For example, the story of Samuel F. B. Morse’s telegraph is fairly well known. How the railways and the postal service ultimately adopted telegraphy in their own infrastructures is not. In fact, according to historian Richard R. John’s essay in A Nation Transformed, the railways were initially quite slow to use the telegraph to coordinate their operations. Ultimately, to speed things up, Western Union and telegraphy cut sweetheart deals with the railroads, thus ensuring for the telegraph companies not only a major customer but an infrastructure of their own. The rights-of-way of railroads and telecommunications thus coevolved.
Chandler and Cortada’s ANation Transformed is chock-full of the stories of such relationships. Chandler, the minence grise of business historians,does a superb job of finding the common themes in this dense survey of America’s information/innovation landscape.
The chapter by JoAnne Yates, on business adoption of information technology during the industrial age, is particularly good. As technology became a battleground between the Tayloresque “scientific management” school and the Mayoesque “human relations” managerial movement, distinctions between “back office” management and “customer touch” began to be instantiated in hardware and office designs. What you find is the clear sense that customers were even more innovative than vendors. Indeed, the notion that persistent innovators finally persuaded recalcitrant markets to adopt their wares is more mythical than historical. Many customers in many market segments drove innovation as much as they procured it.
Unfortunately, many of the nine historical chapters in A Nation Transformed do little more than synthesize (albeit comprehensively) the tales of media technology aborning in America. There’s grand sweep but little boldness. The core thesis, however, that America has always been an “information nation” as much as an agricultural or industrial one is not unimportant. Moreover, the fact that our Founding Fathers put intellectual property (IP) rights directly into the Constitution-both to protect inventors and explicitly promote innovation-is stunning.
America’s preeminence as an information innovator reflects the intellectual origins of a Constitution which calls for an IP regime that “promotes the useful arts.” To that extent, this book is far stronger when reviewing the origins of America’s “information innovation” culture than it is when covering the more contemporary Internet past. Those latter chapters are similarly comprehensive, but they’re better as reference than food for thought. Still, these historians have effectively cataloged the interrelationships that spawn ongoing innovation.
Far more provocative is Systems, Experts and Computers, which grew out of a 1996 conference, given by MIT’s Dibner Institute, on the history of operations research and systems engineering after World War II. Systems engineering has long been the bailiwick of Thomas P. Hughes, whose Networks of Power (Softshell, 1993), on utility systems worldwide, is a classic and whose more recent Rescuing Prometheus (Vintage, 2000) seeks to position systems engineering
as a robustly reliable managerial discipline.
While Hughes’ optimism may not withstand scrutiny, this collection of essays surely does. Almost without exception, the presentations here have something to say-and say it in a way that should give today’s innovation managers serious pause. Virtually every essay talks about the difficult interface between engineer and client. Virtually every essay addresses the cultural aspects of innovation design and implementation as much as technical issues.