Brown Bag Lecture: Commercializing Academic Knowledge and Reputation in the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries: Photography and Beyond

Lunchtime Lectures
Monday, March 20, 2017
12:00 p.m.–1:00 p.m.
Chemical Heritage Foundation
315 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106
United States

Join us for a Brown Bag Lecture with Joris Mercelis, visiting from Johns Hopkins University.

This talk provides a historical perspective on the recent proliferation of “market universities” by arguing that the involvement of late-19th- and early-20th-century academic scientists in commercial work was more common than is often claimed. It also presents alternative explanations of why these scientists did or did not engage in such work, focusing on their responsibilities as employees of higher-education institutions rather than on moral reservations or concerns about the public standing of science. I first demonstrate that on both sides of the Atlantic, academic teachers and researchers pursued photography-related opportunities by 1) consulting for private firms, 2) patenting, and 3) participating in the creation of new business enterprises. For example, for a mix of financial and nonfinancial motives, the first two photochemistry professors of the Technische Hochschule Berlin–Charlottenburg, Hermann Vogel (1834–1898) and Adolf Miethe (1862–1927), were involved in these different forms of commercial work throughout their academic careers. Vogel and Miethe’s supervisory authorities regularly received complaints concerning these activities, but, unlike with two junior colleagues of these photochemists, never initiated strong sanctions.

The second part of the talk discusses how these findings on photography compare with those of other contributions to a special journal issue that Anna Guagnini, Gabriel Galvez-Behar, and Mercelis have been coediting. He contends that while academic chemists and engineers appear to have had especially close ties with industrial firms, it would be wrong to conclude that commercialization activities were not common in other disciplines. A significant share of late-19th- and early-20th-century British physics professors, for example, also engaged in commercial work as consultants, patentees, and, perhaps most notably, entrepreneurs. More generally, it seems plausible that the cases identified in the special issue represent only the tip of the iceberg. After all, comprehensive surveys of academic scientists’ historical involvement in commercial activities remain very rare, and the underlying motives and circumstances presented in this talk were not limited to the period under study.

About the Speaker

Joris Mercelis is assistant professor in the history of technology at Johns Hopkins University. He holds a PhD and an MA in history from, respectively, Ghent University and the University of Leuven. He is completing his first book, provisionally entitled “Father of Plastics”: Leo H. Baekeland and the Making of the Science-Industry Nexus (under contract), and is coediting two special journal issues on the related topics of academic entrepreneurship and the commercialization of academic science. In his next book project Mercelis compares and contrasts different approaches to collaborative research and innovation in the development of photographic technology since the mid-19th century.

About the Series

Brown Bag Lectures (BBLs) are a series of (mostly) weekly, informal talks on the history of chemistry or related subjects, including the history and social studies of science, technology, and medicine. Based on original research (sometimes still in progress), these talks are given by local scholars for an audience of the Institute staff and fellows and interested members of the public.