August 20, 2010

Man on the dune by 1903!

(Catching up on #OUI2010 blogging after an overload of material from OUI and AOM).

At OUI2010 in Boston, I heard the latest update from Peter Meyer in his writing about collaborative innovation by airplane entrepreneurs in the late 1800s and early 1900s, including the Wright Brothers and Octave Chanute. They were hobbyists, enthusiasts, and frenemies, all seeking to seeking to do better than Daedealus and his son Icarus managed to do centuries earlier.

Peter’s talk was one of the most interesting sessions at UOI 2008. Now he tells me he’s trying to flesh out the data, to show the knowledge flows and get it under review at a journal. A version of the paper was presented at Columbia earlier this year.

Thinking about Meyer's research project prompted a thought experiment.

Suppose Teddy Roosevelt had said “Let’s put a man on a sand dune by 1903”? (I pick TR because it’s not something either Cleveland or McKinley would be likely to say). This suggests a few questions:
    An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change (Belknap Press)
  • Would the first manned flight have happened sooner? Would the technology have been more mature? Would it have diffused more rapidly?
  • Would it have been state funded? How would that have changed the incentives?
  • Would it have eliminated redundant investment? Would this have eliminated experimentation in different approaches to propulsion and wing design, the sort of variation-selection-retention that Utterback and Nelson-Winter write about during the pre-paradigmatic period of a new technological paradigm?
And finally, would the Wright Brothers have invented matrix management or Tang®?

Mastering the Dynamics of InnovationMaybe this isn’t fair: by 1901, a privately-funded solution was right around the corner, so throwing money at the problem probably wouldn’t have sped things up. A better time to fund the project would have been 1880 or 1890.

But like all whimsical exercises, there is a serious point here: some inventions have such a pent-up demand and interest that it’s not a question of if it will be invented, but who or when. The automobile, telephone, radio, washing machine and personal computer are all devices that were going to be invented sooner or later — it was a question of who and when, not if.

There is no market failure here, no underinvestment, no delayed innovation. Boatloads of capital are needed for risky infrastructure — telegraph lines, railroads, highways — and perhaps for products for which there is no commercial market (three man capsules for lunar orbit).

But at least during an era where tinkerers can invent something on their own — or get capital to do so — we don’t have evidence that government intervention will make things better. Given some of the strategic procurement errors made by military bureaucracies before and after WW I, it’s quite easy to imagine how government funding (and control) would make things worse.

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