Price, Derek John Desolla

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(b. Leyton [a London suburb], United Kingdom, 22 January 1922; d. London, 3 September 1983)

history of science, science of science, science policy.

A prolific and influential writer and thinker of the 1960s and 1970s, Price made pioneering contributions to the history of science and scientific instruments, the sociology of science and the science of science, and science policy. His two PhDs, one in physics, one in the history of science, gave his work added authority in both scientific and nonscientific circles.

Early Years Derek Price was the son of Philip Price, a tailor, and Fanny Price (née deSolla), a singer. As a youth, Derek delighted in making models and studying mathematics. He was particularly captivated by clockwork mechanisms and by all kinds of gear-train-driven machines. After secondary school he became a laboratory assistant in physics at South West Essex Technical College, Essex, Greater London, during which time he became thoroughly familiar with the construction of scientific instruments. When World War II broke out, he taught physics classes eight hours each day in South West Essex Technical College and studied part time, obtaining a BSc in physics and mathematics from the University of London (External) in 1942. (An “external” degree is one offered to students who did not attend the university but participated under its external program.) As a research assistant and part-time lecturer, he continued his studies, receiving his PhD in physics, again from the University of London (External), in 1946. He pursued mathematical physics at Princeton University as a Commonwealth Fund Fellow in 1946–1947. From 1947 to 1950 he was a lecturer in applied mathematics at Raffles College of the University of Malaya in Singapore (later the University of Singapore).

In Singapore, Price made a serendipitous discovery that led him to formulate the idea that scientific knowledge grows exponentially, a finding he announced at the Sixth International Congress of the History of Science at Amsterdam in 1950. Price had taken the university’s recently obtained volumes of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society into custody for safekeeping, but in later perusing them, he noticed that when the volumes were in chronological order, they grew in size so rapidly as to suggest that science grew exponentially. His perusal of the volumes also stimulated a deep interest in the history of science, and from 1950 to 1954 he studied that subject at Cambridge University in England, receiving a PhD in 1954. He published his first book in 1953, an edition of a medieval manuscript, titled An Old Palmistry, and also worked on instruments at the Whipple Museum of the History of Science. During his thesis research he found a manuscript that proved to be Equatorium of the Planetis, written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the fourteenth century. In 1955 Price published an edition of the work with scholarly commentary. In 1955 and 1956 he prepared a catalog of the scientific instruments of the British Museum.

Move to America In 1957 Price was invited to the United States as a consultant for planning what became the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. After two years as a visiting fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University in New Jersey during 1958–1959, where he studied theoretical physics and the history of ancient astronomy, Price went to Yale University in the fall of 1959 as a visiting professor. In 1960 he was made professor in the newly created Department of the History of Science and Medicine. His book Science since Babylon followed in 1961, and he obtained the endowed Avalon Chair for the History of Science in 1962. Price remained at Yale for the rest of his life, the bulk of his more than two hundred articles and reviews and fourteen books being published during his tenure there. From the late 1950s to the early 1970s, the history of science and technology research field enormously, stimulated by new discoveries and technologies and by the Cold War and the space race. That period of unparalleled growth and interest constituted an optimistic context for Price’s research.

Work in Science Studies Price’s approach to studies of the epiphenomena of scientific activity was largely quantitative, but his contributions to the sociology of science, science policy, and the interrelations between science and technology were broadly social-historical in orientation. His passion for scientific instruments fueled his interests in the history and nature of technology and his desire to create a theory of just how technology and science related to each other.

Price’s quantitative approach led him to fundamental contributions in scientometrics, helping him to create, shape, and direct studies in that field, which he termed the science of science. His book Little Science, Big Science(1963) is a classic foundational work in the field. It summarized his quantitative researches and detailed the exponential growth of scientific papers, journals, and review journals; the mathematical distribution of scientific papers among authors (the number of authors publishing more than n papers is proportional to 1/n); and the negative effects of world wars on scientific (but not technological) productivity. He went on to create what he called the immediacy factor and to investigate the half-life of citations, helping to distinguish “hard” from “soft” science and “hot” from “cold” research.

