SPRU - Science Policy Research Unit

In memory of Nick von Tunzelmann


Our former colleague and R.M Phillips Professor Nick von Tunzelmann passed away on 28 May 2019. 

Nick Von Tunzelmann back in 1992-93

Nick von Tunzelmann began his career as an economic historian at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, after obtaining an MA at Cambridge and a DPhil at Oxford. He then went on to Cambridge, where he became a Fellow of St John's College and lectured in the Faculty of Economics and Politics at Cambridge University between 1970 and 1984. He joined SPRU in 1984.

Nick has called his time at SPRU a ‘reincarnation’, suggesting that he had two careers. The first one, as a classical economic historian, stemmed from his doctorate at Oxford and developed in his highly cited 1978 book on Steam Power and British Industrialisation to 1860. The second one as an economist of innovation, a precursor of later studies in the field, and central to the training of young scholars.

His work had a unique and valuable boundary-spanning nature. While remaining an intellectual reference on the history of technical change over the course of three editions of the Cambridge History of Britain, his work coined central concepts and refined several extant ones in the field. Nick substantially contributed to the analysis of technological revolutions, adding to the studies on general purpose technologies and demand-pull innovation. He developed the concept of time-saving technical change, which represents an invaluable theoretical grounding for current analysis of digital transformations. He analysed the role of dynamic capabilities and coined the term ‘network alignment’ to explain the role of governance of technology and industries within the realm of industrial policy.

His historical training informed the field of the economics of innovation and he was able to draw on this latter to inform the work of cliometrics and economic historians. This being at the centre of a mutual enrichment between different fields - and the fact that he abhorred intellectual territorialism - are a fundamental lesson for every academic.

While at SPRU, Nick held the role of Director of Research, central to coordinating SPRU’s diverse research. He was the editor of Industrial and Corporate Change (OUP) from 1991 to 2004, and editor of Research Policy from 2004 to 2010, as well as a member of the Editorial Board of Structural Change and Economic Dynamics (Elsevier) from 1989.

Over his career, Nick informed industrial and innovation policies by presenting his work to government officials in the UK, Spain, Eastern Europe, Brazil, New Zealand, and elsewhere, and to international organisations such as the United Nations and European Union.

With his unique attitude to intellectual venturing, Nick designed and co-convened with Keith Pavitt the foundational course of SPRU MSc programmes, still currently nicknamed as ‘SPRU 101’. He instilled a long-lasting intellectual curiosity for the complex patterns that technological progress can take, and that is fondly remembered by generations of students.

And, indeed, these generations of students remember the human being alongside the scholar.

He was a proud New Zealander, and, although he was never one to boast, it was clear that the von Tunzelmann family were famous in New Zealand. Nicholas had been one of the first Europeans to settle in Queenstown, while Alexander had been among the first to set foot in Antartica. Nick was a talented and passionate mountaineer, one of the very best of his generation. On 28 Dec 1964, along with Bruce Harrison and Aat Vervoorn, Nick was the first person to climb the North Ridge of Mount Sefton (3151m), one of the most difficult and dangerous climbs in the NZ Southern Alps.

Much of the strength, patience, positive attitude of mountaineers, he channelled in relating with students, young scholars and colleagues.

Nick patiently and devotedly supervised some 100 doctoral students, hailed from many countries and focused on a variety of topics. Reflecting on the wide-ranging interests of his doctoral students, he humbly claimed: “It is to all my colleagues in SPRU and above all to my doctoral and masters students, who have taught me and forced me to think about so much, that my deepest intellectual debts are owed”.

He generously and steadily supported them all through their academic (and often life) turmoil by listening, steering, involving them in research projects and funding their participation in conferences. He discretely systematised, crafted, corrected, generous with his time. He always pretended that after all, it was not much of an effort for him to patiently deal with first-time, ambitious non-English native speaking writers. Nick was one of the very few academics who chose to put helping others above furthering his own career.

Last, but not least, Nick was an early and enthusiastic academic feminist, well before supporting women academics became a somewhat empty form of corporate social responsibility espoused by universities. Surrounded by exceptional women in his family, his wife Carol Dyhouse and daughters Alex and Eugénie, he was acutely aware of and attentive to the material and psychological barriers that women face when approaching academia, often having to relate to difficult environments or to trade-offs between family and PhD responsibilities. He believed in and wholeheartedly supported, encouraged and empowered generations of women students and scholars.

