Knowing Otherwise: The Transatlantic Travels of Creative Thinking Expertise in the 1950s

Brainstorming as a way to organize ideation was first practiced in the United States in 1938 in the advertising firm Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn (BBDO). One partner, Alex Osborn, later described it as “using the brain to storm a problem,” adding that it should be done “in commando fashion.”1 As a method for thinking freely and wildly, so as to generate “new thoughts and ideas that no individual would have thought of on their own,”2 it was remarkable for its initial combination of conscious effort and play, of tenacious exercise and practices of freedom, and of rationality and irrationality. Brainstorming gained traction in American manufacturing, government, and the military in and after World War Two.3 And while brainstorming developed as a knowledge-generating practice squarely at the heart of military-industrial settings, it was pitted against predominant utilitarian rationalities of management, the military, and bureaucracies, for instance. Practiced in settings that explicitly suspended hierarchical orderings, it was geared toward the democratic expertise of no expertise—where anybody can have ideas. I have hypothesized that in order to overcome the boundaries imposed by modern and emergent rationalities in these settings, brainstorming offered a form of counterknowledge: an understanding that came about by not following the usual rules of thought.4

While creative thinking practices during World War Two aimed at increasing production,5 the Cold War provided a generative backdrop for the mobilization of creativity for a range of objectives. In military settings, the interest in brainstorming highlighted numerous pressing situations that necessitated a move beyond existing knowledge. In military survival training, for instance, recruits were exposed to creative thinking techniques in an effort to retrain them to think for themselves in unforeseen situations. Atomic future studies likewise required participants to think the unthinkable and thus to let go of “fixed thinking.”6

Series: Exploring Knowledge in Political History
Blogging before Conferencing
Discussion starters for the conference "Political Culture and the History of Knowledge: Actors, Institutions, Practices," June 6–8, 2019, GHI Washington. #poliknow #histknow @histknowledge

In the 1950s, brainstorming was also exported overseas. In what follows, I begin to situate its entrepreneurial trafficking as free expression. The Cold War manifested itself in a battle over the organization of Europe’s economy. It was, in the aftermath of World War Two, not at all clear whether Western economies could flourish without the stimulus of active warfare. As one American traveling salesman relayed: “Our allies are awaiting skeptically to be reassured that our free enterprise system will be able to maintain its uninterrupted growth and development during a period of peace.”7

The salesman was part of the American National Sales Executives (NSE). Established in 1935, it meant to give “the selling side of business a national voice,” among others by improving sales education in schools and corporations.8 In 1950, the NSE initiated an international undertaking, Operation Enterprise (OE), with the aim of “sell selling” abroad, starting in Europe.9 According to the NSE, the shared interest in production exemplified by the works of the Anglo-American Council on Productivity and the Economic Cooperation Administration, should shift to distribution and consumption.10 The Marshall Plan’s administrator, Paul Hoffman, endorsed NSE chairman Robert Whitney’s claim that the Marshall Plan “would fail unless it took into consideration consumption and selling as well as production and productivity.”11 Hoffman emphasized that the European market was, however, not a terrain where the American government could openly interfere: “The U.S. government couldn’t very well enter the selling area.”12 Given these limitations, the nongovernmental NSE received free rein.13 From 1950 onwards, the remit of its OE grew from distribution proper to encompass consumerism, merchandising, and marketing.

After visiting a good number of Western European countries, OE added Latin America and Russia to its itinerary in 1955.14 The tour through Russia, dubbed a “Sell America Tour,” sought to “teach Russians how to pitch.”15 There, too, salesmen would “explain direct, or door-to-door, selling methods, installment credit, product and market research, sales management, the role of packaging design in stimulating sales.”16

In 1956, brainstorming was one of the “ideas” OE took overseas. “Brainstorming … will be explained to business leaders in France, Italy, Germany and Austria this month. Willard A. Pleuthner, vice president in charge of brainstorming and communications for , is part of a six-man team of sales executives in this venture of Operation Enterprise.”17 Three years later, Pleuthner would visit the Netherlands. But the concept of brainstorming was already circulating in that country in 1956, including via the Dutch advertising journal Ariadne. There, drawing on Alex Osborn, H. G. Pelikaan introduced the concept of brainstorming—”an admittedly typically American term” (which wasn’t a compliment)—as an antidote to Dutch culture. Captives of their “customs, conventions and traditions,” the Dutch, he argued, needed to ditch their seriousness. Pelikaan emphasized the “psychologically safe climate” that protected brainstorming participants from damaging their reputations when they shared unusual ideas.18

That same year, a rival Dutch advertising journal, Revue der reclame, published a “simulated” brainstorm session between three men verbatim.19 The practice of brainstorming was not explained. Rather, the journal simply transcribed the simulation, “without embellishment.”20 A similar (but not simulated) verbatim report had been published in the U.S. journal Printer’s Ink earlier in the year. In that article, the brainstorm leader was Willard Pleuthner, the director of brainstorming at BBDO who would proselytize the gospel of creative ideation in NSE’s overseas tours from 1956 onwards.21 At the invitation of the Dutch Institute for Efficiency, Pleuthner gave several brainstorming demonstrations in 1959, not only in Dutch corporations and government agencies, but in associations and church societies as well.22

As OE’s aim shifted from distribution proper, to consumerism, merchandising and marketing, consumerism was explicitly framed as a way to “halt communism.” As NSE chairman Whitney explained, “By this I mean the technique of increasing people’s needs and consequently their consumption … The more people are able to buy, the less they are attracted to communism.”23 To make consumerism more palatable to Europeans OE explained “that what we have in America is a workers’ or peoples’ capitalism.” This framing, according to Whitney, “made it easier for Europeans to understand what we said.”24 Although the aftermath of World War Two and the dawn of the Cold War facilitated the transatlantic travel of concepts, including concepts of knowing, or of processes of knowledge production, they never traveled without translation and adaptation.

