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'The Union of Science and Practical Skill': 100 Years of Documentation of Science and Technology in CSR

Maureen Purtell
The Noel Butlin Archives Centre at ANU, which is the former Archives of Business and Labour, was recently renamed after the founder, Professor Noel Butlin. Our mainstream collections relate to Australian industrial life. These collections are for the most part the records of professional bodies, industry organisations, employer and employee organisations and Australian companies. There are some personal papers.

Today I plan to talk about one large company collection in particular, but it is possible to look at the records of other groups in industry as potential sources of information in the broad context of science and technology. These organisations may not create scientific records but they can contain information that provides a backdrop to developments in Australian industry.

For example, we hold the records of the Sydney Branch of the Institute of Metals and Materials, Australasia. This learned society and professional body works in various ways to assist in training and developing relationships between metallurgists and other scientific and technical professions. The records of the Australian Association of Scientific Workers, a similar body in its origins, are another example. They became part of the trade union, the Federation of Scientific and Technical Workers which existed until 1971.

Records of such organisations contain membership details, publications and photographs. A look at their files and conference papers indicates the range of their concerns over time. They can be a good source of biographical information and information on legal, ethical and industrial issues. However, I think their wider importance is in documenting the preoccupations and the place of the body in science and industry. In this wider context trade union records should not be overlooked. With the increasing rate of technological changes in industry it is possible to find the best evidence of workplace changes in records of the relevant trade unions.

Trade unions and other industry organisations can sometimes contain surprises. The Australian Institute of Marine and Power Engineers which worked for many years to professionalise the role of marine engineers projects a strong sense of identity. Amongst their records is a very fine rare book collection consisting of some 120 publications related to aspects of marine engineering. Most are 19th century books covering 1867 to about 1923. This collection, like those of other maritime unions, contains ships' plans. While their original use was to establish manning levels, they can be used to identify structures and changes to vessels over time.

Records of craft unions often illuminate their considerable interest in changes to technology and great pride in their skills. The printing trades are a good example. I sampled the Australasian Typographical Journal from the 1880s-1915 and found a series of articles on the 19th century printers of Melbourne, short reports on the latest technology available overseas, lectures given on the development of techniques used in the engraving process, and advertisements throughout with excellent pictures of printing presses, tools etc. One can trace from this journal many of the suppliers of implements and machinery for that trade over time.

On the lighter side, perhaps I should mention that both the collections of Australian companies and those of organisations contain many examples of the inventiveness of the population. While perhaps not as grand as the Sarich engine, collections of Australian industry abound with evidence of both original and adaptive technology to suit needs. The NSW Farmers Federation, representing the interests of farmers and graziers in that state, has in its large collection of informational files the evidence of some 50 years of practical inventions to rid the country of rabbits. There is likewise quite a lot of adaptation in the sugar industry and on the pastoral scene.

However the essential evidence of scientific and technological developments in industry should be located in the records of the industrial concerns themselves. I have chosen one of our collections as an example to illustrate what can be collected and how it could be used. This collection is large and ongoing. It is a collection of the Colonial Sugar Refining Company which was established in Sydney in 1855 as a sugar refiner, expanding into sugar milling from 1870. It has been a public company since 1887 and is one of the great survivors in the Australian corporate world. It retained its original name for a long time, only changing it to CSR in 1973. Its central office has been at No. 1 O'Connell Street in the city since 1903. It is the largest producer of raw and refined sugar in Australia and while it is the sugar industry collection that I will be discussing for the most part, today CSR is clearly focused not only on sugar but on the marketing and manufacturing of building and construction materials on a wide international arena. To me, it appears to be a company that somehow combines innovation, adaptability and conservatism in a comfortable mix.

The title of my paper, 'The Union of Science and Practical Skill', comes from an October 1885 report of Edward W. Knox, General Manager of the Colonial Sugar Refining Company (1880-1920) and son of the founder of the Company who had been visiting German beet sugar factories. In this report he states his conviction that,

No one can in any degree study the history of the manufacture of sugar from beet without recognizing the fact that the extraordinary success achieved is almost entirely due to the union of science and practical skill that is manifest in every detail...

He goes on to say that the greatly improved results he has seen regarding the extraction of sugar are obtained by the manufacturers' recognition of the value of chemical assistance, and while his Company has gone some distance in this direction (that is, in the extraction of sugar from cane), he now suggests that the status of the chemist at each mill be 'next to that of the manager' and that those officers who are qualified should be encouraged to undertake independent research into methods of manufacture and the cultivation of cane in the slack season (Z303/10 A 3.0 F8 Doc.13).