Lately, he faced his illness with the strength and composed attitude that one would expect from Nick the scholar, the mountaineer, the kind human being, fiercely supported by Carol.


Remembering Nick Von Tunzelmann: Comments

[last updated: Thursday 4 July 2019, 12:43]

Kumiko Miyazaki, Tokyo Institute of Technology Graduate School of Innovation Management:

"I was very saddened to hear that Nick has passed away. While I was a PhD student (1989-1993) although I had 2 excellent supervisors Keith and Roy, I was privileged that Nick became like my informal supervisor.  He was always kind, supportive,  inspiring and encouraging. We used to have lengthy discussions and I learned a lot from Nick. I had a great experience at SPRU thanks to people like Nick, Chris, Keith, Roy and Ben. After I became an academic I collaborated with SPRU and I was glad that Nick, Keith and CoPS members were able to come to attend a CoPS meeting I organized in Japan. I will miss Nick. I will always remember Nick with gratitude and warmth. My sincere condolences to Carol and Nick's daughters." 

Christian Le Bas, Université Catholique de Lyon:

"Allow me to add some personal observations. It was during my stay at SPRU in 1993 that I saw him for the first time. Keith Pavitt had told me that he was “very clever” and that I had to talk to him. I saw him a lot in the corridors of the SPRU building, always with books under his arm, navigating from the library to his desk. His gaze behind his severe glasses was dark and his gait heavy and uncompromising. But he listened a lot, eager to learn even from someone less competent. He directed an important European programme (the MAcrotech project) in which I participated. His inaugural presentation to the project was exceptional. He came to Lyons as a visiting professor. In the evening, in his hotel room, he wrote the course he was to give the next day to my Master's students. I saw him one last time, already affected by the disease, at a workshop that Cristiano Antonelli organised in Turin to prepare the release of the Handbook on the Economic Complexity of Technological Change by the end of 2010. He had a certain penchant for the French people who came to him - I guess – from the French rugby team he liked (“les bleus” as he called them). He certainly (but still in a moderately mild way) supported the "All Blacks". He collaborated with the French network RRI. Nick'memory will live in France." 

Jonathan Sapsed, Newcastle University:

"Nick was one of the pillars of SPRU in terms of his knowledge and openness. When I arrived he taught the MSc SPRU 101 course, his understated personality making a counterpoint to Keith Pavitt- what a team they were. Nick's depth and range were inspiring and he encouraged me to pursue the academic life, always available to comment on ideas, even if it was while he was photocopying. I was delighted when Maria Savona asked me to help out with the NickFest conference, which was a truly great moment of tribute, and unlike with Keith, we managed it while he could still participate and enjoy it. For the special issue I asked Ismael Rafols if we could produce a bibliometrics map of Nick's work, which showed two clear wings of citations- one from his early economic history life, and the second from innovation studies- rare indeed to see impact among two communities that are not as connected as we might think, but connected they were in Nick. His wide-ranging scholarship is a continuing model to remember, as we are increasingly pressured into our narrow specialisms. Condolences to Carol and his daughters, all who have followed fascinating careers themselves. What a family."

Cecilia Ibarra:

"My memories of Nick are full of gratitude and warmth. It gives me comfort to think of many former students and colleagues who I believe feel the same. In 1995, teaching for master students of TIM in the Mantell Building, he read aloud to the class drafts of “Technology and Industrial Progress”, and made notes of our questions and comments. He used to pop into the research assistants´ office with a suggestion for a new graph we could produce with the CIS data. His passion for understanding and interpreting was contagious and awaken our curiosity.

Nick was interested and respectful of students and colleagues’ works and opinions. He wanted to know which was the topic of every new PhD student and never missed a Friday seminar. At coffee time he engaged in conversations to understand more and made suggestions for readings or for contacting people doing similar work.

He was a brilliant and prolific academic writer, generous in inviting new scholars to writing projects and ready to offer his articles to less known but serious journals. Somehow, he also managed to make time for correspondence with former students around the world. I think Nick had profound confidence in people's ability to learn, reflect and achieve results. He supported a diversity of PhD students, for example, he encouraged a doubtful mature alumnus to pursue a research career after years of professional work, and supervised her all along the PhD process providing the most dedicated guidance and confidence. I was sure he believed in me more than I believed in myself. In September 2012, I almost cried when he finished reading in front of me the last line of my thesis, marked a spelling error and said “you surprised me”. That was most important to me than what the commission could say.

