Abstract: Did the Telegraph Lead Electrification? Industry, Knowledge, and Innovation

Ross Thomson


Radical technological changes involved new knowledge, but how was that knowledge generated? In the case of electrification in the United States, I argue that two sources of knowledge were fundamental to the widening of electrical technology: practical knowledge associated with the telegraph and the conclusions and methods of applied and pure science. The telegraph industry was the most important for-profit antecedent. Its agents, knowledge, and networks were essential to later electrical innovations, as a sample of the 5,300 patents issued to 250 telegraph inventors from 1836 through 1929 demonstrates. These innovations then took on their own dynamics. Scientific knowledge in the not-for-profit sector, often developed in colleges and spread through teaching and publication, solved problems beyond the knowledge of telegraph operators and inventors. A study of 212 major electrical inventors shows that innovators commonly, and over time increasingly, learned off the job through formal and informal education, networked in scientific and engineering societies, published frequently, and taught others in meetings and in colleges. Economic and extra-economic sources of knowledge interfused more tightly as the period progressed.

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