Of course. That’s my answer.
Last weekend I had the pleasure of giving a paper at the annual Business History Conference. The program is online, as are some of the papers and most of the abstracts. My abstracts are here. The conference organizers chose the theme “knowledge” and did a remarkable job of holding the papers and sessions to the theme. I don’t think I’ve ever attended a conference of this size that remained so coherent.
As you might expect, historians of science, medicine, and technology jumped at a “knowledge”-based conference. I saw a handful of terrific papers. For instance, my co-panelist—Rutgers’ Jamie Pietruska— detailed the massive statistical appartus that supported the USDA’s attempt at “objective” cotton forecasting in the late nineteenth century, but showed how competing statistical claims had the unintended consequence of producing increased price volatility. Another risk-centered paper—this one by Nate Holdren, a grad student at the University of Minnesota, demonstrated the dominance of a medical discourse in the practices of the Pullman company as it faced such disparate problems as food-handling regulations, employee turnover, and workplace liability insurance. On the same panel with Holdren came a fascinating paper by Sarah Rose and Joshua Salzmann on “Bionic Ballplayers.” Rose and Salzmann took our current fascination with steroid use and put it in the context of recent developments in baseball contracts, which have changed the incentives for players and owners, and the invention of “Tommy John surgeries,” which repair the worn-out tendons of over-muscled ballplayers. Rose and Salzmann’s picture seemed to me the perfect example of a technological system, ala Thomas Hughes.
I had to miss just as many great HOS/M/T offerings. Consider, Michael Pettit’s paper on marketing hormones, Hyungsub Choi’s paper on semiconductor research and manufacturing, and Dominque Tobbell’s paper on the reformation of research in the pharmaceutical industry. And I haven’t even mentioned David Hounshell’s opening plenary talk.
While the historians of science and technology clearly took advantage of this BHC venue, it seems that the business history community was happy to oblige. Indeed, of the four recent dissertations presented as finalists for the BHC’s annual dissertation prize, three were in the history of science, technology, and medicine. My work on the construction of statistical infrastructure and ideas of human difference in the American life insurance industry got a nod. So did excellent work by Eric Hintz, from the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center, and Kara Swanson, from the Northeastern University law school. In his dissertation, Hintz challenges our sense that big corporate research labs killed off independent inventors. I was struck in his presentation not only by his conclusion that the death of the independent inventor had been greatly exaggerated, but by the many ways in which such inventors found ways to work with and around large corporate science and technology labs. Swanson reveals in her dissertation the complex history behind the collection and storage of bodily materials — milk, blood, and sperm — in “banks” devoted to each such material. I’m used to reading about frozen bodily materials, thanks to Joanna when she isn’t writing about cats. But I had not given much thought before this to the way in which the biomedical narrative of materials collecting intersected with real and metaphorical “banks.” Human materials are their own sort of capital, but with their own sort of rules.
Unless pressed, I won’t bother to make a sustained defense of the need to study the history of science in America within the context of business. Recent work like Paul Lucier’s Scientists and Swindlers makes that case well enough already, even for the nineteenth century. Still, I am heartened to see so many great scholars thinking about thinking in places apart from the traditional settings of universities, museums, laboratories, and field stations. I hope we’ll continue to see more scholarship focused on thinking in back offices, behind counters, and next to the cash register.