American Intellectual Reparations from the Nazis and the Myth of German Technological Superiority
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This week’s talk by historian Douglas O’Reagan is part of Science, Incorporated: Constructing the Natures of American Modernization, a series of six lectures that unpick the diverse ways in which nature—and the study of nature—became entangled with the modernization of America, from the early origins of laboratory pedagogy to mineral prospecting by satellite.
Following World War II the Allied Powers attempted the largest-scale technology transfer in history, aiming to take “intellectual reparations” from occupied Germany. The most famous case is the willingness of the United States to take in Wernher von Braun, other German rocket scientists, and German physicians, some of whom had been war criminals, through such programs as the famous Operation Paperclip. Less well known is that this story is just one facet of a much larger international race to obtain German science and technology of all kinds. In the wake of the war the United States, France, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and to some extent other nations sought out information on not just rockets and jet engines but also toy manufacturing, watch design, precision optics, forestry, chemicals, audio equipment, automobile engines, and much more. This talk will describe not just the successes but also the struggles to transfer technology from Germany, its importance for the postwar world, and the lessons the story can teach for an era terrified of Chinese industrial espionage aimed at the United States.
About the Speaker
Douglas O’Reagan is a historian of science, technology, and business based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is the author of Taking Nazi Technology: Allied Exploitation of German Science after the Second World War (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019), which traces the story of the American, British, French, and Soviet programs to take German science and technology after World War II and these programs’ legacies through the present day. He held teaching and research positions at MIT, Washington State University, and the University of California, Berkeley.
About the Series
Lunchtime Lectures are a series of (mostly) weekly, informal talks on the history of chemistry or related subjects, including the history and social studies of science, technology, and medicine. Based on original research (sometimes still in progress), these talks are given by scholars for an audience of the Institute staff and fellows and interested members of the public.