A Process Model of Invention and the Role of Government, Institutions, and Geography. Anecdotal Evidence from the Aerospace Industry in the Years 1800-1950

Ben Vermeulen and Daniel Guffarth

Abstract We propose a complexity-theoretic model of how invention is an iterative process of design conceptualization, component decomposition, overcoming technical challenges, and absorbing and recombining knowledge. Using this model, we study the technology development over time and space of two historic aerospace inventions (heavier-than-air aircraft and the jet engine), hereby discussing contributions of individual inventors, knowledge flows of various sorts, government interventions, role of institutes, and the moderating role of geographical distance. We find corroboration for iterative, decentralized search among different design paradigms, with inventors engaged in experiments with (configurations of) component technology. We also find evidence for flows across national borders of an accumulating body of technical knowledge ‘shelved’ in books and articles, embodied in inventions, and by public and private communications. Specific institutions played an important role in absorbing and diffusing knowledge, funding research tools, and establishing credibility to the field. Both invention processes feature substantial dynamic inefficiencies because of overlooked ‘shelved’ technological knowledge, late selection of design paradigms, and a lack of an integrated system perspective. We find that national governments did not support fundamental nor experimental research in the early stage, but invested in concrete projects and coordination at a later stage.

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