Unobtanium: The Pursuit of Technological Innovation and the Metals That Made It



Raw materials drive history. This is becoming increasingly clear in the case of water, food and energy. Yet the supply of more obscure metals has long influenced the behavior of nation states as well as technological development. Because it represents a national vulnerability, states have long sought to manage shortages (or potential shortages) of raw materials. To this end, they have adopted several types of strategies: political, military, or commercial intervention to secure supply; stockpiling (of primary or secondary products); planning (conservation, rationing or prioritizing); and invention. These strategies rarely occur alone, but the chief concern of the study that I am proposing is with the last: when science and engineering are called on to discover substitutes, devise alternatives, or develop new methods of harvesting metals. In my work, I propose to explore when and why states have turned to technical solutions to deal with raw material supply problems. In so doing, I want to learn how the supply of raw materials spurred technological choices and also the reverse, how technological choices have spurred materials supply requirements.

One example of the relationship between technical development and material supply is given by the adoption of tungsten carbide cutting tools in the interwar period (discussed in my paper). In contrast to the familiar picture of this material as ushering in a sweeping, revolutionary change in production technology, the adoption of tungsten carbide tools in their first decade was slow and incomplete and showed clear national differences. The rates of adoption of these tools not only reflected the different business structures built around their manufacture and distribution but also suggests that the their development might, most notably in the Third Reich, be understood as a technical decision motivated by the supply of raw materials. This is more than just chronicling scarcity-induced invention. Tungsten carbide cutting tools, an alternative to existing hardened steel cutting tools, were promoted because they addressed problems with national tungsten supply, which had broad implications.

During the twentieth-century, technological reliance on metals made the secure supply of such elements essential variables in national economic and military performance. Thus the complicated story of the use of metals must be paired with the convoluted story of the global supply of metals: a story of confiscation, appropriation, exploitation and development. There is no more fundamental category through which to consider the development of technology or indeed of modernity than through material supply. A historical study of this topic promises to yield insight into current debates about sustainability and conflict over limited resources.

The Business History Seminar is organised by the Business History Centre and has been made possible by financial support from the Erasmus Research Institute of Management (ERIM) and the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication.