The Effect of the Emergency on Scientific and Industrial Progress


By CHARLES F. KETTERING, Vice-President of General Motors in Charge of Research

At "Industry in the Present Emergency" Luncheon, Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, New York, Tuesday, October 17, 1939

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 93-94.

AT this time, when the Automobile Show is in progress, we see now models and contrast them with what has gone before. But it might be interesting to step back more than a year or two and take a motorcar of twenty or twenty-five years ago as compared with the motorcar of today and see if it is not possible to visualize in just a small measure the intangible property. It isn't labor and material, because the car of twenty or twenty-five years ago may have had in it more material and more man-hours. Consequently, the labor and material factors, the tangible things, are not the things for which people pay their money. It is the utility factor which is inexpressible in any units of measure which we know of today. Therefore, the difference between the car of twenty or twenty-five years ago and the one that you buy today is something which we have no way of expressing in dollars and cents, or pounds or inches. Do we know what will be the effect of a distorted economic condition upon that intangible factor which is put into materials? Usually, there are two or three ways of approaching this. Here is a new idea which is just beginning to come into fruition—it has just begun to take a tangible form. If the idea has an immediate demand in connection with some operation of a disturbed condition, then it is rushed through rapidly to application. But if it does not have immediate application then it is set aside and the man-hours of effort and the work are placed upon those things which are necessary at the time.

Dr. Moulton mentioned the question of imports. Therefore, if those things which are imported into this country be cut off, it is easy to see at once that one of the fundamental scientific and development problems would be the production of substitute materials.

Whether all the materials now imported into the country could be substituted by other things is a question. We don't know how to make substitutes for some of them and it may

take a long while to learn how. Some of them we may be able to do rather quickly. But in any event it becomes an immediate and pressing problem.

During the last war the question of a substitute for rubber came into the picture. A great deal of work was done and some substitutes were developed. As the reduction of price of the natural rubber came in, the substitutes faded out with the exception of those super-materials which do more than the native rubber could do.

You have, under an emergency such as we have now, a question of dividing the probable thing from the possible thing. In other words, those things which are probable if given enough time and work to carry out are set aside and attention is focused on those things which are possible.

When you take the question of transportation in these emergencies, you take the whole question of war today. During the last war, the radio was just coming into the picture. Today, it is one of the common essentials. The methods of transportation have changed as time goes on. After all, transportation, as we think of it, is carrying useful goods from one place to another. In war, it is carrying unuseful goods from one place to another where they are least wanted.

A cannon is nothing but a method of transportation. It is transmitting something that the fellow that is going to get it doesn't want, in a way which he doesn't like. In other words, the whole question is put in reverse. The question of truth from a communication standpoint is completely destroyed because you want to tell something that sounds in one case like it was so, and in another case like it wasn't so.

Our friend, Will Rogers, said that to write a good war story you have to make it sound exactly opposite to the two parties reading it, and then it is a success. In other words, it must meet the requirements of both sides in order to be a good story.

So we have the concentration of specific factors upon a very definite problem. Who can shoot the farthest, who can carry the most explosives, whose explosives will explode the hardest, and all that sort of thing, become immediate factors of negative economy. War is nothing but a question of negative economy in which you start in to trade. There are several games I think that maybe some of you men may be conscious of in which you do exactly that sort of thing. Chess and checkers are in the higher order.

Now, as you trade those economic values back and forth, one fellow gets down to the point where he hasn't anything to trade, and so the war ends. You start over to build up again to get ready for another trade.

During the last war, the question of economic substitutes became very important and, despite all the destruction of material and everything else, there came out of those studies things that have been constructive in all lines of industry. But the price paid for those constructive things was so abnormally, miserably, unessentially and undesirably high, that their value is hardly worth mentioning.

Therefore, it seems to me that if you analyze the conditions of today in terms of possibilities, you could build four-lane highways clear across the country, north and south; you could endow every institution in the world with research laboratories, and still have a lot of money left over, for what it costs to do it in this negative scientific way. Therefore, I think that when you analyze it from this immaterial viewpoint such as I am supposed to represent here today, you can see what a doubly uneconomic process it is. In those countries that are directly involved in this thing, the pressure is very much greater.

Over the last period of years, some ten or fifteen I should say, there has not been the same development in scientificthings that we have had over prior periods, for several reasons.

In those countries which felt the pressure of national defense, their scientific and engineering forces have been laboring along that line. It has been true all over that those people who were trying to make themselves self-sufficient were working on substitute material.

You can say that before the last war we had an international concept of the universe. After the war was over, we had a very provincial one. So the scientific outlook changes from one of complete generalities into one of making the state or the country involved a self-contained entity. Therefore substitution research has had an enormous expansion in the last ten or fifteen years at the expense of new fundamental industries.

Our problem is, as Dr. Moulton pointed out to you, one of surpluses. Therefore, it proves the fact that we are not technologically ahead, and our difficulty in this country is not too much technology but too little, because you couldn't have that surplus of basic materials if you had methods by which they could be used.

I think I mentioned to you men last year that we have a surplus of men, money and materials in this country which proves positively that we lack fundamental technology. I am here to apologize for the lack of technical development of new industries to take up these fundamental surpluses.

I don't know what is the cause of that, but I do believe that today as never before the universities of the country, the technical societies and everybody else are realizing the importance of new developments. I think that almost all industries have recognized the opportunity ahead in placing new products on the market is very great.

I think if you get one impression in coming to an event like the Automobile Show it is that great groups of people are interested in those things that are new.

As soon as you present a new product today, it is snapped up.

We have seen a revolution in headlighting in the last year. It didn't need much sales promotion because all you had to do was to present it to the public, explain its utility, and it goes on its own.

The great problem which scientific research has is to bring from the fundamental idea a type of mechanism which can be put into a manufacturing institution on a profit and loss basis. The minute that is done, the motive power to carry it on has been established. But research and engineering can never place the final product on the market the first time. First of all, it is the first one that has been made, and in the next place, the customer has not yet had time to express his desire. You have got to give the customer a sample, and from that point of view, the customer becomes the cooperative researcher in establishing what finally becomes the ultimate product, and the development of American industry follows.

Sometimes the shocks which we get are able to separate in our minds those things which are essential and those things which are not essential, and therefore we are able to clarify our procedure. Every once in a while we use this elementary method of getting down to what is the essential and what is the non-essential by saying—"suppose that we take out of the research laboratory half of the projects that we now have, which ones would we keep, and if so why?" The whole thing is to try to do what sometimes unexpected circumstances force upon us, and that is to sort out relative values, take out the essentials from the non-essentials the like-to-have's from what-you-can-have, and in that way develop a product which meets the approval of the customer. After all, it is the customer that places the demands and pays the bill.