Science Serving Industry: Documentary Authority and Industrial Influence in 19th Century American Chemistry

I recently published an article in the Proceedings of the Document Academy on the links between documentation practices in Chemistry journals and the influence of industry in 19th century American Chemistry.  The full article is available at, the presentation I gave is available at and the original proposal is below.

As early as 1874, one of the early presidents of both the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Chemical Society, J. Lawrence Smith, suggested the progress of science depended on its utility to industry and on its publication in technical journals.  There is a question, however, of why prominent figures like Smith recognized these two fundamental attributes of the scientific process.  Utilizing the theoretical frameworks of documentation, the philosophy of chemistry (Smith’s academic discipline), and diplomatics, it is possible to better understand Smith’s assumptions and to comprehend why these two aspects of science were so important for him.  Industrial needs in a rapidly changing economy were an incredibly important influence on 19th century American chemistry.  These needs heavily influenced the very ways in which scholars communicated their research.

Documents produced in journals like the American Journal of Science and later in the Journal of the American Chemical Society in the nineteenth century were also representations of a much larger social structure that provides historians of science and documentation a way to investigate the underlying assumptions of the scientific project in the United States.  Additionally, the knowledge initiatives of universities and professional associations institutionalized larger cultural ideas.  At the very time that the modern higher education system began to form itself and at the time that modern professional associations began to create the system of scholarly communication, industry dominated. The American scientific world at that time was heavily influenced by the needs of a rapidly industrializing nation.  Such larger forces led to particular genres being produced in the documents of these scientists.  They wrote articles that eschewed supposition and focused on facts and causes that could more easily be reproduced.  Additionally, they  sought out news from the very professional associations and universities that were attempting to meet the needs of the industrial United States.

Why are these developments important?  Over time, the state became more involved with the work of scientists and universities.  Maurizio Ferraris in Documentality:  Why it is Necessary to Leave Traces has suggested that such developments are a result of what he terms informatics documentality, or the way in which sovereign power is extended over a larger number of people.  If indeed it is true that industry dominated the earlier pre-informatics documentality, at least in the United States, does it mean that industry will continue to extend its influence?  The answer to that question is unclear, but its implications have tremendous consequences not only for the system of scholarly communication, but indeed for the future of science itself.  At a time when the communication of scholarship is also being reviewed and when the very nature of authority in science is questioned, understanding these early motivations may help to better recognize the evolution of the scholarly communication, and perhaps reform it in the future.

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