In the past decade, economists developed knowledge-based theories on how innovation comes about by firms synthesizing fresh combinations of technological knowledge acquired across geographical, technological, or organizational borders
(cf. Bathelt et al. 2004; Boschma 2005; Grant and Baden-Fuller 1995). At the same time, there are evolutionary processes weeding out inferior technological variants (Nelson and Winter 1982; Basalla 1988) and driving firms to adapt technology following technological rationales (Dosi 1982) as well as social and cultural rationales (see e.g. Bijker et al. 1987; Moon 2014). More particularly, firms operate in dynamic innovation networks embedded in (regional) innovation systems featuring readily interlinked firms, (possibly centralized) knowledge institutes, governmental policies and regulation, etc. (cf. Cooke 1992; Carlsson and Stankiewicz 1991; Freeman 1987; Lundvall 1992; Malerba 1999).
In this chapter, we conduct historical case studies on the development of breakthrough inventions and the actual impact of geography, government, and institutions therein. In contrast to the world described in the theories mentioned above, we study activities of individual inventors, rather than firms, living in a world in which there is no industry worth mentioning, specialized institutions are only just forming, and inventive activities are few and far between and take place in great technological uncertainty. As a starting point for the historical analysis, we take a complexity- theoretic perspective on technology as a system composed of nested components (see e.g. Simon 1962; Clark 1985; Henderson and Clark 1990; Baldwin and Clark 2000; Frenken 2006). We then take invention as an iterative and interactive process of (1) gradual conceptualization and materialization of a configuration of components providing particular functions, (2) overcoming technical challenges for the various components in piecemeal, (3) learning of efforts of others elsewhere, translating and combining their insights and technical solutions, and (4) taking governmental or institutional factors into account.
We use this (novel) process model of invention to study the history of two breakthroughs in the aerospace industry: the invention of the heavier-than-air airplane and the invention of the jet engine. These particular inventions are picked because there is a vast and arguably rather conclusive body of technology historical literature on the ‘early’ heavier-than-air ‘aeronautical navigation’ and inception of the modern aerospace industry (see e.g. the detailed and carefully pieced together archival work in Gibbs-Smith 1965; Hallion 2003). However, rather than a chronological narrative approach, we discuss the history from a technological perspective. We determine the (competing) system designs, their decomposition in components, and then track the technical changes in the various components. We hereby explicitly describe the contributions of the various inventors well possibly spread out in time and space. Importantly, we seek to trace knowledge flows of various sorts (codified in writings, embodied in objects, in verbal communications, etc.) between these inventors. Moreover, we describe how geographical distance, institutional or governmental interventions inhibited or rather facilitated particular knowledge flows and inventive activities.
Generalizing the primary results of our research, we argue that the process of invention is characterized by a decentralized search among different design paradigms, where inventors are engaged in experiments with (configurations of) component technology. In general, for the various designs, visionary and captivating images inspired new generations of inventors that accessed technical knowledge ‘shelved’ in books and articles, carried over and combined in public and private communications, whereby this new generation of inventors was not uncommonly ‘mentored’ by proponents of a particular design paradigm. Critical may have been the becoming available of research tools for systematic experiments, both to discriminate among design alternatives (if required), but also for optimization of component parameters and configurations. Specific institutions for the advancement of the technology have played an important role in absorbing and diffusing knowledge, funding research tools, and establishing credibility to the field. The involvement of national governments has been limited. In fact, the few projects and design paradigms that did receive backup of governments ultimately failed. However, as these failures allowed pruning of infeasible research directions, it added to the dynamic efficiency nonetheless. Plus, inventors engaged with other designs gain fundamental insights as to why these projects failed and may enjoy improvements in components common to multiple designs.
In Sect. 2, the process model of invention is explained and the role of geography and institutions, as well as the (possible) rationales behind government intervention are discussed. In Sect. 3, the case of the invention of the heavier-than-air aircraft is studied, hereby studying this along the lines of the process model of invention, with explicit tracing of the role of institutions, knowledge flows, government involvement and geography. Similarly, in Sect. 4, the case of the invention of the jet engine is studied. In Sect. 5, we reflect on the findings and draw conclusions.
-  ‘Invention’ is defined as the (creation of the) device, apparatus, or process that provides one ormore functionalities previously not provided at all or at a level of performance that is severalorders of magnitude better (e.g. cheaper, faster, bigger/smaller).