It is clear, from these records and others, that E. W. Knox played a significant role in establishing early programs of scientific control, giving status to scientific training, and setting the pattern in this Company for a long history not only of documenting, but of valuing their work in the scientific investigation of products and processes. I used the word 'valuing' because this Company has kept many of its original records and also scores of internal papers, draft histories, copies of speeches, published and unpublished articles and a whole range of secondary source information, all of which, when drawn together, demonstrate that a lot of Company officers, over a long time, placed importance on the research tradition that had been established.

In deciding what should be collected, I should say at this point that we do not actively seek out the records of science and technology as particularly significant. We seek to preserve, in this instance, and in others, the memory of the organisation. To do so we would naturally target the corporate area and the records of the structure, policy and decision-making in an industry. We look at the administration and operational side - what they do and how they do it. We look at the products and publications and outcomes. The records of science and technology, if they exist in a business operation, are looked at and evaluated for permanent preservation as part of, and in relation to, their place in the total company picture.

In deciding what should be collected in this instance we had a fortunate beginning. The first deposit offered consisted mainly of the earliest Head Office correspondence series from about 1847-1947. This material had been at risk as it was stored in crates at Pyrmont refinery in Sydney, it was unquestionably of archival value, and it attracted much research use. We were thus able to demonstrate from the beginning some of the advantages to the organisation of the services we offer. Another factor has been the continuing support of various responsible officers in administering use. As all users are required to obtain access approval this requires a constant stream of faxes and letters to the Company. Such regular contacts help to build up our image so that the Archives are not forgotten at times of strain and change in operations. We also have taken advantage of advice from qualified staff within CSR to evaluate record series for permanent preservation. This is an ongoing process.

Another advantage was the early direct contacts we established with their central office technical Library. This has proved to be very important. It may not be uncommon, but in this case many reports and other documents which we would call 'archival' records found a home in the organisation's technical library. Technical libraries can be an extension of their records area for the storage of technical and scientific material.

The major advantage, however, is the nature of the Company itself. It has a strongly centralised operation of managerial control which has continued through from at least the 1870s to the 1970s, which is the period most of the records cover.

A problem for the collecting Archives is that records of companies seldom come in a routine regular way. Sometimes a key series of consolidated information remains with a Company for a long time and therefore we do accept some series of records for later evaluation. For example, we have a very good series of patents files but we have not have yet sorted out the links to other areas of the Company to put these files in proper context.

I should also mention that we have concentrated our efforts to collect the records of the sugar industry operations of this Company, with less attention to its wider diversification interests. This highlights another problem for the collecting Archives. How can one do justice to the ongoing company collections, whose future directions are an uncharted mystery when their records are acquired? It is relatively easy to administer the records of a completed project or personal papers of individuals. It is very difficult to collect well from busy, extremely changeable, corporate bodies.

Another point I want to make in this instance is that within this centralised Company, research and development activities are so often interwoven with general information required in the reporting mechanisms that the selection of records of science and technology is not really a choice for us, it is rather a central feature of company concerns. The form of reporting to Head Office often combines technical detail, statistical returns, manufacturing problems, policy matters, labour and staff information, weather details, the results of scientific investigation, information about a region, reactions to community issues and the whole gamut of local events affecting the industry. This is true of the correspondence series, the returns and the consolidated reports. This is an important factor. In many companies, because we come into the picture long after their establishment, it is likely that operational level records are long gone and all that remains of a period of innovative technology are secondary sources recording the events.

As I have suggested, there was an early recognition within CSR that improved factory processing control would avoid losses of sugar, so chemists were appointed from overseas. Their work established systems of rigorous processing control and the collection of data for company analysis. It is from this beginning that other research areas developed very formal systems of reporting progress, though some forms of investigatory work and reporting were in evidence as early as 1870.

I want to briefly outline the Company framework, in order to put the record-creating system in a context.

A map of Australia showing CSR installations over 100 years would show between 3 and 6 mills in northern NSW, 5 in Queensland and in Fiji, with mill chemists and labs at each factory from the 1880s. Mill Chemical Inspectors travel to the various locations. There is a Chief Chemist at the Central Laboratory located in Sydney Head Office. Other Divisions of the Company were controlled, inspected, and reported to Head Office in a similar manner. Refineries located near Branches in most capital cities and several distillery operations are part of this network, as are experimental research areas at each mill which look at cane breeding and disease control. These early developments in industrial and agricultural research are consolidated in the 1920s. Facilities for industrial research were then centred at Pyrmont refinery and the Central Laboratory concentrated on routine control and analyses. In the same decade agricultural experiment stations were set up, two in Australia and two in Fiji.

