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The Invention of Technological Innovation

Languages, Discourses and Ideology in Historical Perspective

Benoît Godin

This timely book provides an intellectual and conceptual history of a key representation of innovation: technological innovation. Tracing the history of the discourses of scholars, practitioners and policy-makers, and exploring how and why innovation became defined as technological, Benoît Godin studies the emergence of the term, its meaning, and its transformation and use over time.
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Benoît Godin

This book is an intellectual and conceptual history of a key representation of innovation: technological innovation. For centuries, innovation was essentially a political concept (Godin, 2015b). Then, in just a few decades during the twentieth century, innovation got discussed, studied and theorized about in terms of technology. While people talked of innovation in negative terms before the twentieth century, they started discussing innovation in the positive sense in that century, thanks to or because of technology. The century-old representation of innovation as political shifted toward the economic or industrial, and technological innovation became a buzzword. As Jack Morton, engineer at Bell Laboratories, put it as early as 1971: “Innovation is certainly a ‘buzz-word’ today. Everyone likes the idea; everyone is trying to ‘innovate’ and everyone wants to do better at it tomorrow” (Morton, 1971: 73).

This book studies how and why innovation came to be defined narrowly as technological. The history of technology has been much studied for many decades, even a century. Then in recent years, a few scholars devoted their time to the intellectual history of technology: what does technology mean; what uses are made of the concept and for what purposes (Morère, 1966; Salomon, 1984; Marx, 1997; Schatzberg, 2006, 2012, 2018)? No similar analysis exists on technological innovation. Technological innovation has escaped the attention of intellectual historians. There exist hundreds of studies on the economics, management and policy of technological innovation. But where does the term come from? What does innovation add to technology that makes the term technological innovation a highly-valued and much-studied object?

In the late 1920s–early 1930s, a series of terms including the adjective technological appeared, and these structured the debates on technology around specific issues: technological unemployment, technological change and technological progress. Some of these terms, such as technological unemployment, had a short life, although the issue of technological unemployment continued to be discussed under other terms in the following decades. Other terms gave rise to a scholarly discipline or specialty (technological change). Still others functioned merely as synonyms for economic progress (technological progress).

After 1945, another term emerged: technological innovation. In just a few decades, the term technological innovation replaced, to a large extent, the other terms in the discourses on technology. Why did technological innovation enter everyday discourse? The concept of technology already existed; so did the term technological change. The pluralization of terms that include the adjective technological is not just linguistic inflation. Conceptual and practical issues are involved. It is a matter of appropriating a term (innovation) for diverse purposes: creating a new object, even establishing a new academic specialty, in order to study a phenomenon and impose a specific viewpoint or framework, inform policy-makers and position the term on the public agenda.

Current thoughts on the genealogy of the term technological innovation usually refer back to Joseph Schumpeter, and consider Schumpeter principally. Here I offer a more complex history. The first thesis of this book is that the term technological innovation emerged out of previous concepts and terms and as a reaction to them. On one hand, technological innovation emerged as a reaction to discourses on technology per se: innovation is the use or exploitation of technology, rather than the creation or generation (making) of technology. On the other hand, I suggest a genealogy from technological unemployment to technological change to technological progress to technological innovation. The historical background to the discourse on technological innovation is labor issues – unemployment, migration, wages, skills, worker productivity, and industrial (or human) relations – issues that coalesced in the term technological unemployment. The debate of the 1930s on technological unemployment was rapidly resolved in favor of the long-term benefits of technology. Technological unemployment may exist, but it is transitory. In the long run, societies benefit from “machines” – a key term of the time, together with machinery and mechanization. In the short term, machinery requires some adjustment, adaptation and planning. Concurrently, some started to make use of the term “technological displacement”, a less “emotive” term than technological unemployment. The introduction of machines in industrial production is a matter of structural changes – displacement of occupations and skills – not unemployment.

In a second step, the issue of unemployment was placed in the balance against that of productivity, the source of which was explained by new industrial processes or technological change. The terms technological change and technological progress entered the discourse at about the same time as technological unemployment, but added productivity and economic growth issues to the debate. Technological change brings increases in output and income, that is, economic progress. In a final step, economic progress came to be defined in terms of new goods for the market, namely output or products based on knowledge, goods which are the source of profits (to firms) and of competitiveness (to nations). Hence the term technological innovation. Technological innovation stresses something that the previous concepts and terms did not: the commercialization of goods.

