Abstract: Subversion or Cooperation? The Exchange of Proprietary and Patentable Knowledge among Corporate Engineers

Ann Johnson


Historian of science Derek DeSolla Price once wrote that one dimension of the distinction between science and technology was that while scientists produced texts, engineers did not. One reason Price saw for this difference was the fact that so many engineers in the twentieth century either worked for corporations or gained competitive advantage from their knowledge, which produced a disincentive for sharing knowledge in a verbal form—that is, knowledge was viewed as proprietary. Contra Price, engineers do write and in some cases they write prolifically in multiple media: patents, articles in the engineering press, and technoscientific articles. In this talk I will discuss the way that engineers use patents as both a mode of communication with their communities and as a means to allow open discussion of technological ideas and devices. Drawing from the development of automobile exhaust and emissions control devices in the 1970s, this paper looks at patent exchange and use among automotive engineers in the United States and West Germany. Because the case study is transnational, it also provides a window on international business practices in a highly globalized commodity.