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Episodes of Collective Invention

Peter B. Meyer


The process of developing a new technology through open discussion has been called collective invention.

This paper documents two episodes of collective invention and proposes a general model based on search theory.

The first episode deals with the development of mass production steel in the U.S. (1866-1885), and the second with early personal computers (1975-1985). In both cases technical people openly discussed and sometimes shared technology they were developing.Both technologies advanced to the point that they supported substantial economic growth. Open source software development is partway through a similar process now.

The episodes have common features. The process begins with an invention or a change in legal restrictions. Hobbyists and startup firms experiment with practical methods of production and share their results through a social network. The members of the network form a new industry or change an existing one. The network then disappears if the new firms keep their research and development secret. A model of the search for innovations can describe this process if it is expanded to include independent hobbyists and consultants as well as profit-seeking firms.