Nick Fest in 2011, organized by a SPRU team led by Maria Savona, was a wonderful celebration of Nick´s work and he enjoyed it like the most. The attendance and quality of the event was the best gift he could have, he followed every session. When Giovanni Dossi said we have not made enough to theorize and provide an alternative to economic thinking, I thought of Nick´s latest efforts on that direction, for example, in 2009 with “capabilities and production theory” and “networks and systems alignment”. The long list of more than hundred students who had been supervised by Nick, compiled by Janet for the occasion, showed a big family, with names well known in the field.

I admire Nick for his work, his humanity and for his strength to face illness. I am still learning from him and I thank life for having had the opportunity to meet him. My gratitude and admiration goes also to Carol, Dyhouse, Nick´s partner. I only knew, from a proud Nick, of her book “Glamour”, which I have seen him editing. When I visited Nick for SPRU´s 50th anniversary, I met her and was deeply moved by Carol´s dedication and efforts to keep him comfortable.

Nick is part of the heart of SPRU, it is an honour to have met him and to have the SPRU diaspora to remember him."

Michael Hopkins, SPRU, University of Sussex:

"I am so sorry to hear the sad news that Nick has passed away. I will remember Nick for his kind and supportive manner, which I very much appreciated when taking my first steps in the world of innovation studies. He was a helpful mentor and source of considerable wisdom. For students who studied at SPRU his role over many years in the “Keith and Nick show” will be fondly remembered. For staff, Nick’s intellectual versatility, appetite for projects of all kinds, and his keenness to serve our community put him at the heart of SPRU. He is greatly missed."

Davide Consoli, INGENIO [CSIC-UPV]:

"Nick von Tunzelmann was a dedicated scholar and a gentleman, a rare combination of qualities. He will be greatly missed."

Lars Frederiksen, Aarhus University:

"I met Nick von Tunzelmann only once. He made such a great impression on a young innovation scholar from Denmark!"

Rosane Argou Marques:

"I will always remember Nick by his curiosity to learn beyond the borders, his great incentive for looking ahead and for his patience to listening."

Ismael Rafols, Ingenio (CSIC-UPV) & CWTS (Leiden):

"It is very sad, and it feels very unfair, that a person like Nick passed away after such a long illness. When I arrived to SPRU in the fall of 2004, Nick had literally dozens of PhD students and mentees across the world, yet he found the time to provide me academic advice, support and eventually offer me my SPRU contract. It was only a three week contract, but without it, I may not have stayed in SPRU for 7 years more!!

Since many of my female friends in SPRU were formally or informally supervised by Nick, with generosity and gusto, I quickly came to realise the extraordinary breadth of his scholarship — from the history of technology to academic aspects of science policy. It felt as though Nick was a gardener carefully taking care that new shoots of knowledge would grow in SPRU, grooming younger scholars, and endlessly contributing bits of wisdom to support us. For example, Nick was a fond attendant of Wednesday and Friday seminars (where I also shared some power naps), delivering comments that were often as illuminating as the seminar itself.

I feel extremely grateful to Nick for having shared his time, his knowledge and his passion for research with so many of us, with such generosity. It is people like Nick which made SPRU such a special place."

Tommaso Ciarli, SPRU, University of Sussex:

"So sad to hear that Nick has passed away. Such a crucial figure in the academic life (and beyond) of those who study innovation dynamics and structural change! Nick has been one of my entry points into SPRU since when I was studying for my master in economics at Sussex. Even though I was not enrolled in a SPRU programme, he made me feel at home. Since then I would always listen with great attention to all his comments on my own and others work. Even when the illness was making everything difficult for him, he would smile and happily give comments. Has been sad to lose him little by little. And will be greatly missed."

Patricia Springborg, Zentrum Großbritannien, Humboldt University, Berlin:

"That beautiful smile I would recognize anywhere although I have not seen Nick since we were history students at the University of Canterbury 50 years ago. Our paths did not cross at Oxford because I was there later and they have not crossed in Europe, although I have always been in Economics faculties. I saw his great grandfather's grave in Queenstown while I was looking for mine and I have always proudly followed his career. My deepest condolences to his family."