Bregje van Eekelen is Professor of Design, Culture and Society at Delft University of Technology.

  1. Alex F. Osborn, Applied Imagination: Principles and Procedures of Creative Thinking (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1953), 297. ↩︎
  2. Alex F. Osborn, How to Think Up (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1942), 6. ↩︎
  3. In the 1950s and 1960s, the concept also also took root in academia as one of the creative thinking techniques scrutinized in the then emerging field of creativity studies. See Jamie Cohen-Cole, The Open Mind: Cold War Politics and the Sciences of Human Nature (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2014); and Bregje F. van Eekelen “Creative Intelligence and the Cold War: US Military Investment in Undisciplined Thought 1945–1965,” Conflict and Society 4 (June 2018): 92–107, ↩︎
  4. Eekelen, “Creative Intelligence.” ↩︎
  5. Bregje F. van Eekelen, “Uncle Sam Wants Your Ideas: A Brief History of Embodied Knowledge in American World War II Posters,” Public Culture 30, no. 1 (2018): 113–42. ↩︎
  6. Sidney Shalett, “Eisenhower Bares War Study Mode,” The New York Times (hereafter: NYT), May 14, 1947, 17. For military investments in creativity, see Eekelen, “Creative Intelligence.” ↩︎
  7. David Austin, vice-president of the United States Steel Corporation, quoted in “‘Cold War’ Taking New Tack, ” NYT, June 11, 1953, 43. ↩︎
  8. “Sales Executives Form,” NYT, November 28, 1935. The NSE was born out of the International Association of Sales Executives. ↩︎
  9. James J. Nagle, “News of the Advertising and Marketing Fields,” NYT, January 24, 1954, 8. ↩︎
  10. Herbert Koshetz “U.S. Team to Aid British in Selling,” NYT, February 26, 1950, 1; James A. Williams, “Britain to Study U.S. Sales Set-Up,” NYT, October 23, 1949, 1, 6; and “U.S. Salesmanship Carried to British,” NYT, March 18, 1950, 24. ↩︎
  11. Nagle, “News”; see also “Sales Mission to Europe,” NYT, October 15, 1951, 34. ↩︎
  12. Nagle, “News.” ↩︎
  13. Operation Enterprise was sanctioned by the Economic Cooperation Administration (“Sales Mission to Europe”); however, the assertion that Operation Enterprise “was in no sense a Government project” was repeated in nearly every newspaper article reporting on it, including Koshetz “U.S. Team.” ↩︎
  14. “Sales Group Plans Tour: To Exchange Ideas With Trade Leaders of Latin America,” NYT, February 15, 1955, 38. OE first visited the United Kingdom in 1950, followed by Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki, Oslo, Frankfurt, Paris, Madrid and Brussels in 1951; “Sales Mission to Europe.” ↩︎
  15. “Sales Group Plans Tour”; and Brendan M. Jones, “Top U.S. Salesmen Vie for Team To Teach Russians How to Pitch,” NYT, October 30, 1955, 1, 8, respectively. ↩︎
  16. Jones, “Top U.S. Salesmen Vie”; “Sales Executives May Visit Moscow” NYT, July 29, 1955, 21. A trip to Japan, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Australia, and New Zealand was in the works as well; “U.S. Sales ‘Team’ Plans Soviet Visit,” NYT, September 10, 1955, 10. ↩︎
  17. “News of the Advertising and Marketing Fields,” NYT, October 8, 1956, 42. ↩︎
  18. H. G. Pelikaan, “Creatief Denken,” Ariadne 11 (May 1956): 177. The article concluded with a postscript that Mr. Osborn had sent a course on “creative thinking” to the author, which he reported to have gladly handed over to the Stichting Reklame Onderwijs (Advertisement Education Foundation). A month after its original publication, the article was reprinted in VRI Vorm (June 1956): 6-8. ↩︎
  19. “‘Brainstorming session’ werd op tape vastgelegd,” Revue der reclame 16 (November, 1956): 420-423. ↩︎
  20. Ibid. ↩︎
  21. Two years later in 1958, this Printer’s Ink transcription was translated and published in the Dutch journal of advertisement Revue der Reklame, “104 ideeën in 45 minuten,” Revue der reclame, 18 (May 1956): 244–246. ↩︎
  22. “In ‘Kras’ brainstormde men dat het een lieve lust was,” Revue der reclame 20 (November 1958): 651–52; C. Mens, “Brainstorming: Ideeenstroom met uitgesteld oordeel,” Ariadne 14 (November 1959): 673. ↩︎
  23. “Trade Drive Urged to Halt Communism,” NYT, October 10, 1956, 69. The NSE in fact claimed to have coined the term consumerism (“U.S. Sales ‘Team’ Plans Soviet Visit”; Brendan M. Jones, “Europeans Enjoy U.S. Style Installment Buying,” NYT, August 7, 1957, 1, 8). ↩︎
  24. “Europe Grasping Sell-at-Home Idea,” NYT, May 26, 1953, 48. ↩︎
Suggested Citation: Bregje van Eekelen, “Knowing Otherwise: The Transatlantic Travels of Creative Thinking Expertise in the 1950s,” History of Knowledge, May 31, 2019,