Entrepreneurs and Technological Change: Inventing Underground Infrastructure (1871-1910)

Late in the nineteenth century, a proliferating maze of overhead wires routinely threatened life and property in many American cities. Rotting wood poles fell without warning, killing or maiming unsuspecting pedestrians. Jumbled wires hampered firefighters, letting fires burn longer and inflict greater damage. Cities increasingly demanded that overhead wires be moved underground, but “undergrounding” presented practical problems whose solutions had not yet been invented. This high-stakes challenge prompted hundreds of Americans to patent more than 1,250 total inventions to address these challenges from 1871 through 1910—years that Thomas Hughes (1989, p. 15) called a “golden era” for independent inventors. Despite the expectation that independent inventors would thus be prominent in undergrounding, detailed patentee occupational data shows that entrepreneurs played a far-more significant role. Principals in infrastructure-related businesses—from cable makers to street-paving or sewer contractors—most frequently patented solutions to complex undergrounding challenges. Some obtained patents to expand existing businesses; others patented as they established new firms meant to capitalize on the emerging opportunities. Together, business principals and employees dominated undergrounding patents, while independent inventors played a less-significant role. Methodologically, this study begins with a socially important technological problem, identifies the universe of patents it prompted, then analyzes patentee occupations to gain greater insight into the inventive process and its participants. By focusing on patented solutions to a widely shared problem with substantial economic importance, this approach responds to calls in the innovation-studies literature for increased attention to “communities of inventors (sharing specific cognitive frames) engaged in the generation and exploitation of technological opportunities” (MacLeod and Nuvolari, 2006, p. 774).