Innovation as a Social Process: Elihu Thomson and the Rise of General Electric

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Elihu Thomson was a major American inventor of electric light and power systems. A contemporary of Thomas Edison, Thomson performed the engineering and design work necessary to make electric lighting a common product. From the 1880s to the 1930s, Thomson was employed by the General Electric Company and its predecessors. Working within the corporation, Thomson reveals how successful inventions are based on explicit links among technological artifacts, marketing strategy, and the business organization needed for manufacturing and marketing.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"...historians of science will find much of value in this book relating to Thomson's early and significant mastery of chemistry, his lifelong interest in astronomy, and his dextrous exploration of X rays in 1896. The factual accuracy and thoroughness with which these and other features of Elihu Thomson's career are treated will doubtless ground Carlson's monograph as a major reference work on the subject for years to come." ISIS

"The strengths of Carlson's book lie in its perceptive attention to Thomson's shifting motivations and its lucid descriptions of his inventions (an effort much enhanced by the selection of nearly 100 illustrations). But the book is analytically rich as well." American Historical Review

"In this fine new study of the inventor Elihu Thomson, W. Bernard Carlson shows how historians can help us get our bearings....In the process, he has produced a book rich with insights into the process of innovation." Science

"That last quality, teamwork, is Carlson's focus in this illuminating new biography." IEEE Spectrum

"Yet by stressing the interplay between marketing and innovation, Carlson both illuminates the most important years of Thomson's career and provides a timely case study of invention as a social process." The Journal of American History

"Carlson has examined the broader issues of technical innovation as a social process by taking the life of Thomson as a case study....The approach gives useful insights into the relationship between innovation and the extraordinary rise of technologically based business in late nineteenth-century America." Nature

"In this thoroughly researched and closely argued monograph Bernard Carlson uses the biography of Elihu Thomson to explore the interactions among inventors and entrepreneurs, technology and markets, in the formation and early development of the General Electric Company." Canadian Journal of History

"At a time when the country is searching for clues to understanding invention and innovation, Bernard Carlson's detailed and thoughtful study of Elihu Thomson provides information and insights of immense value. He moves the art of writing the biography of inventors a quantum leap beyond sentimental heroic-inventor stories and the dry skepticism of macroeconomic monographs." Thomas P. Hughes, Mellon Professor, University of Pennsylvania

"W. Bernard Carlson has accomplished a remarkable stylistic feat in his informative and insightful examination of the emergence of General Electric (GE) and of the career of Elihu Thomson. Carlson has smoothly combined a scholarly monograph, clearly showing its ancestry as a dissertation fully in touch with the concepts and concerns of recent and traditional bodies of relevant academic work, and a nineteenth-century Bildungsroman...." Keith A. Nier, Business History Review

"This important book advances significantly our understanding of how business, technology, and science have interacted to shape the modern world....Carlson gives the best analysis to date not only of the Thomson-Houston Company, but of the creation and first decade or so of G.E., one of the world's most innovative and influential industrial corporations. In the process, he provides new insights into the history of the electrical manufacturers and corrects some earlier interpretations, particularly ones concerning Thomas Edison, the coming of the central generating station, and the role of investment banking houses in the elctrical industry. Innovation as a Social Process rests on a wideranging and thorough research base, and Carlson writes with authority about his subject and about the historiography of the history of technology." Glenn Porter, Journal of Interdisciplinary History

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Product Details

Table of Contents

List of figures and tables; Editors' preface; Acknowledgments; Abbreviations used in footnotes; Introduction; 1. The cultivation of a scientific man; 2. Learning the craft of invention; 3. The Philadelphia partnership, 1879–1880; 4. Frustration in New Britain, 1880–1883; 5. Success in Lynn: the Thomson-Houston electric company, 1883–1892; 6. Maintaining the organization: product development at General Electric, 1892–1900; Epilogue and conclusion; Index.
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