When Innovations Meet Institutions: Edison and the Design of the Electric Light

By Hargadon, Andrew B.; Douglas, Yellowlees | Administrative Science Quarterly, September 2001 | Go to article overview

When Innovations Meet Institutions: Edison and the Design of the Electric Light


Hargadon, Andrew B., Douglas, Yellowlees, Administrative Science Quarterly


**********

This paper considers the role of design, as the emergent arrangement of concrete details that embodies a new idea, in mediating between innovations and established institutional fields as entrepreneurs attempt to introduce change. Analysis of Thomas Edison's system of electric lighting offers insights into how the grounded details of an innovation's design shape its acceptance and ultimate impact. The notion of robust design is introduced to explain how Edison's design strategy enabled his organization to gain acceptance for an innovation that would ultimately displace the existing institutions of the gas industry. By examining the principles through which design allows entrepreneurs to exploit the established institutions while simultaneously retaining the flexibility to displace them, this analysis highlights the value of robust design strategies in innovation efforts, including the phonograph, the online service provider, and the digital video recorder. (*)

The pursuit of innovation increasingly drives organizations in rapidly changing environments, where risks are high and missteps have serious consequences (Brown and Eisenhardt, 1997; Drucker, 1999). Introducing change into otherwise stable social systems is a risky endeavor, but this is exactly what entrepreneurs with potentially significant innovations must attempt to do. To be accepted, entrepreneurs must locate their ideas within the set of existing understandings and actions that constitute the institutional environment yet set their innovations apart from what already exists. Recent research has highlighted the social embeddedness of such economic actions as innovation and entrepreneurship, in which value and significance are shaped as much by cultural as economic influences (Granovetter, 1985; Dacin, 1997; Dacin, Ventresca, and Beal, 1999; Lounsbury and Glynn, 2000; Ventresca et al., 2000). One cultural determinant of an innovation's value is how well the public, as both individuals and organizations, c omprehends what the new idea is and how to respond to it. And it is the concrete details of the innovation's design that provide the basis for this comprehension, as well as for new understandings and actions to emerge, which then, in turn, change the existing institutional context.

When innovations meet institutions, two social forces collide, one accounting for the stability of social systems and the other for change. These moments provide opportunities to observe the shifts in collective understanding and action that throw the otherwise static institutional background into stark relief (Czarniawska-Joerges and Sevon, 1996). Because the changes that accompany innovations often occur over years and even decades, historical cases can provide the necessary distance to observe how an innovation both emerges from and reshapes its institutional environment (e.g., DiMaggio, 1992; McGuire, Granovetter, and Schwartz, 1993). By analyzing a specific moment in history when an innovation first begins to affect the landscape of existing institutions, we can identify the means by which innovations displace existing institutions and suggest how future innovations could be designed to exploit such means.

We do this here by examining what is perhaps the prototypical example of innovation, Edison's development of his system of electric lighting, an innovative new technology that gained rapid and widespread acceptance and profoundly altered the institutional landscape. (1) We chose this case because it was not a simple story of one innovation's demonstrable technical and economic superiority over an incumbent rival. Rather, the evidence suggests that for its initial success, Edison's system of electric lighting depended on the concrete details of its design to invoke the public's familiarity with the technical artifacts and social structures of the existing gas and water utilities, telegraphy, and arc lighting. Although this familiarity provided the public with the means for quickly understanding the value of his new system and how to interact with it, Edison's system of lighting ultimately was able to displace many of those established institutions and become itself the model for successive ones. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

When Innovations Meet Institutions: Edison and the Design of the Electric Light
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.