Those of us keen, for whatever reason, to gauge the attitude of the current UK government towards the history of science might find enlightenment in the thoughts of David Willetts, Minister of State for Universities and Science, as presented at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham on Monday. Or possibly not. His speech begins as follows:
“Here in Birmingham, where I was brought up, is the right place to focus on the big challenge of growth and prosperity […] When science, engineering and enterprise come together, you can change the world. But it does not always work out. At the same time as Boulton and Watt were designing steam engines, their friend Joseph Priestley successfully obtained oxygen and carbon dioxide from air. He did the experiments but it was a Swiss businessman who made money by using his technique to put fizz in water – he was called Joseph Schweppe.”
Let’s pass over any questions about the relevance of oxygen or the likelihood of deriving fixed air from the atmosphere. I drew a blank on Joseph Schweppe: nearly fifteen seconds of painstaking deskbound research, however, brought me to Jean (or Johann) Jacob Schweppe, a jeweller turned soda-water manufacturer from Hesse, sometime resident of Geneva and possibly naturalised Swiss (except when deemed French).
Schweppe’s ODNB entry clearly explains that he was entering a market already crowded with domestic suppliers when he started selling carbonated waters in London in 1792. Farrar, Farrar and Scott’s series on the Henry family of Manchester for Ambix in the late 70s notes that Thomas Henry was experimenting on fixed air impregnation at the same time as Priestley, and that he commercialised the results on a large scale quickly enough to tackle head-on, for a time, Schweppe’s expansion of agencies into the northern towns. Schweppe, no doubt, was the most successful (and is the best remembered, though not as to his forenames) of the early soda-water vendors in England, but the exercise of stuffing him into the mould of the penicillin-era “foreign theft” fable is bafflingly contrived.
Obviously, we belong to a community of people trained to take history seriously, which is not the general approach: it’s inevitable that past actors and preoccupations, in the hands of the speechwriter, end up as brightly coloured, briefly amusing analogues of whatever present-day assertion was going to be made anyway. (See also Charles Darwin’s well-known lines on adaptability, beloved of leaders promoting unwelcome changes, which the naturalist somehow forgot to write in his own lifetime). The difference here is that it’s peculiarly difficult to follow how the excursion into chemical history connects to what follows: talk of using closer academic-industrial links to remedy “that old British problem of failing to make the most of our own discoveries and inventions.”
The best I could come up with is this: Britain’s unique shortcoming in technological style (as perennially insisted on in Martin Wiener-ish decline narratives) is now deemed to be so resonant and seductive that it can strike at any moment in history — even including the pre-decline, full-steam-ahead period of industrial pomp. Priestley, obliged (as a mere historical character) to precisely exemplify one monolithic set of values or another, unwisely chose his nationality [rather] than his era: he thus carefully failed to commercialise his discoveries, and the rewards were scooped up by Schweppe in consequence of his Swissness. Hence the emerging Swiss dominance of manufacturing industry in the later nineteenth century (“Swiss”, of course, being interchangeable with “French” or “German”). I hope this clears matters up for good.
There have been interesting responses from Peter Morris (who was at school with Willetts, and defends him, but points out that Priestley did not make these discoveries in Birmingham – it was Leeds), Joseph Priestley (who condemns the exclusion of dissenters from publically-funded universities, but champions the liberality of private, dissenting institutions – via Simon Schaffer), John Langrish (on the small probabilites of patents making money at home, and the fact that “industry and universities do different things”) and Robert Bud (who suggests that Willett’s speech must be read with knowledge of the government’s interest in “establishing a network of so-called Clark Maxwell institutes” which will promote “the translation of academic research into commerical benefit”). The links are to their Mersenne messages. Any more views, from non-Mersenne subscribers?
1. Charles Darwin quote: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”