“Defining Professional Boundaries: Chemical Engineering in the Early 20th Century” by Terry Reynolds (1986) seeks to extend previous critical analyses of the relationships between engineering, on one hand, and ‘border areas’ such as science and business, on the other, beyond extant inquiries. The expansion consists at least partly in an application of lessons learned in these previous analyses to the discipline of specifically chemical engineering. The extension to chemical engineering, Reynolds argues, is important for a number of reasons. Today chemical engineering is one of the four main engineering fields, along with civil, mechanical, and electrical engineering. Furthermore, certain boundaries that exist in chemistry itself make such an extension particularly important for chemical engineering. Finally, Reynolds notes that,
the unique nature of the problems faced in delineating boundaries with chemistry led chemical engineers to create a new ‘engineering science’ and to accept a much closer initial relationship to business than any of the major engineering disciplines with the possible exception of mining engineering (Reynolds 1986, 695).
The primary thesis of Reynolds’s article is that chemical engineering has in the past faced a more serious problem of demarcation than the older engineering disciplines. This led chemical engineers to attempt to create a professional identity that separated them from chemists—and, in addition, eventually led to a scheme of delineation that more closely associated chemical engineering with the study of business management.
One reason for the differences between chemical engineering and other forms of engineering that Reynolds highlights is the fact that chemistry was an established science before the emergence of chemical engineering as a discipline. In general in science, theorists tend to look down upon those who seek to apply the theory directly to the empirical world. It is not the theorists are necessarily elitist, they just resent the idea that engineers closely associated with them are scientists, as opposed to educated laborers. Another reason for the resistance was that chemistry, unlike for example theoretical physics, is already closely aligned with ground-level laboratory work. That is, most chemists already have labs. There is therefore a tendency for them to wonder what precisely so-called ‘chemical engineers’ are doing, if not simply appropriating and exploiting the ideas of ‘genuine scientists’.
To summarize Reynolds’s main case presented in his paper: Early demarcations involving chemical engineering were largely products of border disputes with parties that did not look upon the engineers as genuine peers, or even as members of the same scientific community. For this reason, and others, chemical engineering tended to be assimilated with what might almost be called ‘administrative duties’ rather than properly scientific or even academic ones.
Critical Analysis
While Reynolds makes a good case for his central thesis, there are three central areas in which I think his methodology and/or arguments can be challenged. First, I think that he does not sufficiently demarcate the historical from the substantive points he wants to make. That is to say, there can be little doubt that his central historical points are correct. Chemical engineering was at its inception marginalized, largely for the reasons that Reynolds articulates. As a historical point, this seems quite correct. But there are indications in his article that Reynolds believes that his arguments and conclusions are of much more than merely historical interest. And it is here that I think his argumentation comes up short. One indication of this is the provenance of Reynold’s paper, Technology and Culture, which is not a journal solely concerned with historical issues.
The second respect in which I think that Reynold’s argument could be strengthened involves his contentions that certain early chemical engineers were not treated or paid at a rate commensurate with their skills and learning. I do not doubt the facts that he describes. But one suspects that some of the differences Reynolds points toward are more indicative of the relevant periods in history than of true perceived differences in value between chemical engineers and chemists—or among different sorts of chemical engineers. An example here is his discussion of the so-called ‘elitist membership standards’ that were at work in the various disciplines relative to chemical engineering (Reynolds 1986, 706). Elitism of the relevant sort was surely ubiquitous throughout the sciences and indeed academic circles generally at the time. And if this is so then his specific conclusions concerning relations between, for example, chemistry and chemical engineering do not obviously follow.
Finally, Reynolds quotes at one point (p.709) a report on chemical engineering education, which asserts that chemical engineering is itself a science, and not merely a composite of chemistry and, for example, mechanical and civil engineering. These sorts of (sometimes petty) border disputes are very common in the history of all the sciences, and I think that more needs to be done to show that chemical engineering suffered disproportionately in this respect from other sub-fields of chemistry or the physical sciences in general.
Questions for Discussion
Despite the critical observations I have offered, Reynolds’s paper does suggest several very promising questions for discussion. I will mention four of these.
First, Reynolds asserts early in his paper that the reason Edwin Layton, in his more-or-less comprehensive study of social responsibility with respect to ‘pure’ scientists, on one hand, and engineers, on the other, does not discuss chemical engineering is ‘probably’ that chemical engineering was a relatively small profession during the period covered in the study, roughly 1890-1930 (Layton 1971). It seems unlikely that Layton would have avoided discussing chemical engineering, even if it was not as large an enterprise as Reynolds asserts. Is it plausible that this is the reason that Layton does not discuss the issue of the relation between chemistry and chemical engineering, in his otherwise comprehensive study?
Second, one of the objections that I leveled at Reynolds’s discussion above points toward a more general issue that is of some substantive interest. I assume that he is correct that chemical engineers—and indeed engineers in general—are somewhat marginalized in the profession, in part because chemists (or other relevant ‘hard’ scientists) tend to disdain and neglect the work of engineers. The question this raises is what the effects are of this tendency toward marginalization across the various sciences. Is it possible that this tendency has sometimes hindered scientific progress, or is it mostly an anodyne inevitability? Third, it is well known within the profession that a chemical engineer, employed by a private company, can earn many times the salary of an academic chemist. This raises the question whether this state of affairs is morally permissible, and also the question whether it is good or bad (or neutral) for science. Private companies and corporations often have a vested interest in the results of a scientific inquiry coming out one way rather than another. This contrasts with the traditional model of science as a disinterested mode of inquiry.
Finally, there is the question of where the respective disciplines of chemistry and chemical engineering will go in the future. It is noteworthy that most of the reasons Reynolds provides for the differential treatment of chemical engineers versus chemists have a pronounced historical aspect. That is to say, it is largely because of an insecurity on the part of theoretical chemists that the notion of chemical engineering was for so long viewed with derision. Now that there is no question whatsoever but that chemistry is a legitimate science, that cannot be threatened by the apparently amateurish pretension of engineers, the question can be raised anew, and more objectively than before—what is the role of chemical engineering in the pantheon of sciences and scientific inquiry?

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  • Layton, E. (1971) The Revolt of Engineers: Social Responsibility and the American Engineering Profession (Cleveland).
  • Reynolds, T. (1986) “Defining Professional Boundaries: Chemical Engineering in the Early 20th Century,” Technology and Culture 27 (4), 694-716.