Mari Martiskainen, SPRU, University of Sussex:

"Nick was a wonderful colleague. Kind, inspiring and always thoughtful. His support for students and junior members of staff was outstanding. Some perhaps considered Nick's desk at the Freeman Centre to be rather messy; to me, it always represented a mountain of knowledge, just like Nick. I was very saddened to hear that Nick had passed away and wish his family all the best. Nick's memory will live on at SPRU and beyond."

Fernanda Puppato:

"Nick, you will be missed.

I knew you from fame at the time where I was working at UN ECLAC.

Then I started my master at SPRU in 2009 and I met you there, in the hall of the Freeman Centre. You were always a great, patient and proactive teacher.

Many colleagues will surely remember you, as I also like to do, as a great intellectual. Simply put, to me you were one of the most human and kind people I have ever met in my life and around the world.

This humanity is not to be taken for granted in these days and I hope your example will inspire each one of us to be, first of all, generous, and to dedicate time to the others.

I was always been impressed by the sharpness of your reasoning combined with the inner optimism you had during your last period at SPRU. This way of facing your illness is yet another example you gave us as GREAT teacher and friend.



Janet Snow:

"I worked with Nick for many years. I will always remember him as a gentleman. He always had time for students, UG, MSc and DPhil, whether his supervisees or others. His was the supportive hand when it was needed. His was the voice of calm. He had a wicked sense of humour, and several times I was on the receiving end of this! However, payback came in the form of celebrations for his 60th birthday at the Freeman Centre ... when we were treated to a risque version of Happy Birthday from the great man himself." 

Wan-Lin Hsieh:

"Nick, my supervisor, is always so patient and helpful not only during my master study in SPRU but also my later academic journey. R.I.P."

Michiko Iizuka, National Graduate Research Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS): 

"My deepest condolences.

I am one of his 100 (or more) PhD students.

I have a great appreciation for his patience and support in helping me go through PhD and getting on to my career. He was a great supervisor always supportive and listening to the views of student and gave me great insightful comments.

I now teach at university. Nick is always my reference point whenever I am in need of finding out the answers for supervision, teaching as well as research.

I really miss him a lot but will always remember him."

John Cantwell, Rutgers University:

"I was deeply saddened to learn of Nick's passing. Perhaps surprisingly, Nick and SPRU proved to be a perfect fit between his blend of economic and technology history and the innovation studies tradition. His 1995 book remains a classic. Nick was characterized by a great humanity, a supreme spirit of generosity, and a keen self-sacrificial sense of duty that would have put Kant to shame. It was a wonderful privilege to have known Nick."

Irina Boyko, North West Institute of Management, Saint-Petersburg, Russia:

"I've met Prof. Tunszelmann at the conference, organised by Roskilde University, Denmark in 2003. We have had some e-mail connections since then. Surely he was one of the most important and great people of the upstream science who gave me a very significant understanding of technological innovations and economic growth. He was even ready to partially compensate for my travel expenditure if I visited his university for scholarship or conferences. I wanted to write to him now for providing his opinion on our project, but have learned, that he was gone! Such a grief! An outstanding person, who has made a great contribution in making this world better! Bright memory of him forever!"

Peter Swann, University of Nottingham: 

"I feel very privileged to have worked with Nick as an external examiner, and to have had the chance to talk with him at many conferences. Nick was a true gentleman and a fine scholar."

Ben Martin, SPRU, University of Sussex:

"For over twenty years, Nick von Tunzelmann was the rock at the heart of SPRU, providing a central focus for its research and teaching. He also personified the SPRU ethos that academic work involves team effort rather than the pursuit of individual glory.

SPRU has always been home to an extensive range of research activities. In such an institution, there is an ever-present danger that researchers will drift apart as they pursue their own interests. To offset that ‘centrifugal’ force, there needs to be some countervailing ‘centripetal’ force if the institution is to survive and thrive in the longer term. For the first two decades of SPRU’s existence, that was provided by Chris Freeman and (after he joined SPRU) Keith Pavitt. Two years after Chris stepped down as Director, Keith was joined by Nick von Tunzelmann, and together they provided that centripetal force holding SPRU together until Keith’s untimely death, after which Nick became the central figure for the next 10 years.

Nick’s contributions are manifold. He was pivotal in SPRU teaching. The course that Keith and he developed as an introduction to science, technology and innovation policy (‘SPRU 101’) was, and remains, the cornerstone of SPRU MSc teaching. Hundreds of students have been inspired by this and cherish fond memories of it.

