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Technological Visionaries

Case Aims: To illustrate how individuals with a technological vision can provide an entrepreneurial leadership style that results in the creation of new global businesses

A contributory factor in America's move to become the world's wealthiest nation in the late nineteenth century was that it was the home of a number of technological entrepreneurs, whose foresight led to the creation of new global industries, including Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Tom Watson Jnr (Gilman 1995).

Edison was an amazingly prolific identifier of new technologies. His initial focus was on improving telegraph technology. From there he moved on to creating the phonograph and the carbon microphone. The technology which spawned most of his patents was in the field of electricity, his first successful product being the long-lasting incandescent lamp (or light bulb). From there he went on to develop a viable system for the distribution of electricity.

A key reason for Edison's success was that he established the world's first industrial research laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey. He created this new institution for the specific purpose of producing constant technological innovation and improvement. The focus of the laboratory's technical research was to make rapid sequential searches for the solutions to technical problems. Most of these problems were posed by opportunities that he identified. Like other entrepreneurial technologists he relied heavily upon intuition to guide his decisions on which problems should be researched. In most cases the research focused upon opportunities for which initially there was little or no evidence of market need (Vandervert 2011).



Henry Ford worked as an engineer with the Edison Illuminating Company. After his promotion to Chief Engineer in 1893, he had enough time and money to devote attention to his personal experiments on gasoline engines. These experiments culminated in 1896 with the completion of a self-propelled vehicle which he named the Ford Quadricycle. In the same year Ford was introduced to Thomas Edison, who encouraged him to continue with his automobile experimentation. Ford's vision was to develop a car of sufficiently low cost that the average person could afford one. This was at a time when most other individuals perceived the car as a luxury good that would only ever be purchased by wealthy people. Ford's first attempt at creating a manufacturing business was the Detroit Automobile Company. However, the cars produced were of a lower quality and higher price than Ford wanted. Backed by a new group of investors he went on to establish the Ford Motor Company and in 1908 launched the world's first mass-production car, the Model T. To achieve his aim of manufacturing the affordable motor car, Ford and his team of engineers created the first car plant to utilise mass-production techniques (Link 2014).

Tom Watson Jnr became the CEO of the company IBM shortly before his father's death in 1956. Until that time IBM had been dedicated to manufacturing electro-mechanical punched-card systems for managing data. Tom Watson Snr had repeatedly rejected electronic computers as overpriced and unreliable. His son's vision was that the future of data management was about computers at a time when most experts shared his father's view of these being a non-viable commercial proposition. As the new CEO, Jnr hired a large number of electrical engineers and assigned them the task of designing mainframe computers. Many of IBM's own technical staff did not think computer products were practical, since at that time there were only about a dozen computers in use across the world (Watson and Petre 1990).

The first development, the IBM 7030 Stretch, was a not a commercial success but the knowledge gained provided the basis for development of the IBM 7070 and IBM 7090 for large government business, the IBM 1620 for the scientific community and the IBM 1401 for commercial users (Meyer et al. 2005). In 1964, IBM introduced the revolutionary System/360, the first of a large family of computers to use interchangeable software and peripheral equipment. Within two years, the System/360 became the dominant mainframe computer in the marketplace, so dominant that its architecture became the industry standard.

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