Historian Eric Schatzberg recently unearthed two meanings of technology in history (Schatzberg, 2018). One is industrial techniques. This is, in fact, the meaning that is referred to among scholars of technological unemployment and technological change. The other meaning is knowledge. To a great extent, this meaning defined technological innovation for a time. Yet, as we will see in this book, over time, knowledge became marginalized in the discourses. This brings me to a third meaning of technology. Technology is often defined as the application of knowledge for practical purposes (products, services). I suggest a less abstract definition. Technology is a good or product (a keyword of the literature)1 sold on the market, and relies on or embodies (some) knowledge (or research and development: R&D).

The second thesis of this book is that technological innovation emerged as a key term because it serves utilitarian functions. In one sense, this is hardly an original thesis. For decades, even centuries, technology was studied as an instrument of progress. Such is the case with technological change. Technological innovation also assumes, even proclaims, this utilitarian function. Technological innovation is a source of “progress” or economic “growth”, even a synonym for economic progress. A contested concept of the past centuries, innovation has become an instrument of industrial competitiveness, world leadership and national wealth (policy), briefly stated, nationalism (techno-nationalism), and it is studied according to such a framework.

Certainly, technological innovation is also destructive societally and environmentally. Most of the scholarly literature stresses an increasing number of critical voices and public resistance to technology in the 1960s and later (critics like Martin Heidegger, Bertrand Russell, Jacques Ellul and Herbert Marcuse). Yet what is often ignored is the fact that academia and national policy succeeded in marginalizing these voices. Rarely do historians of technology consider the discourses on technology conducted within the areas of policy, management and economics. In turn, with a few exceptions, scholars from these disciplines do not write histories of technology. Yet these discourses played a major role in the construction of the public perception of technological innovation, a role as large as or larger than that played by the cultural critics. Technological innovation has become an uncontested value. It is an instrument for social and economic progress.

Debates on technology were conducted on the contested notion of modernity some decades before the concept of technological innovation came into vogue. These debates were settled with optimism in the first half of the twentieth century, leaving technological innovation free from any real contestation, at least in economics, management and policy studies: in the long term, technological innovation is always beneficial. There has always been a tension between unemployment and growth, between technology and the social, between the social and the economic. But it is one of the arguments of this book that the tension was resolved early on, namely before the term technological innovation appeared, leaving the latter uncontested – until the 1990s – and free to develop and diffuse.

The utilitarian function of technological innovation is broader than the instrumental. First, the term has a political and ideological function. It serves the market ideology. On one hand, technological innovation is a matter of inventing new goods. On the other hand, it is a matter of commercializing these goods. Goods are diffused through the economy and the society and are consumed. This commercialization is constitutive of the concept of technological innovation: putting goods on the market.

Here, the discourse on technological innovation is different from that on technology. The scholarship on the history of technology stresses a discourse on modernity. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, intellectuals appropriated, explained and justified technology in terms of modernity (Hard and Jamison, 1998: 4; Rieger, 2005). The technological civilization is a rupture with the past. The place of technology in modern times implies a clash with previous values (the technological or material versus the social and the cultural). The scholarship on technological innovation is concerned rather with another discourse, that on the market. Technological innovation is essentially the commercialization of inventions. There is no rupture with the past or revolution, as the term modernity implies (Koselleck, 1977), because there is now a continuous flow of new goods. Technological innovation is a fact of life.2

Second, technological innovation has a social function. Practitioners (engineers, managers and policy-makers) were the very first to espouse a discourse on technological innovation. As theorists before theories, or philosophes, these practitioners were responsible for the very first titles on technological innovation.3 Scholars followed, espousing and theorizing about the representations of the practitioners. The term technological innovation serves professional identity, namely giving social existence to the community of engineers and managers. In the 1960s, engineers and engineer/managers used the term to acquire a place in a dominant cultural value of the twentieth century – science as a source of progress – and the policy (funding) of science. Technological innovation includes many other activities besides just science or pure research. Technological innovation is a “total” process. In this sense, technological innovation is a counter-concept to science (as a source of socio-economic progress). Over the twentieth century, technological innovation gave rise to a new semantic pair. The century-old basic research/applied research dichotomy is concerned with or internal to science. It contrasts two types of scientific research. The twentieth century brought in a new pair or dichotomy: (basic) research/innovation. The contrast is no longer internal to science, one between types of research, but rather between research and society. Innovation is contrasted to research, particularly basic research, in society’s name.