Price’s early use of data listing journal-to-journal citations led to preliminary maps of the structure of scientific fields. His classic “Networks of Scientific Papers” (1965) graphically depicted the research front of science and demonstrated the existence, by citation analysis, of “classic” and “review” papers, whose functions were, respectively, to identify key contributions and to serve as surrogate citations for blocks of research papers. “Collaboration in an Invisible College” (1966), coauthored with Donald deB. Beaver, showed that many collaborative authors never contributed more than a fraction of a paper’s worth of research in their careers and suggested that collaboration could in part be an ad hoc response to a researcher shortage. It also traced the developing collaborative structures of a subfield of science over five years and illustrated its gradual evolution into two distinct research traditions.

One of Price’s later provocative researches showed that the rank order of a country’s share of global wealth correlated highly with its rank ordered shares of the world literature in physics and chemistry, suggesting that pure research in science had tangible economic benefits. That work led to analyses of national research and development expenditures, showing that an increasing threshold for supporting internationally competitive research existed, a threshold that few countries could afford across the whole range of scientific research. In that connection he developed a technique for estimating the cost of production of one scientific paper, enabling comparisons among different scientific fields.

Not all was theory. For example, Price advised and encouraged Eugene Garfield in the creation of the Science Citation Index of the Institute of Scientific Information (ISI)—now part of the widely used and influential ISI Web of Knowledge of Thomson Scientific—not only in the natural sciences, but also the social sciences, art, and the humanities. Furthermore, in the early 1970s, Price testified at hearings before congressional committees on matters of science and technology policy.

Nearly all of Price’s quantitative measures and patterns were relevant to the sociology of science, in particular to the influential functionalist and meritocratic version developed by the then-leading sociologist of science, Robert K. Merton of Columbia University. For example, Price’s and others’ work on cumulative advantage related closely to Merton’s classic paper on “The Matthew Effect” (1966). That is, the more research a scientist has done that is recognized to be significant, the more visibility and recognition accrues, which improves the researcher’s access to funding and collaborators.

Price’s work on patterns of scientific collaboration outlined a normal pattern of creation, growth, and splitting apart of collaborative groups of researchers. Based on his studies of scientific productivity, Price also developed a model of types of contributors to the formal scientific literature—continuants, intermittents, and transients— their proportions, and the sizes of their contributions. He also suggested the significance of a continuing tradition of informal “invisible colleges” of researchers for helping to communicate ideas and structure research projects.

Instruments and Technology Price’s most significant contributions to the history of science came in his studies related to scientific instruments, beginning with his collaborative work with Joseph Needham and Wang Ling on Heavenly Clockwork: The Great Astronomical Clocks of Medieval China (1960). Then came his reconstruction of the Tower of the Winds in “The Tower of the Winds— Piecing Together an Ancient Puzzle” (1967) and his astrolabe catalog with Sharon Gibbs and Janice Henderson (1973). The Tower of the Winds is a 12-meter tall octagonal building built between the mid-second and mid-first centuries BCE and located on the Roman agora in Athens. Each of its eight faces represents a wind, and has a sundial; originally there was a water clock inside.

Price’s Gears from the Greeks(1974) elucidated the Antikythera mechanism, a compact, gear-driven, astronomical computing device from about 90 BCE. This work helped change views about the technological sophistication and prowess of the classical world. Throughout Price’s career he remained fascinated with clockwork, and he published nearly annually on various types of clocks from different historical periods and nations. His interest extended naturally from clocks to automata, which he characterized as attempts to model the universe (inorganic nature, via astronomical clocks and gear-train computers) and to model life (organic nature, via gear-work figures). He suggested that the recurrent drive to create automata provoked technical improvements in clock making and gear-train design.

Again and again Price returned to the puzzle of the natures of science and technology and the relationship between them. He began to develop a theory challenging the conventional model that science led to technology, which thus impacted society. Instead, he stressed the counterflow of ideas from technology to science, arguing that, in particular, scientific instruments drive science’s development just as significantly as science affects technology's. Price was convinced that the personal and ideational links between scientific and technological development were relatively few but extremely strong, and he used as examples of connecting links sixteenth- and seventeenth-century instrument makers and peripatetic nineteenth-century mechanics and engineers.