Changes occurred over time and by the 1970s CSR had several research laboratories located at Pyrmont, Roseville and other Sydney locations and the David North Plant Research Centre in Brisbane. In addition, practically every factory continued to operate its own laboratories for analytical control and investigation. All levels reported to Head Office.

Very briefly and broadly, the CSR collections to date cover 1847-1980s. They include Head Office correspondence series with all operational areas within the Company and outside bodies and interests. Reports, operational records, many photographs, publications, (an historical documents collection which came to us when their Central Library closed recently), record series relating to acquired companies, such as Australian Estates, and several deposits of agencies other than Head Office - notably records of Goondi and Hambledon Mill (now closed), and the Technical Field Department at Macknade Mill in Queensland. Pyrmont Refinery closed last month after continuous operation on the same site since 1878. We will collect some records from this agency also.

Some examples of the types of records held should help to illustrate the research potential of this collection. The first of these are the returns and reports on manufacture in the area of chemical control.

From a series entitled 'Miscellaneous Chemical Bookkeeping' (Z109/196) one can identify the form of returns sent from mills to the Head Office laboratory from 1885-1957. It is possible to trace the developments in this form of return over 60 years. The returns identify the losses of sugar experienced during various stages of the milling process. As with commercial bookkeeping the calculations measure the incoming and outgoing with the difference as profit and loss. This system of recording developed over time and a formula, P.O.C.S.- pure obtainable cane sugar- was devised. Payment for cane for many years was directly linked to the percentage of recoverable sugar. In this area it was the chemists who were responsible for developing and maintaining the methods to define the commercial value of the product. While the returns may now have only historical interest, revealing the results at any given time, they are supported by a range of records which show the procedures trialed to correct problems at various locations.

Resulting from returns such as the chemical book keeping, seasonal charts and consolidated records were compiled in the Central Laboratory. We hold a full set of these documents which illustrate efforts to control manufacturing. They begin in 1870 (Z109/374) and continue on a seasonal basis. Their form and title varies over the years but they are all held in the collection until 1988. From 1884 they were usually called 'Chemical Reports on Sugar Manufacture' and bound. The bound copies seem to have been distributed to all mills, providing a readily available historical record of tried and tested practices. By 1934 (Z110/380) a sample of one of these seasonal reports shows information on manufacturing changes adopted, the introduction of new equipment, reports of trials, comparative results in all areas, quality, output, best performance, and plant variety changes. Photographs, drawings, graphs, etc. are meticulously kept for extraction work, clarification and other stages of sugar processing.

The above examples of returns and reports only relate to chemical control. Similar examples exist for plant pathology, agriculture and engineering.

My second example of records, relates to the inspection area of control and I have chosen here the 'Cane Inspectors' Reports' (Z109 460-478). The work of inspectors in the Company resulted in the collection of a great range of information which is documented best in their reports. The scientific and technical information in these documents is an integral part of a wider picture, illustrating regional concerns and the significance of the industry. These reports were annual, or seasonal, and were sent from all Australian mills and bound on receipt in Head Office. The series covers 1909-1974. The index for Macknade mill, near Ingham in Queensland in 1936 (Zl09/472) includes information on many areas which have research potential today, outside of their original purpose. Matters illuminated include aspects of cane growing, pest and disease control, negotiations with the Australian Workers' Union, information about Health Department regulations, an extended investigation into outbreaks of Weil's disease in farm lands and cane fields, details of relationships with growers, local issues of regional concern, details of the labour gangs employed, and other information on people, payments and productivity. Their use for regional research has yet to be exploited.

The third example I offer is another outcome of the consolidated records that result from the extensive reporting mechanism that existed. In 14 volumes we hold a complete meteorological record for all mills in Australia and Fiji from 1882-1966. They note the minimum and maximum temperatures in Fahrenheit plus rainfall and sunlight units for each day of the year. Monthly totals and averages are given for 85 years. I am not aware of such a concise and particular record kept elsewhere for these regions (N74/335-348).

A fourth example offers some understanding of the wider context in which CSR operated from a very early date, no doubt conscious of the problems of distance from overseas sources of research and development. One can find in a part of their historical documents collection (Z303/10 A 3.0 Folder 8) reports on overseas visits from 1885-1936. (Earlier and later reports can be found throughout the collection). From an early date they took pains to be aware of advances in all aspects of their industry. Looked at together their records of visits to refineries, sugar and pineapple factories, distillery operations, and other installations overseas give you a good idea of where the Company stood on the world scene and what it perceived as important. It is of interest to see how much, or indeed how little, is shared in relation to research and technological developments in this industry.