Third, technological innovation has a theoretical function. Scholars theorize about technological innovation to understand a specific dimension of innovation, the technical and its consequences, the technological. Yet, this function is intimately linked to another: a practical function. The scholars’ objective is not only to understand the innovation process, but also to serve the practical: how to accelerate and get more out of innovation; what kind of industrial strategy and public policy are required? To this end, scholars develop what they called models, both mathematical and conceptual.

As a theoretical term, technological innovation has a disciplinary function. As documented in this book, initially technological change served to interest engineers in economics, or to bring engineers and economists in the same school together. It also served, so it was hoped for a while, to avoid leaving the issue of technology to engineers alone. Similarly, technological innovation serves boundary work: inventing a new academic field (called “innovation studies” today) and distinguishing it from its predecessor (technological change). Technological innovation and technological change are two different things, so it is said, studied with two different methodologies, the one quantitative, the other more qualitative.

It is the objective of this book to trace the history of the discourses of scholars, practitioners and policy-makers on technological innovation: what languages (vocabulary) and discourses (conceptual apparatus or arrangements), in the plural, and what ideology (collective system of beliefs) drive the notion of technological innovation? The book studies the emergence of the term, its meaning, and its transformation and use over time. The book is concerned with the discursive practices on technological innovation, and not with the history or factual analysis of technological innovation. It studies how, when and why technological innovation became a term of modern times. How did the term come into being and what role does it play in discourses? How do scholars theorize about technological innovation?

An intellectual and conceptual history of technological innovation is needed because there is no one true meaning of technology. As soon as terms with the adjective technological were coined, they were contested. Hence the need for an intellectual and conceptual history to make sense of the languages used and discourses conducted in the name of technology – discourses being understood here in a large sense, including policies and theories: a series of acts performed in language (Pocock, 2009). I see three purposes in the practice of intellectual and conceptual history here. First, understanding the discourses on technological innovation generally. Second, making sense of the theories particularly. And third, being critical and reflective about what writers say.


What is innovation? The concept has two key meanings. One use of the concept is a synonym for novelty (novus). The other use is action. As the etymology suggests (in+), innovation is introducing a novelty in practice – implementing, applying, adopting, commercializing. Both meanings are theorized as process. Innovation is a process in time, from the generation of an idea to its application (Godin, 2015b).

This book differs from other books on technology in many senses. Eric Schatzberg has recently produced a long-term history of the concept of technology since antiquity (Schatzberg, 2018). Two comments should be made. First, Schatzberg does not study the terms studied here. He shows how the concept of technology has come to mean knowledge or the science of engineering on one hand, and techniques or industrial methods of production on the other. This distinction is not taken into account or made explicit by the scholars studied in the present book, at least not before the late 1960s and 1970s. More importantly, Schatzberg ignores a third meaning of technology, that inherent in the term technological innovation:

technology as a commodity or good for the market. As a consequence, and second, like many critics of technology, Schatzberg minimizes the positive valuation of technology in the twentieth century. This is perhaps because he does not, as most historians of technology do, consider the literature included in the present book: that of economics, management and policy.

Another very interesting history is from Amy Bix on technological unemployment (Bix, 2000). Bix offers a more in-depth study of the debates on technological unemployment than I offer here. I limit this history to one chapter. Yet Bix does not link the issue of technological unemployment to the other debates studied here, namely those on technological change and technological innovation.

A third book deserves mention. Some years ago, Matthew Wisnioski produced a work on technological change as an ideology (Wisnioski, 2012). The work is a continuation of Edwin Layton’s book on the social responsibility of engineers (Layton, 1971). However rich in historical details, Wisnioski’s work is not intellectual or conceptual history; indeed the historian never defines technological change in the book, neither does he define ideology. Moreover, like Schatzberg, Wisnioski has no comment on most of the writers studied in the present book.

Finally, a few years ago I produced a conceptual history of innovation from antiquity to the present (Godin, 2015b). That book was concerned with the broader concept of innovation, and included only one chapter on technological innovation. It looked at 2,500 years of uses of a pejorative concept (innovation). The present book looks at the twentieth century and the emergence of a positive concept (technological innovation). The present book adds considerable depth to the analysis of technological innovation. It is entirely concerned with an intellectual and conceptual history of technological innovation.

The history offered here is based on two documentary sources. One is archival. I have unearthed early thoughts on technological innovation, from before the standard economic tradition emerged, taken from sources including: the National Research Project (NRP) of the Works Progress Administration (WPA); research programs at MIT (Rupert Maclaurin) and at the Social Science Research Council (SSRC); and works conducted at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). Current intellectual histories of technology of the period concentrate on philosophers and historians. This book looks at statisticians, economists, engineers, sociologists, management schools and policy-makers. It debunks the myth that economists did not study technological innovation before the 1970s. It also unearths early thoughts among sociologists, some decades before what is said to be the first entry of sociologists into the field. Finally, it considers theorists not usually considered in surveys and reviews.

