David Willetts and the history of science

There has been an interesting discussion on Mersenne, the history of science listserv, prompted by James Sumner, who has kindly allowed me to post his email to the Mersenne subscribers.

Dear Listmembers 

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[1], 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.

Best regards


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.”

8 thoughts on “David Willetts and the history of science

  1. Thanks, Becky. At the risk of pecking a very small (if revealing) canard to death: non-specialists may be wondering what’s wrong with the first half of the Priestley/Schweppe claim. I’d summarise it as follows:

    1. Oxygen gas has nothing to do with this story. Oxygen does dissolve in water (ask a fish), but it doesn’t make it fizzy. There are fascinating questions about Priestley’s relationship to the discovery of the gas (calling it “oxygen” implies claims which he rejected to his dying day), but we’ve got quite enough to worry about with what follows.

    2. You don’t get carbon dioxide from the air. You could if you really wanted to — atmospheric air contains a small proportion, which we now know how to separate and purify — but there are far easier ways of getting it. For Priestley, the obvious source of the fizz-making gas (which he knew as “fixed air”) was a brewery: it hangs in vast clouds over fermenting beer. For reliable commercial fizzing-up, though, you need a more controllable source. Priestley recommended the reaction between mineral acids and chalk.

    3. “Fixed air” had been established as a concept for decades (though its meaning gradually changed) when Priestley set to work on impregnating it artificially into water.

    4. As Peter Morris points out, Priestley didn’t do this in Birmingham, where he lived in the 1780s. He did it in Leeds in the early 1770s.

    5. It seems to be true that Schweppe was influenced by Priestley’s publication on this subject more than anybody else’s. It does not follow that Priestley “did the experiments” in any crucial sense. The possibility of artificial impregnation must have occurred to various people around the same time, who varied in their concern to publish and to commercialise. A lot of discussion, refinement and re-thinking happened in the long gap between 1772, when Priestley published, and 1792, when Schweppe came to London.

  2. Maybe somebody ought to point out to the esteemed Minister that it was in Birmingham that the conservative Church and King mob burnt down Priestley’s house and laboratory causing him to join the 18th century brain drain and emigrate to America.

  3. John Langrish’s point about probability is of course a key one – and as the structure of the UK economy has shifted more and more away from manufacturing and towards services, this reduces still further the probability that UK science will be ‘commercialised’ by UK industry. The reverse is also true, of course – UK industry potentially has the whole of global science to choose from, assuming it has the necessary ‘absorptive capacity’ to identify, understand and evaluate research from overseas. There is no reason why UK innovations should be based on UK science.

    In this sense the ‘myth’ is indeed a myth – the problem is not one of ‘translation’ within a closed system. The question which Willetts should be asking is what role could science and technology play in any attempt to ‘rebalance’ the economy towards high value-added manufacturing? Rather than attempting to ‘translate’ UK science into our existing industrial base, the proposed Fraunhofer-style centres could play a role in supporting the emerging industries of the future by addressing the relative lack of (non-defence related) applied* research and technological development, public and private, stemming from the shift to services already mentioned coupled with the steady decline in publicly-funded applied civil and mission-oriented R&D. In fact this is much the space that the network of Fraunhofer institutes occupies in the German research system- not just translating German science to German industry but performing leading edge applied R&D and technological development, often in collaboration with firms, creating a formidable technology base (and absorptive capacity) for the German system.

    However, judging from the remarks Vince Cable has made on the matter it seems more likely the Clerk Maxwell label will simply be attached to a rebranded Harwell (and possibly also Daresbury) science and innovation campuses.

    *yes, I know all these terms are problematic

  4. Both here and on Mersenne, the direction taken by the follow-ups is probably more interesting than my original point. Here, though, is how I responded to Peter’s comment:

    Of course, the lines I quoted were not designed with close inspection in mind. I’d also accept that they’re more a product of the peculiarities of political speechifying than of anything peculiar to Mr Willetts. Looking at the whole text, it’s easy to spot the underlying template. The historical excursus follows on from the overt joke which is included to ensure audience reaction at the beginning (“…Thinktank Museum, which is perhaps where I’ll end up”), and smooths the transition into the purposeful rhetoric later on. I assume the audience was expected to titter in recognition at “Schweppe”, and that it politely did so.

    Indeed, of the many things happening on and below the surface of that speech, the Priestley-Schweppe drama is arguably the single least important. Others on this list have rightly focused on the general question of university-industry relations, which matters a great deal to most of us in our roles both as scholars of the field and as citizens.

    However: I have to argue that the triviality of this kind of public history is not itself trivial. Consider what it means to accept that the Priestley-Schweppe legend (which may well have its origins in schoolroom oral tradition, as Peter suggests) is as fit as any other to account publicly for the past. One plausible conclusion from this assumption — and I’ve encountered this from a few professionals in the sciences and elsewhere, as I’m sure many of us have — is that the dedicated pursuit of history must be a very easy, unconstrained, skylarking activity. From this would follow that historians might reasonably be asked to work for less, and/or that there might reasonably be fewer working historians.

    • It is interesting to realize how universal these things are. I thought (quite naïvely, I admit) that the misuse and mythification of tales in the history of science and technology had something to do with the (local) lack of available scholars and/or sources, or something like that, or some sort of cultural bias. I am afraid I was wrong. It happens everywhere, for the most vile to the most innocent reasons. I guess it has to do with people’s need to build archetypical figures and structures (how things work), always simplifying the complex mechanisms through which history, people and society operate, so to come up with justifications and models for their (our) own behaviour. Bottom line is then that people mityfy because it works. Should education change this? CAN education change this?

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