R&D and the American Corporation Before World War II
This paper is an excerpt from a larger book project called The Corporation and the Twentieth Century, which chronicles and interprets the institutional and economic history – the life and times, if you will – of American business in the twentieth century. One integrating theme of the book is that the signal calamities of the Great Depression and World War II, as well as the policy responses to those calamities, are crucial in understanding the structure of American industry in the post-war world. This excerpt examines the role of research and development in the corporation before and during the Depression. It argues that, although corporate R&D labs did generate many important new technologies, innovations also flowed importantly from a large variety of other sources, both within the corporation (but outside of the research lab) and elsewhere in the economy. Even though corporate research did sometimes lead to new products for the corporation to exploit, a narrative in which internal R&D systematized innovation widely in the service of corporate diversification is on the whole a fable. Nonetheless, by destroying market-supporting institutions (including, importantly, sources of external finance) and by reducing the information content of price signals, the Depression did help solidify the nexus between R&D and the large corporation. Coupled with New Deal price and entry regulation in many sectors, and followed by the far greater extent of non-market controls during World War II, the Depression set the stage for the emergence of the large Chandlerian corporation of the post-war period.