Inventors Move from Declining Industries to New, Expanding Industries

Petra Moser’s comments (see below) about inventors applying similar ideas to different industries seem complementary to Burke’s emphasis on the importance of serendipitous “connections.” An inventor exposing herself to many industries’ problems and products, would be more likely to see additional applications for inventions originally developed for another industry.

(p. 3) By some logic, there is no earthly reason why bicycles should still exist.

They are a quaint, 19th-century invention, originally designed to get someone from point A to point B. Today there are much faster, far less labor-intensive modes of transportation. And yet hopeful children still beg for them for Christmas, healthful adults still ride them to work, and daring teenagers still vault them down courthouse steps. The bicycle industry has faced its share of disruptive technologies, and it has repeatedly risen from the ashes.
. . .
“Much of the history of the ‘American system of manufacturing’ is the story of inventors moving from a declining industry to a new expanding industry,” says Petra Moser, an economic historian at Stanford who studies innovation. “Inventors take their skills with them.”
Gun makers learned to make revolvers with interchangeable parts in the mid-19th century, Ms. Moser says. Then those companies (and some former employees, striking out on their own) applied those techniques to sewing machines when demand for guns slackened. Later, sewing machine manufacturers began making woodworking machinery, bicycles, cars and finally trucks.
. . .
Meanwhile, we’ve already seen some of the “destruction” half of Joseph Schumpeter’s famous “creative destruction” paradigm, with many newspapers cutting staff and other production costs. Unfortunately for newspapers, historians say, the survivors in previous industries facing major technological challenges were usually individual companies that adapted, rather than an entire industry. So a bigger shakeout may yet come.
But perhaps the destruction will lead to more creativity. Perhaps the people we now know as journalists — or, for that matter, autoworkers — will find ways to innovate elsewhere, just as, over a century ago, gun makers laid down their weapons and broke out the needle and thread. That is, after all, the American creative legacy: making innovation seem as easy as, well, riding a bike.

For the full commentary, see:
CATHERINE RAMPELL. “Ideas & Trends; How Industries Survive Change. If They Do.” The New York Times, Week in Review Section (Sun., November 15, 2008): 3.
(Note: ellipses added.)

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