August 5, 2008

Cumulative innovation and the Wright brothers

At the UOI conference, Peter Meyer of the US Bureau of Labor Statistics talked about his research on the development of the airplane. The title of his talk was “Open Sources of the Invention of the Airplane”. He presented his written paper here at HBS last December.

Meyer presented this as an open innovation story. A bunch of hobbyist-tinkerers around the world are pushing the technology forward, communicating their ideas using the state of the art technology (written letters). Meyer had great archival data backing up his paper. Among the best sources was the 1890 book Progress in Flying Machines by Octave Chanute on the industry state of the art. This seminal book was re-issued in 1997.

I would like to know more about the firms created by these tinkerers. From the brief presentation, this seemed to me as much a Scotchmer-style cumulative innovation story, going along with Alessandro Nuvolari’s papers on Cornish pumping engines of the mid-19th century. Rivals build upon each other, and because IP doesn’t block the cumulative innovation, the technology gets developed more quickly (unlike the mutual standoff of the triode a few decades later).

Given that both Meyer’s and Nuvolari’s examples are 100 years old, this raises a policy question. Has the world changed? Is IP more enforced? Are tinkerers more interested in making money?

I look forward to engaging with Meyer further and his stream of cumulative innovation/open innovation work. An earlier BLS paper documented collective invention research on steel and the PC industry.


Anonymous said...

Would this be an acceptable brief description of cumulative innovation. I have found little information on the internet.

Cumulative innovation is, basically, when new work is done on old. This requires the participation of many companies (original creators and innovators) and a knowledge pool (companies share information for the good of all), which also results in patent issues.

Joel West said...

I think the first part of the definition is good: "new innovation builds upon the old." Normally this does mean participation of multiple companies.

However, if you look at all the studies, some involve sharing and some involve competition and deliberately not sharing. So I don't think sharing is a requirement to count as cumulative innovation.