Accounting for Research: New Histories of Corporate Laboratories and the Social History of American Science

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Industrial research is acclaimed as the motor of contemporary American economic growth. This paper discusses several recent histories of corporate laboratories and industrial research by explicating common themes and assumptions. Alfred D. Chandler's work on business organization in late nineteenth-century America is the interpretative framework used in two recent and important histories - Leonard Reich's The Making of American Industrial Research: Science and Business at GE and Bell, 1876-1926, and George Wise's Willis R. Whitney, General Electric, and the Origins of US Industrial Research. Both works provide rich accounts concerning the reasons why firms invested in research laboratories. Both also reveal the problems inherent in using Robert Merton's sociology of scientists in discussions of researchers working outside of the discipline-oriented university. The remainder of the paper replaces the normative sociological framework found in these recent histories with an analysis that locates the first corporate laboratories within the history of late-nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American science.

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  • Michael Aaron Dennis

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