Sometimes the photographic record is overlooked as evidence, but in this company, and others, it was common to record information about plant installations, new buildings, agricultural trials and experiments, events and people, with photographs. Usually the pictorial record is an accessory to other evidence but in some cases it can provide the best evidence of how an operation existed at the time. Fine examples of this are the photographs taken of CSR's short venture into pineapple growing and manufacturing in Fiji. In 1936 they acquired two small companies, which had lacked the capital to make a success of this industry, and continued the business until 1955. While other documentation exists of the research they did and the results achieved, the pictorial record stands out as evidence of how it was actually done. Plans of the factory, pictures of all plant and machinery, internal views showing people at work on the processing and other stages, pictures of the loading and transport operations, label designs, illustrations of the stages in planting and growing the crop, pictures of the best and worst results, typical examples of pests and diseased plants and illustrations of how adaptations were made to use vehicles for spraying, all give some life and an extra dimension to understanding this venture.

The photographic record also illustrates very well the significance of technological change. In this collection, photographs highlight the changes brought about by mechanical harvesting as well as identifying the models of machinery used. The changes from bagged to bulk sugar handling are graphically illustrated by the photographs held.

Another use of photographs is noted in the agricultural circulars which were sent out as an advisory service to growers. These began in 1874 and were originally entitled, 'Plain hints for plain men' (Z303/33 C 1.0 Doc. 3). Often the best description of a local invention or adaptation of machinery was done by way of illustration. One such example is to be found in a cane stripper used at Condong mill in 1966 (Z364/15, C.S.R. Agricultural Circular 1966, p.9). This simple mechanism made it faster and easier for one person to strip trash from cane stalks prior to planting.

I want to also mention that records which come to the Archives from companies are often most complete if the project has failed or been abandoned. One such example in the CSR collection is ANTICAY. This project originated in the Roseville Laboratories where much research was done on industrial chemicals. Anticay was the registered trade name for calcium sucrose phosphates. It was developed in about 1960 over a twelve year period as a substance said to reduce the incidence of tooth decay when added in small quantities to processed carbohydrate foods .

The records we hold (in Deposit Z303) trace the development of the project from beginning to end. They are comprehensive and informative not only about the exercise in question but as a guide to the sort of records one could seek in collecting evidence of such projects. Included is the correspondence with overseas bodies about the exchange of scientific information, details of preliminary tests at the University of Melbourne, formal trials, provisional patents, details of a linked project in the USA, clinical trials over 3 years, microfilm of scientific papers relating to the research, reports, comments and debate, plans and details of the pilot plant, and the procedures of registration and marketing. It was first marketed in 1973 as a chewing gum and powder additive. Soon afterwards the project was abandoned. The reasons for this are also well documented.

Another example of a change in company direction, and a more complex venture, was the Mount Newman Iron Ore Project/Pilbara Iron Ltd. This was a joint venture to exploit the biggest single iron ore deposit in Australia. CSR were involved from around 1965-1986 . We have collected the Board papers from the Head Office and records from the Technical Group Office on the site. Included are the feasibility studies, plans, project reports, drawings, studies of ore bodies, mining plans, port and town development analysis and other records showing how a whole community and industrial development took place. We hold these records because CSR sold their interest in the joint venture. It is unlikely that we would have such complete records if they were still involved. This deposit (Z275) will be available for research in about 5 years time.

A final example to note are the records about people in the Company. One could trace the careers of senior staff and identify the significance of scientific training in creating career paths. In 'Staff Registers' (Z109/307) an entry exists for Sir James Vernon who began his career as a junior chemist at five pounds per year in 1928. CSR paid his University fees to acquire a BSc and he later studied at the Berlin Sugar Institute and in London. He obtained a PhD in 1938 and became General Manager in 1958. On one page a concise summary of his career is recorded.

Records of wage earning employees kept in 'Hours, Work and Wages' returns (N74/l-50) are a very different, but no less valuable record of people. While intended to serve as a record of employees and wages paid, they can cover long periods, such as those from the Pyrmont Refinery which date from 1894-1984. These labour returns identify the occupations of the workforce and among other things illustrate the changes to refinery work over nearly a century

This paper was written to provide a sample of the material relating to science and technology that can be found in the records of Australian industry. In conclusion, I can only invite readers to explore farther. Feel welcome to join our long list of researchers who have sought and found many very different things in this valuable research collection.

  • The Noel Butlin Archives Centre is located at the Australian National University, Canberra, ACT, 0200. Initial requests for information should be directed to the Archives Officer at this address. All bracketed numbers in this paper are the location numbers of records given as examples from the CSR Limited collection.

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