La République des inventeurs invites us to rethink the categories of invention and innovation, and much else that we have inherited from Schumpeterian analysis. It does so in the context of a study of French innovative capacity from the Revolution to the restructuring of the nation’s industrial strategy after the First World War. A strong underlying theme is the evolution of legislation and practices with regard to patents, beginning with France’s strikingly early introduction of a brevet d’invention in 1791. While he takes patents as his leitmotif, however, Gabriel Galvez-Behar paints on a broad canvas.
Galvez-Behar’s book impresses in its ability to strike a balance between [End Page 631] meticulously worked narrative and the articulation of theses of importance for all of us with interests in the history of modern industrial technology. Some of these theses will not be surprising to the readers of T&C, such as his conclusion that the boundaries between what we conventionally identify as invention and innovation are imprecise and shifting. Some of his empirical observations are unsurprising as well, such as his finding that there was a dramatic surge in patenting activity in the wake of the new patent law of 1844: between 1848 and the early 1860s, the number of patents granted annually in France tripled. These theses and findings, however, are woven together in an account that draws on and illuminates significant aspects of the SCOT approach and the actor-network concepts of Michel Callon and Bruno Latour, using them for their heuristic value in helping make sense of a wealth of finely digested documentation.
The subtlety of Galvez-Behar’s analysis is reflected in his reluctance to make improperly sharp distinctions. His discussion of Clément Ader is typical in its careful presentation of Ader as an “entrepreneur d’invention” who fashioned a complex career straddling the interface between invention and entrepreneurship. From the time of his first significant invention (of a rubber bicycle tire) in the mid-1860s, Ader shaped a business strategy founded on significant, though not always successful, new departures in telephony and automobiles that have tended to be eclipsed by his subsequent fame as a pioneer of aviation. Ader’s empire embraced carefully structured teams of employees, each with a specific brief and with the laboratory, workshops, and other facilities that it needed.
The example of Ader is of far more than anecdotal significance. It points to the inadequacy of conventional judgments that have tended to present French industrial performance as crippled by a low level of investment in research (low at least by American standards). As Galvez-Behar shows, Ader was formally engaged by the Société générale des téléphones in the 1880s and the Société industrielle des téléphones in the 1890s to undertake research. He did so in his own laboratory or, notably in the case of his work on submarine telegraphy, in the field. The diversity of Ader’s interests and his determination to maintain a large measure of freedom in his inventive activities meant that relations with the companies were not always easy. But relations there were, over a long period, enough to give the lie to any suggestion of indifference toward research on the part of either firm. It was simply that research was outsourced, though outsourced in a systematic way that engaged both sides in sustained, focused collaboration.
It is refreshing to see stereotypes being subjected to such scrutiny. Galvez-Behar opens a window on an economy in which the big guns of industry, the grandes enterprises, collaborated closely with small and medium-sized companies and often depended on them as sources of new knowledge and improved procedures. From this analysis French industry certainly does not emerge as complacent or isolated from the wider world [End Page 632] of manufacturing. The Schneider company at Le Creusot, for example, had no in-house laboratory to speak of. But it encouraged its employees to visit...