Technology Gaps are not New: A Personal Historical Tale

Bridges vol. 39, May 2014 / Norm Neureiter on S&T in Diplomacy

By Norm Neureiter

My father emigrated to the US from Austria in 1926, with a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Vienna. His first teaching job in the US was at what is now Western Illinois University in Macomb, which at that time was a teacher-training Normal School. When I was about 6-years old, we moved to Geneseo in upstate New York (just south of Rochester), where he taught math and science in a similar teacher-training Normal School. Over the next 35-40 years he was head of the science department and participated in the evolution of the school into a first-rate campus of the State University of New York system: SUNY-Geneseo. Today, it is known for its exceptionally strong undergraduate research program in the sciences.

Soon there were three of us children, but our family never talked much about the old country as we were growing up. Furthermore, in the small upstate community where we llived, speaking German at home was out of the question during the second world war. However, on my father’s last visit to Austria, before his death in 1992 at the age of 93, he brought back a large, elegantly drafted, and remarkably complete family tree. It began in Preston, Lancashire, England with the birth in 1721 of Matthew Rosthorn, a man who became Matthaeus Rosthorn in German-speaking Austria. I vaguely recalled an old family tale of a secret departure from England and resettlement in Austria, but never had any more details. However, because my present work at AAAS occasionally takes me to Vienna, I decided to try to find out what really happened and why. History may be elusive, but it is never boring.

The family tree, which eventually reaches to my father and to me, shows that Matthew Rosthorn had three wives: the first was Elise (with no recorded last name and one child, Thomas, born in 1758); the second was Mary Morton (a good English name) with whom he had a son John, born in 1765. Coincidentally,1765 was also the year that Matthew was said to have left England and gone to Austria – reportedly on personal invitation from Maria Theresia von Habsburg, the Empress of Austria and the Holy Roman Empire.

I had tried to find out for several years if there was any evidence corroborating the story about Preston and Lancashire, but without success. However, in early 2014, a young woman from Liverpool working at AAAS told me she knew of Preston as a near suburb. During a holiday, she and her mother paid a visit to the Metalworkers Guild in Preston. To their surprise, Rosthorn was indeed a member of the Guild. But in 1765, the file suddenly goes blank. There is no resignation, no transfer, no injury, no death – nothing. To the British Guild, it was as if Matthew Rosthorn simply ceased to exist.   

Europe in the 18th century seems to have been almost constantly at war or at the brink of confict. Each change of rulers entailed a new jockeying for place, balance of power, and possession of land among the great nations of the era. Maria Theresia, the daughter and designated successor of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI, married Francis Stephan of Lorraine (who became Franz I in Austria) I in 1736 when she was 19 and became the Holy Roman Empress in 1740 when her father died. From the beginning, she was engulfed in conflict (The War of Austrian Succession for 8 years.) By 1756 she was at it again (the Seven Years War) when she tried unsuccessfully to win back the province of Silesia, which she had lost to Prussia in the previous war.

In the 1760s, Maria Theresia faced yet another dilemma: Her empire had a technology gap. It lacked the know-how and the skilled workers for a metallurgical industry. Allegedly, an early  driving force was the inability to make brass buttons, which she wanted for her army’s uniforms. Such buttons had to be imported, and one account even states that  exporting such button-making technology and related metallurgical know-how from England was prohibited by law. For a similar reason, China historically forbade the export of silkworms, so export controls were certainly nothing new. Nations protected their trade secrets for economic as well as security reasons, just as other nations tried to acquire them by means both open and nefarious.    

Around 1765, someone acting in the name of Emperor Franz I contacted a skilled English metallurgist named Matthew Rosthorn, who lived and worked in Preston, Lancashire, England, an area well known for its metal industry. The 44-year-old expert in brass technology was also a Catholic, which may have been one reason he was approached in Protestant England. Maria Theresia’s husband, Franz, suddenly died in August of that year, but the invitation was again extended to Rosthorn in the name of the Empress. His departure appears to have occurred shortly afterwards. His 7-year-old son, Thomas, went with him. We have no details of how they traveled, if it was facilitated by Austrian diplomats in England, or just what took place, but that year Matthew and Thomas moved to Vienna. 

In Vienna, Rosthorn was quickly given land and money. He uilt a factory in the city’s downtown area, and by 1768 was producing brass buttons in such volume that the import of similar buttons was forbidden by the Austrian Government, largely cutting off foreign competition. Within three years, the English metallurgist had virtually eradicated imports of brass buttons from England or anywhere else. Rosthorn had also laid the foundation for what became a huge metallurgical, mining, and manufacturing enterprise over the next 100 years.

The Rosthorn family in Vienna also expanded. It appears that his second wife Mary remained in England with his second son John, until her death in 1777.  Shortly after that  it is said that an Austrian priest acting for the Empress abducted the orphaned 13-year old son and took him to Vienna to join his father. Another old family story  about Matthaeus is that  some years later one of his sons came to him  to present a young woman as his prospective bride. Matthaeus took one look at her  and said he liked her so much he would just take her for himself. The “lucky” bride was Elisabeth See (presumably an Austrian) who bore Matthew four more sons in the succeeding 14 years. All of his six sons joined the successful family enterprise, which had such an impact on the nation that Maria Theresia’s son, Joseph II, who had succeeded his mother on the throne, ennobled Matthew in 1790. From then on, all family members were entitled to  use the title “Edler von” – the first rung on the ladder of Austrian nobility. Matthew became from that day “Matthaeus Edler von Rosthorn.”  

During this time, foreign craftsmen working in other areas were recruited to bring their specialized skills to Austrian  factories. Wool, cotton, and iron working were other examples of technology imports, with protectionism playing a part in fostering the growth of domestic businesses. Supposedly the development of a patent system in 1820 favored the Rosthorn family’s industrial dynasty, which did extremely well for nearly a century. Their empire had spread to mining, refining, and fabrication of many kinds of sheet metal, iron, steel, wire, etc. But protectionism can be a curse  when it breaks down – as it usually does. By 1870, the collective debts of the family resulted in others taking over their industrial empire.

Rosthorn’s story is a classic tale of filling a technology gap, as well as an early example of how technological competition between countries often played out. And, in fact, things have not changed so much today. The daily press carries stories of nations claiming that the Chinese are stealing Western nations’ latest technology.  The US claimed the Japanese were taking technology from the US 30-years ago, then underselling American chipmakers and car manufacturers while closing their own markets to US imports. This story is not only about how Austria solved its metallurgical gap in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is also an early tale of how great industries can fail as well as flourish, of how important technology is to a nation, and what countries will do to acquire it. 

While today’s technology is very different – with electricity, electronics, and gasoline and diesel engines – global competition in the search for new technology is even more critical than 250-years ago. Most intriguing for me is the fact that the protagonist in this tale was, in fact, a distant relative and that he and his extended family had a salient impact on Austria in one of its great historical periods. Somehow that seems much more important in the grand scheme of things than just producing shinier buttons for the army.


Norman Neureiter has been a senior adviser to the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy (CSTSP) and the Center for Science Diplomacy (CSD) since July 2009.