Defining the Industrial Chemist in the United Kingdom, 1850-1921

By Donnelly, James | Journal of Social History, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

Defining the Industrial Chemist in the United Kingdom, 1850-1921


Donnelly, James, Journal of Social History


1. Introduction

Scientific and technical workers occupy a pivotal position within manufacturing industry and perhaps within industrial society as a whole. Their work and occupational location have received a good deal of attention in industrial sociology, but their historical origins have been less studied. Sociological accounts of such workers in the mid-twentieth century tended to focus on tensions in their assimilation to industrial organizations. Scientific and technical knowledge was frequently seen as the basis of a professional affiliation which was in conflict with the commercial and managerial imperatives of industrial firms.(1) More recently, the notion of a historical conflict between the professional and industrial positions of such workers has been undermined. The importance of employers and senior managers from industry within professional organizations has been recognized. So too has the orientation of such organizations to servicing members who were employees rather than independent professionals.(2) Edwin Layton and David Noble have, in their different ways, explored more widely the intimate relation between business and the engineering profession.(3) Technical workers have always appeared problematic in neo-Marxist writing such as that of Noble. Are they agents of capital, or potentially assimilable to the working class and its interests? Or do they, as Guglielmo Carchedi argues, occupy a dynamic class location, deskilling the labour of others while themselves being subject to this process in their own working situation.(4)

This paper is concerned with the origins in Great Britain of the category 'industrial chemist', the earliest academically-trained scientific worker to be employed on any scale within civil industry. The first part of the article contains a broad sketch of the early development of the occupation. It offers, so far as UK chemists are concerned, some support to Carchedi's view. But the majority of the article is concerned with a specific aspect of the identity of industrial chemists: the organizations with which they were associated. It examines the main chemical organizations which were created during the late nineteenth century and concludes that none represented or was controlled by industrial chemists. This situation did not begin to change until the second decade of the twentieth century, and precipitated a shift in the orientation of the main qualifying organization of British chemists, the Institute of Chemistry, from independent professionals to industrial employees. It will be argued that the Institute provided an alternative to unionization. It helped stabilize the boundary problems which arose in the dynamic occupational situation of industrial chemistry sketched in the first section of this article. Parallels with accounts of German chemists and US engineers will be visible, though the different configuration of German engineers, with its competing elite groups, indicates the danger of generalization.(5)

When did industrial chemistry, as an occupational category, come into existence in Britain? The place of science in industrial innovation in late-eighteenth-and early-nineteenth-century Britain has received a good deal of attention.(6) Entrepreneurs like Josiah Wedgwood and James Watt were alleged to have drawn on scientific knowledge for their work. Such men (men, at this time, they invariably were) are not the subject of this article. To describe them as industrial scientists is anachronistic, in part because the term scientist and its modern institutional settings had not yet been invented. More fundamental, however, is the question of their structural position. This article is concerned with workers who participated in an industrial labour market: that is to say, employees, rather than owners or partners (or relatives of these), recruited from a pool of other potential employees. Such men were replaced after leaving or being dismissed and their function within the works was defined by others. …

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