David Cahan is a historian of modern science, and his main research interests include the historical relationships of science and society since 1750, including the relationships of technological innovation to science and society, and issues of science and culture.
One of my favorite articles—I have many—in Notes & Records is Anna Guagnini’s “John Fletcher Moulton and Guglielmo Marconi: Bridging Science, Law and Industry,” vol. 63 (2009), pp. 355-63. What I find so enticing about it is that Guagnini here shows that and how a largely unknown figure (Moulton) became a bridge for the legal, scientific, and industrial worlds in Britain in the late 19th, early 20th centuries. For anyone interested in the relationship of science, technology, and the economy, this is a most-important bridge to appreciate.
Guagnini reveals that early in his career Moulton was a highly promising mathematician at Cambridge (Senior Wrangler, first Smith’s prizeman), only later to abandon mathematics and read for the Bar in London. To be sure, Moulton did co-author a few pieces on electrical discharges and on radiation, and was enough of a scientific amateur to become an FRS (1880), though one suspects his many social and academic connections aided him greatly in getting those coveted three letters put behind his surname. Be that as it may, Moulton became a well-compensated and well-connected barrister and judge, whose specialty was patent law. As Guagnini shows, he was someone who could appreciate the burgeoning electrical and chemical industries from the scientific, technological, and legal dimensions. Above all, he became a go-to person in patent law, especially for the telephone and incandescent lamp industries. In 1897, in particular, he became consultant to Marconi in his successful efforts to secure his patents for the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co. He was a formidable consul who you wanted on your side.
There is much talk these days—not only here in America and in Britain, but throughout Europe and Asia—about the importance of training young people in science, engineering, and mathematics, without whom, it is said, no national economy can possibly hope to flourish. That is true enough, but Guagnini’s account of Moulton’s career—a man who knew many of Britain’s leading figures in science, technology, and industry—reminds us that there was (and is) a whole class of highly skilled, protean figures (barristers/lawyers) who stood (and stand) at the interstices of science, technology, and industry, and who are also essential in helping make the economy “go.”
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