collection within the company archive called the Technische Archiv für das Wuppergebiet, the Technical Archive for the Wupper-Region (Wupper is the name of the river).

The Cologne based company Felten and Guilleaume developed from a manufacturer of ropes to a globally acting wire and cable factory. The development of their products was closely related to the development of the transmission of electrical energy as well as the expanding new technology of telecommunication. Felten & Guilleaume had three different Versuchsanstalten, research departments: one for telecommunication wires, one for high voltage cables and one for substances. The abundant material ranges from monthly and annual reports to photgraphs of the laboratories. A collection of the research and development projects has survived as well as information of the R&D personell. One could justly say that in fact the whole Felten & Guilleaum archive is a research and development archive, because its original intention seems to have been to serve as a historical refence tool for the company's enigneers. Inormation on the owning family, the management and the commercial side of the business appear rather as an addition to the archive than its core, as usually is the case.

This is also true for the Klöckner-Hunboldt-Deutz archive. A lot of technical information is available in this archive of the famous motor- and tractor works. Famous because it is the cradle of the world’s motorization. Nikolaus August Otto, the inventor of the Otto-Motor, that runs in most of todays cars founded the company N. A. Otto & Cie. in 1864 which developed into todays Deutz AG. Co-founder was Eugen Langen, who I mentioned earlier. A lot of technical information on one of the world’s most famous and most influetential inventions can be found in this archive. Some lab reports of the 1890ies and the early 1900dreds are also available.

You may also find material on other motors, for example tests for a nitrogen dioxyde-Motor for submarines before World War I. The motor war never built in mass-production, but lab reports and even photographs of the development process have been passed down on us.

Even if the tradition of R&D records is on the whole rather sparse it does not mean visiting a Regional Business Archive is not worth while. Sometimes more material can be discovered if you  look at the problem from a different angle.

Sometimes very specialized libraries come with the records of a company, because unfortunately for buisnesses old paper equals old paper, no matter if it comes as a file or a book. These libraries oftentimes hold books and series of professional journals with articles on the latest technological developments. The RWWA for example holds the library of Stollwerck AG, a very important manufacturer of chocolate bars and other chocolate products. The company used to have a subscription to „Gordian. Internationale Zeitschrift für Lebensmittel und Lebensmitteltechnologie“ (i.e. „The International Journal of Foods and Food Technology“). 4711, the most famous producer of Eau de Cologne – now guess why this kind of fragrance is called Eau de Cologne – used to have a collection of books, sometimes very old a rare books, on the production of fragrances and related topics. The Bavarian Business Archive has a very specialized library on calcium cyanamide of the calcium cyanamide producers’ research group accpomanied by test reports of fertilisation with calcium cyanamide from 1931 to 1969.

Sometimes information on technological development can also be found in legal documentation of law suits on patents. The Perrot GmbH & Co., a company for sprinkler irrigation technology for instance went to court to defend a certain patent they possessed. Of course the technical details had to be presented at court and these documents survived.

There is not only research in the classical sense, i.e. the research concerning the technological reserach of new products but also market research. This applies mainly to companies in the consumer goods sector. The companies 4711 and Stollwerck, manufacturers of fragrances and chocolate have conducted intensive market research since the 1960s, the results of which are still in the archive. But this is not necessarily the kind of research that is of interest in our context.

The question remains, why are there so few and little R&D holdings in Regional Business Archives. I can only speculate about the reasons. Quite possibly commercial records have been considered more valuable than technology related ones. Maybe the obligation to keep commercial records for a certain amount of time at the disposal of the tax and revenue authorities is responsible for this attitude.

I also wondered, if there had been any systemtical research – with labs and separate departments within the company and of course written documentation. Or did development take place without research, i.e. the systemtic effort to improve the products of the company, just by experimenting in the workshop after closing time. This may be true for some companies, especially smaller ones, of the 19th and early 20th century. I discussed this question with some of my colleagues and they agreed that there had been systematic research and development, but unfortunately the record did not survive.

So the reasons why there are so few R&D holdings in the regional business archives can perhaps be found in their history: the original intention for the foundation of Rheinisch-Westfälische Business Archive was to reserve entrepreneurs the place in history they deserved. This is true for all the Regional Business Archives. Therefore the bulk of records that was kept were records on the entrepreneurial activities. Records on technical developments were clearly not the focus. Of course this also had to do with the personell: almost all archivists were and are either trained historians or MBA’s. That ist to say they – and I include myself – have no clue whatsoever about technology or science and their history.

But maybe it has also to do with the companies themselves which do not want their valuable research records beeing made accessible to the public, even if the research is 50 or 100 years old – we do indeed have one such case. They would rather destroy the records than hand them over to a public archive, which we are.

In general it seems that more often the results of research and development, i.e. patents, plans and reports by the TÜV or recipie book have survived than real R&D records. But I hope I was able to show that Regional Business Archives are not completely without interest for historians of sciences. They can provide rather unsual material and they can function as an information hub for R&D related historical research.