The second documentary source is the scholarly literature published over the twentieth century, from which I compiled a list of over 1,000 definitions of technological innovation. In this book, I document a broader diversity of theories of technological innovation than that reviewed in the current literature. My story ends at c.1975–1980, at the time when the standard or current representation of technological innovation crystallized in discourses.

From these documentary sources, I discovered that much of the early scholarship on technological innovation was from the United States. The literature from that country is central to Part I of this book. Yet the contributions of writers from Germany, England, France and elsewhere are also considered, to the extent that they produced writings in either English or French. Part II includes more European literature. As the analysis of technological innovation developed, it came from other writers, institutions and countries too. The contribution of international organizations like the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is also documented, as it constitutes an integral factor in the valuation of technological innovation in the second half of the twentieth century.


The book is structured in two parts. Part I develops my first thesis: a genealogy from technological unemployment to technological change to technological progress to technological innovation. Technological unemployment is perhaps one of the first terms coined containing technology, or at least the first such term debated extensively. The first chapter documents the debate on technological unemployment of the 1920s–1930s and its “resolution”. Early on, scholars concluded that, in the long term, there is no technological unemployment (temporary unemployment perhaps, but not permanent unemployment). “For every man laid off a new job has been created somewhere”, claimed Paul Douglas, a major theorist of the time (Douglas, 1930a: 930). Economic progress is what ultimately results from the machine: “new machines have deprived many of their jobs, but in the long run have given us all more of the good things of life” (Ogburn, 1933: 16). This conclusion was a first step in shifting the century-old discussion on the effects of technology from the negative or ambivalent to the positive.

During the technological unemployment debate, no one theorized about technological change. Defined as change in industrial techniques, technological change was a given, most of the time. Chapter 2 turns to the emergence of the study of technological change in the second half of the 1930s, using the National Research Project (NRP) on Reemployment Opportunities and Recent Changes in Industrial Techniques as a case study. I document that the study of technological change started as an outgrowth of technological unemployment issues. Soon, however, the emphasis shifted to the broader effects of machines, particularly to the effects of machines on industrial productivity. According to the NRP, “the general problem [of technological change] has often been approached in terms of a special problem of ‘technological unemployment’ or of ‘displacement of labor’ by machine techniques … as if technological development were self-generating and its effects on employment a mechanical consequence” (Kaplan, 1937: 1). Such an approach is “artificial”, claimed the Assistant Director of the NRP Irving Kaplan. It ignores “economic considerations” or “social and economic context”. From that time on, technological change was defined as the effects (social and economic) of changes in techniques – rather than change in techniques per se.

Chapters 3 and 4 study two further approaches in the study of technological change, allowing me to trace the evolution of the term over time. Over the decade of the 1940s, an economic historian from MIT, Rupert Maclaurin, developed the first scholarly research program on technological change. He opened the “black box” of technological change, explaining technological change as a process from basic research to commercialization. Thus, Maclaurin placed the concept of research at the center of the discourse on technological change. Maclaurin’s purpose was both theoretical and practical. He wanted to study the role of the “technological factor”, as he put it, in economic progress. But what he stressed to his patrons (the Rockefeller Foundation) was getting engineers and economists at the same school (MIT) to work together. Technological change is “a field which appears suitable for an Economics Department and a Division of Industrial Relations located in an engineering school”.4 To Maclaurin, technological change served as a trans-discursive term.

Maclaurin’s work was followed by that of the US Social Science Research Council (SSRC). On two occasions in the late 1940s–early 1950s, the SSRC developed a research program on the social effects of technological change. The objective of the social scientists, as sociologist of invention William Ogburn stated early on, was not to leave technology to engineers alone. “It is the function of the natural scientists to make the atomic bomb, but of the social scientist to say what the social consequences are likely to be” (Ogburn, 1946: 267–68). “For every subsidized piece of research in natural science there should be corresponding financial aids to research in social science” (p.274). The term technological change was supposed to enable sociologists to secure a place in the public debate on technology. But the SSRC failed in its attempts to appropriate or even share in the field. In fact, by that time, economists had begun to occupy the field with a totally different mindset, one that fitted the ideology of the post-World War II era: economic growth.