Nick’s efforts as a doctoral student-supervisor are legendary. One hundred or more DPhil students have benefited from his unstinting efforts to stretch and encourage them, patiently devoting long hours to helping them improve their work. Many have gone on to become accomplished scholars in the field of innovation studies.

For many years, Nick served as SPRU’s Research Director, stimulating and coordinating the wide range of research efforts underway in SPRU, always ready to help improve a proposal or a draft paper. During my time as Director of SPRU, with Martin Bell as Director of Teaching and Nick as Director of Research, I could rest assured that these crucial responsibilities were in safe hands.

Nick was prodigious in his efforts as a journal editor, first with Industrial and Corporate Change and later with Research Policy. He was very much an ‘old school’ editor, devoting huge amounts of time to working with others to improve their papers. As a result of his editing roles as well as his participation in numerous conferences and other meetings, Nick had a vast range of colleagues and contacts around the world. He, therefore, played a vital role in ensuring that SPRU remained a central hub in the growing international network of innovation scholars.

Lastly, Nick was an eminent and internationally respected researcher in his own right, first as an economic historian with his pioneering work on the role of innovation (and especially the steam-engine) in the Industrial Revolution, and later as leading innovation scholar. His research was characterised by intellectual breadth, rigorous scholarship and penetrating insights, a combination that left many of us in awe. It is also noteworthy that in the latter part of his career, much of his published research involved collaboration, often with young up-and-coming researchers, where the emphasis was more on helping them develop their careers than enhancing Nick’s own illustrious reputation.

From the above list of contributions, it is immediately apparent that Nick was one of the few academics who devote more effort to helping others rather than furthering their own reputation. Over Nick’s lifetime, research became ever more a team effort. At the same time, the pressures and incentives in the academic system have tended to drive individuals to focus their efforts on maximising their own reputation as quickly and efficiently as possible. To offset the dangers of fragmentation and hyper-competition, one needs a number of academics willing and able to put the greater good (the ‘commonwealth’) above individual ambition, to devote themselves wholeheartedly to ‘public goods’ contributions to the academic enterprise. Nick exemplified this, following in the tradition of SPRU pioneers such as Chris Freeman, Geoff Oldham, Marie Jahoda and Keith Pavitt, and ensuring that SPRU maintained its ethos of ‘one for all, and all for one’. As a result, SPRU always has been, and remains, very much more than the sum of its parts.

Over recent years, we have unfortunately lost most of those who helped to establish and develop SPRU, providing the foundations for its continuing success 50 years on. After each death, it has become apparent that only at this belated stage does one get the entire ‘picture’ of that individual in all their dimensions. Moreover, most of them have proved to possess an extensive hinterland – a back-story until that point unknown to their work colleagues. (I suspect something similar may be true for the family, unfamiliar perhaps with some of the professional contributions of that individual.) In the case of Chris, there were his war-time exploits. For Marie, there was her prominent role in the opposition (and her subsequent imprisonment) in pre-war Austria, In Keith’s case, we learnt of his time in the RAF, in particular, the occasion when he ignored orders to bail out of his plane because of the defective undercarriage, instead insisting on crash-landing it.

Likewise, it was only after Nick’s death that we in SPRU got a glimpse of his ‘back-story’. Most of us had no idea that Nick had been a mountaineer, indeed one of New Zealand’s finest mountaineers in the 1960s with several first ascents to his name. (Nick had once let slip to me that he had appeared in a film about Edmund Hillary and the ascent of Everest, and indeed had been a ‘body double’ for the actor playing Hillary. What he did not mention, of course, was that he had presumably been chosen because of his mountaineering prowess, and I’d failed to put ‘two and two together’.) Mountaineering is another activity where, whatever the desire for individual glory, one must work with and for others in order to succeed. Nick brought that mentality to his work at SPRU, strengthening the ‘one for all’ ethos put in place by the early SPRU pioneers.

I am the first to admit that my own reputation and any successes I may have had would not have been possible without the help of colleagues at SPRU. All of us who have worked at SPRU during the last 30 years owe so much to Nick and his efforts (doubtless sometimes contributed at significant cost to his family) in ensuring the continuing success of SPRU and those who work in it. He will be sorely missed."