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Conceptual Framework

Although innovation economic scholars have developed sweeping theories on the role of geography and border-crossing relationships in innovation, and on how institutions and governmental interventions in their systemic interplay intermediate, these scholars have not provided practical research tools to study actual development of breakthrough technology (and certainly not in the pre-industry stages). We adopt the system perspective on technology and, in Sect. 2.1, we formulate a process model of how inventions come about by interlocking activities of inventors. Using this process model, we revisit the regional and technology innovation system perspective and highlight some shortcomings. In Sect. 2.3, we distinguish and elaborate on two broad classes of reasons for government interventions. Refinement of the conceptual framework should also come about by actually applying it to the cases in Sects. 3 and 4.

Process Model of Invention

In studying historical cases of invention, historians of (relatively modern) technology and innovation economists face several challenges: data is often partial, has been subjected to selection, and is of poor quality. Moreover, many significant events such as visits, communications, reading of printed material, seeing particular objects, etc. have often not been recorded at all. Clearly, material anthropologists and archeologists even more so suffer these challenges. Common, shared perceptions are that technical progress is evolutionary and subject to adoption and retention, replication and local variation, and selection among alternatives (Basalla 1988, also see Nelson and Winter 1982), and as such (partially) constructed along technological (Dosi 1982) and social and cultural rationales (Bijker et al. 1987; Moon 2014; Roberts and Radivojevic 2015).

We seek to study the role of government (and other institutions) as well as geography in the development of technology, without relying too much on, on the one hand, narratively stringing together possibly scarce evidence (the finding of which is outside of the scope of our study), and, on the other hand, conceptual frames of perceptions such as the technology or regional innovation system. In contrast, we start off from a complexity-theoretic perception of technology as a system (e.g. Simon 1962; Henderson and Clark 1990; Baldwin and Clark 2000; Frenken 2006) and formulate a novel conceptual process model of invention as developing a system providing functionality embodied in a particular configuration of components. In our perception, invention is an iterative process of (1) defining functionality, formulating a technological decomposition into interlocking components jointly providing particular functionality; (2) designing individual components, experimenting in restricted/laboratory settings, thus gaining an understanding of operational principles, which in turn possibly lead to a reformulation of system design, functionality or configuration; (3) possibly leading to a full assembly being tested in different configurations under real-world circumstances, which may lead to (a) redesign of components or (b) complete redefinition of the system being invented. This process model is depicted in Fig. 1.

Typically, invention is not only a matter of mixing and matching existing knowledge and artifacts, it often is a painstaking and lengthy process of altering and extending artifacts through (systematic) experiments, not uncommonly without prior knowledge or underlying scientific understanding (which is by itself often positivistically acquired). Alteration of one component may require redefinition of interfaces with other components or change the design of other components completely (Frenken 2006; Baldwin and Clark 2000). Changes of (the operating context of) one component may well cascade into experimentation with a wide variety of designs for other components or even the complete system (Schiffer 2005). Radical technological change need not be brought about by a breakthrough invention, but may also be due to incremental, component-level changes that require system-level alterations to accommodate these alternative components (cf. Henderson and Clark 1990; Geels 2006).

Complexity-theoretic process model of invention

Fig. 1 Complexity-theoretic process model of invention

The process model of invention captures the system- and component-level learning by gradually traversing the varieties of system designs (selected by functionalities provided), technical configurations of components in that system (selected by feasibility, including tests in the real-world), and features of those components in their interactions (selected by performance, including tests in ‘laboratory’ settings). Ideally, in the description of the invention process of a concrete technology, all (knowable) technical objects, successful or not, should be considered. Otherwise, narratives are “presentistic chronicles” of only replicated and adopted technical objects (Schiffer 2005).

In support of our ‘piecemeal’ process model of invention, no one less than Octave Chanute noted in his opening address of the third international conferences on aerial navigation held in Chicago in August 1893: “The mechanical difficulties are very great [..] It is a mistake to suppose that the problem of aviation is a single problem. In point of fact, it involves many problems, each to be separately solved, and these solutions then to be combined. These problems pertain to the motor, to the propelling instrument, to the form, extent, texture, and construction of the sustaining surface, to the maintenance of the equipoise, to the methods of getting under way, of steering the apparatus in the air, and of alighting safely. They each constitute one problem, involving one or more solutions, to be subsequently combined.” (Chanute 1894).

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