Engines of Our Ingenuity

No.416:
BAVARIAN POLYTECHNICAL SOCIETY

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 416.

Today, we join a technical society under Hitler. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The Bavarian Polytechnical Society was born in 1815, and it lived a long, noble life. It began as a technical Chamber of Commerce for Munich and grew into a scientific society. It created a leading technical journal. It received state support, and it ran a strong regional library.

The Society began by trying to avoid a technocratic image. Its first president quoted Karl Maria von Weber's son Max, who'd said that technical education must come after liberal education. But this was the new age of technical professionals. The Society was destined to mirror the new German process industries.

The Society rose and fell during the 19th century, but mostly it rose. By the 1920s it claimed over 2000 members. Rudolph Diesel had been part of it. So had the great process engineer Carl von Linde. Then the Depression came. The Society's membership and its industrial base suffered. Depression sapped its strength along with the rest of Germany. Then, in 1933, Hitler came to power.

One member, a Nazi, asked the Nazi party what sort of support they meant to give the Society. He was told it'd have its place in the new Germany, but there was a catch. The majority of the Society board had to be Party members. The Society didn't like it, but would-be voices of prudence won out. They put Nazis on the board. After all, the old-timers could surely contain the Nazi majority.

Meanwhile, the president tried to buy favor by making members swear loyalty oaths to Hitler. That seemed painless enough. The members agreed, and the Society limped on. It did the routine testing the Nazis wanted. It gave them the patent advice they asked for. The Society's goals became those of the 3rd Reich. Meanwhile, the Nazis created an Office of Technical Sciences. In 1937, that Office formally absorbed the Bavarian Polytechnical Society. At its last meeting in 1938, it unanimously agreed to dissolve itself. After all, members conceded, its work now had a larger stage.

It had taken the Nazis only five years to wreck a fine old Society. It seems a small loss compared with the rest of WW-II. Yet it tells, with terrible clarity, the worst nightmare of any good engineer. It tells what lurks out there every time we sell freedom of the mind to buy security.

The old Society records were taken from bomb-torn Munich and hidden in the countryside. And that's the only reason we're able to tell this sad story about making peace with evil.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Thomas, D.E., Jr., Nazi 'Coordination' of Technology: The Case of the Bavarian Polytechnical Society. Technology and Culture, Vol. 31, No. 2, pp. 251-264.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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