One of the more important articulations of his ideas came in his “Ups and Downs in the Pulse of Science and

Technology” (1978), in which he argued that the real Scientific Revolution, and the sustained exponential growth of fundamental research, did not take place in the seventeenth century, as commonly held, but was instead a nineteenth-century phenomenon, related to the burgeoning Industrial Revolution. Another was his last exposition of his theory, in a speech titled “Of Sealing Wax and String,” delivered as the George B. Sarton Memorial Lecture of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in May 1983.

Later Career Price’s eclectic diversity and critical approaches to conventional wisdom were hallmarks of his career, leading some members of the Society for Social Studies of Science to suggest, in contemplation of creating an annual award in his name, that it be given to the author of outstanding “maverick” contributions. Price’s substantial body of scholarship continues to influence science studies, as witnessed annually by the Social Sciences Citation Index.

In the 1970s Price began to receive formal recognition of his scholarship. Prominent among his awards were the Leonardo da Vinci Medal from the Society for the History of Technology (1976) and the John Desmond Bernal Award from the Society for Social Studies of Science (1981). Price was especially pleased with his election as a foreign member to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, because he hoped that at last he would get to know how the Nobel Prizes winners are really determined—but unfortunately his death, the result of a heart attack, intervened.


The Webster Institute for the History of Astronomy at the Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum, 1300 South Lakeshore Drive, Chicago, IL 60605, has nine boxes of papers by or relating to Price; collected papers and other documents are also to be found at the Centre de Recherche en histoire des sciences et des techniques, cité des sciences et de l’industrie, 75930 Paris, cedex 18, France. Silvio Bedini, “Eloge,” Annali dell’Istituo e Museo di Storia della Scienza 9 (1984): 95–115, contains a bibliography of Price’s publications.


An Old Palmistry. Cambridge, U.K.: Heffer, 1953.

The Equatorie of the Planetis. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1955.

With Joseph Needham and Wang Ling. Heavenly Clockwork: The Great Astronomical Clocks of Medieval China. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1960.

Science since Babylon. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1961.

Little Science, Big Science. New York: Columbia University Press, 1963.

“Networks of Scientific Papers.” Science 149 (1965): 510–515.

With D. deB. Beaver. “Collaboration in an Invisible College.” American Psychologist 21, no. 11 (November 1966): 1011–1018.

“The Tower of the Winds—Piecing Together an Ancient Puzzle.”National Geographic Magazine 131 (1967): 586–596.

The Difference between Science and Technology. Detroit, MI: Thomas Alvin Edison Foundation, 1968.

“Citation Measures of Hard Science, Soft Science, Technology, and Nonscience.” In Communication among Scientists and Engineers, edited by Carnot E. Nelson and Donald K. Pollock. Lexington, MA: Heath Lexington Books, 1970.

With Sharon L. Gibbs and Janice Henderson. “A Computerized Checklist of Astrolabe.” Distributed privately by the Department of History of Science and Medicine, Yale University, New Haven, CT, 1973.

Gears from the Greeks: The Antikythera Mechanism, a Calendar Computer from ca. 80 BC. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1974.

With Ina Spiegel-Rösing, eds. Science, Technology, and Society: A Cross-Disciplinary Perspective. London: Sage Publications, 1977.

“Ups and Downs in the Pulse of Science and Technology.”Sociological Inquiry 48 (1978) 162–171.

“Of Sealing Wax and String.” Natural History 93 (January 1984): 48–56.


Beaver, Donald deB. “Eloge: Derek John deSolla Price (22 January 1922–3 September 1983).” Isis 76, no. 3 (September 1985): 371–374.

Bedini, Silvio, “Eloge.” Annali dell’Istituo e Museo di Storia della Scienza 9 (1984): 95–115.

Merton, Robert K. “The Matthew Effect in Science.” Science 159 (5 January 1968): 56–63.

Yagi, Eri, Lawrence Badash, Donald deB. Beaver. “Derek J. De S. Price (1922–1983): Historian of Science and Herald of Scientometrics.” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 21, no. 1 (1996): 64–84.

Donald deB. Beaver

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