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Technology in Australia 1788-1988Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering
Table of Contents

Chapter 9

I Introduction
i The impact of British scientific ethos and technology
ii The science/technology gap

II The Australian Chemical Industry

III Pharmaceuticals

IV Chemists In Other Industries

V The Dawn Of Modern Chemical Industry - High Pressure Synthesis

VI The Growth Of Synthetic Chemicals - Concentration, Rationalisation And International Links

VII Australian Industrial Chemical Research Laboratories

VIII The Plastics Industry

IX The Paint Industry

X Acknowledgements



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Chapter 9 - The Chemical Industry - Australian Contributions to Chemical Technology


The impact of British scientific ethos and technology

During Australia's colonial period most of Australia's science and technology was imported from Britain. The ethos of British science and trade deeply influenced the interaction between science and technology in Australia and persisted long after the end of the British Empire. It is part of Australia's history of technology.

Great Britain was the cradle of the industrial revolution; yet the early English industries evolved from empirical trades with little assistance from science. Most of Britain's early industrial pioneers were practical men, tradesmen or merchants. Sir Eric Ashby[1] describes the subordinate role of science during the nineteenth century in Britain: 'The role of scientific education was remarkably small: For the most part science professors in the ancient universities were virtually unemployed in teaching and those few industrial managers who received their education in early Victorian Oxford or Cambridge certainly had little encouragement to study aspects of natural science relevant to technology.'[2] A change in attitude was brought about by the two World Exhibitions (1851, London, 1861, Paris) and, particularly, the threat of competition from the European continent. There the earlier superiority of Great Britain's industrial revolution had stimulated the education system. Compulsory education existed in most German states since 1820; as late as in 1885 Germany in proportion to population had two and a half times as many students at university as England.[3] Perhaps the most important difference from England was that technology oriented education, the Technische Hochschulen in Germany and the Écoles Polytechniques in France and Switzerland were part of the university system, equal in status, and purposefully trained their students for industrial research and management. Early on they developed an ethos of excellence in application, side by side with excellence in science. By contrast the Oxford and Cambridge tradition turned to science relatively late, but with spectacular success in pure science. Perhaps because the Oxbridge tradition was deeply rooted in scholarship and abstraction it achieved fundamental advances, yet left practical exploitation to 'the lower echelons' -often overseas. As a result the gap between gentlemen scientists and the industrial 'tradesmen of progress' persisted for a long time. The brilliance of Oxford and Cambridge attracted the cream of the intellect of the whole Empire. When the pinnacle of British universities was dedicated to fundamental research whole generations of scientists throughout the Empire modelled themselves on their peers, even though the pyramid of scientists had broadened beyond the tip of an élite and even though new countries called for different, practical skills.

There were, of course, other influences on Australian science. Scottish universities had taught technical subjects since 1840; the Schools of Mines and the Mechanics Institutes had produced an important substratum of technicians from which many Australian pioneers came. In the late nineteenth and in the twentieth century the contributions from American technical teaching became very strong. Nevertheless, the ethos of British university education, with its strong emphasis on science as an objective in itself, left a permanent imprint on the relation between science and technology in Australia.

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© 1988 Print Edition pages 631 - 632, Online Edition 2000
Published by Australian Science and Technology Heritage Centre, using the Web Academic Resource Publisher