Chapter 5 continues the study of the development of the term technological change, examining the efforts from neoclassical economists. Initially, the same representation that served as an indicator of technological unemployment (productivity) also served to explain technological change: productivity is the result of technological change. Subsequently, the economists framed the study of technological change in terms of a theory of production. Technological change consists of combining factors of production (labor and capital) in a new way. A production function “expresses the technological relation that exists between the quantity of product and the quantities of the ‘factors’ that co-operate in varying proportion to produce it” (Schumpeter, 1954: 260, footnote 5). Yet the economists, including Joseph Schumpeter, did not introduce the technological factor per se into the analysis of economic progress. It was left to others to do so.

From that point on, “economic progress” would define the discourse of scholars on technological innovation for decades to come. Part II turns to the discourse on technological innovation, and the instrumentalization of technological innovation through policy. It develops the second thesis of this book: technological innovation emerged as a key term because it serves several functions or interests.

Chapter 6 introduces the term technological innovation in the light of two basic concepts inherent in technological innovation (product and commercialization), and examines what distinguishes the term from its predecessor, technological change, the two terms often being used interchangeably. First, technological innovation is concerned with products – in addition to industrial processes or technological change (the bread and butter of neoclassical economists). Economic growth is now explained through goods or products for consumers, namely the market. Industrial techniques are considered only to the extent that they are marketed goods to other firms. Second, the study of technological innovation is a matter of boundary work, or of transforming the (neoclassical) notion of technological change. In the scholarly literature, the study of technological innovation is regularly presented as an alternative to the difficulty of measuring technological change on one hand, and, on the other, a matter of opening the black box of technological change. Chapter 6 argues that from the moment that a community of scholars began to define technological innovation as different from technological change, they created an entirely new field of study and explicitly excluded neoclassical economists from that field.

Chapters 7 and 8 document early but forgotten contributors to the theory of technological innovation. The story of the conceptualization of technological innovation is always told from the perspective of scholars and their theories. This book offers a different interpretation. In the 1960s and after, diverse groups of actors appropriated the concept of innovation, each for their own purpose. In turn, engineers, managers and policy-makers – practitioners as I call them – employed the concept of innovation, as a strictly technological matter. These were among the first writers to produce titles on technological innovation, providing sources for scholars to draw from. They set the stage for the term for decades to come. These two chapters review precursor documents on technological innovation produced by engineers, governments and international organizations. I discuss a convergence of ideas on technological innovation: an economic rationale and a definition based on market considerations. Why did practitioners espouse the objective of technological innovation? I suggest that the term has a collaborative or integrative function that serves to organize (or rationalize) support for science, technology and economic activities. Technological innovation emerged as a term in the twentieth century because in discourse, action and policy, it was useful to include a large(r) number of people (than just scientists) and activities (than just science or basic research).

Chapter 9 looks at theories of innovation, broadly defined, in order to place theories of technological innovation in historical perspective. Over the twentieth century, scholars produced a diversity of theories on innovation – sociological, psychological, educational, organizational, industrial – a diversity that over time came to be dominated by theories of a particular kind: those on technological innovation. The chapter documents these theories in order to examine how scholars define innovation, explain how it occurs and identify the reasons why technological innovation took a central place in the theories.

In Chapter 10, I offer an analysis of today’s semantic field of innovation and the contestation of technological innovation. In recent years, the term technological innovation has had to compete with a plethora of terms like social innovation, sustainable innovation, responsible innovation, and the like. How can we make sense of this semantic extension? Why do these terms come into being? What drives people to coin new terms? What effects do the terms have on thought, on culture and scholarship, and on policy and politics?

The Epilogue sums up the arguments of the book, recapitulates the conceptual morphology of technological innovation and concludes with some ideas on technological innovation as an ideology.

1 Not necessarily “new”. Novelty is a relative concept. For example, paper is a technology, although an old good.

2 Historian Thomas Misa and his colleagues (Misa et al., 2003) are right that theories of modernity in general do not consider technology (for example: Wagner, 1994, 2016). Yet the reverse is not true. The history of technology generally develops a discourse on people imagining modernity through technology or appropriating technology in the name of modernity (or the tension between tradition and modernity).

3 At the time of the Enlightenment, the French called such men philosophes (as distinct from professional philosophers). The philosophes included men of letters, men of science, statesmen, government administrators, journalists and scholars.

4 Memorandum on Proposal for Advanced Study in Industrial Economics at MIT, no date. The Rockefeller Archive Center: Social Science Research Council Archives. Collection RF, Record Group 1.1, Series 224, Box 6, Folder 61.