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  • A Cognitive Analysis of Component-Stimulated InventionElectromagnet, Telegraph, and the Capitol Dome's Electric Gas-Lighter
  • Michael Brian Schiffer (bio)

Historians of technology and archaeologists share an interest in understanding technological change. Members of both disciplines fashion contextualized narratives about the invention, commercialization, and adoption of specific technologies and also put forward generalizations—models and theories—that apply to many technologies in many societies. Although there are no sure formulas for crafting generalizations, I have found it helpful to partition a given process, such as invention, into several classes or behavioral contexts, each of which might exhibit a specific pattern of activities.

For example, in a recent study I elaborated Thomas Hughes's construct of "reverse salients" and from it generalized the "cascade model" of invention. 1 This model identifies "complex technological systems" as a behavioral context of inventive activities. The key premise is that during the development and deployment of a complex technological system, emergent [End Page 376] problems stimulate sequential spurts of invention. These invention cascades are studied in relation to a technology's life-history activities, such as creating a prototype; manufacture, marketing, and sales; and installation, use/operation, and maintenance. The cascade model was illustrated by the countless little inventions that arose during the development of the Morse Vail telegraph. Given the ubiquity of complex technological systems, the cascade model applies to virtually every society.

The present article identifies another behavioral context: "component-stimulated invention," which is the burst of creativity that sometimes follows the emergence of a new part or component. In capitalist-industrial societies, people commonly invent devices that employ or are built around new components, such as the vacuum tube, transistor, and computer microchip. To illustrate this invention process I focus on the electromagnet.2

The advent of the modern electromagnet around 1830 immediately stimulated the invention of the telegraph, magneto, and motor. In addition to these celebrated offspring, it begat hundreds of lesser-known inventions prior to the proliferation of steam-driven electric-power systems in the 1870s. Drawing current from batteries, few of these inventions—ranging from depth sounders to musical instruments to facsimile machines—achieved much commercial success until decades later, when they were brought to market and adopted, sometimes after reinvention, in altered societal contexts. Nonetheless, the little-known inventions of 1840–70 represent a noteworthy creative florescence, for the electromagnet was imagined as a vital component in countless devices.3

I call attention to two idealized patterns of component-stimulated invention. In the first, the component is conceived as a substitute for another in extant devices. For example, in its first decades, the transistor was regarded mainly as a substitute for vacuum tubes, and so myriad varieties were invented that mimicked the functions of specific vacuum-tube types. This pattern yields designs of the component for existing applications and, often, redesign of other components with which it interacts. In the second pattern, the component is envisioned as functioning in—indeed, making [End Page 377] possible—new devices and technological systems, sometimes across a broad societal front.4

Understanding the invention patterns of components that gave rise to visions of substitution is relatively straightforward. One could, for example, narrate the origin of the transistor in AT&T's Bell Laboratories in 1947 and detail the design challenges faced by transistor-making firms as they invented new types that performed functions such as high-frequency oscillation or audio amplification carried out by specific vacuum tubes in particular devices. Not surprisingly, parts of this story have already been told.5

Engaging the second pattern, exemplified by the electromagnet, is more problematic. How to comprehend the wealth of component-containing inventions contrived by many people working in many nations? One approach to taming this diversity is cognitive analysis: forming a model or models that identify the cognitive commonalities among the numerous devices imagined for domestic, commercial, industrial, and governmental applications.6

The engine of creativity lies repeatedly in inventors envisioning connections between a component's unique combination of performance characteristics—its behavioral capabilities or competences—and potential devices that might exploit these for carrying out actual or anticipated functions. 7 According to Arthur Koestler, this kind of creative process is a...


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