Frankenstein Meets the Invisible man:
Science, Medicine and a Theory of Invention

Fran Collyer Department of Management University of Canberra

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The subject of creativity and invention have long captured the imagination of poets and writers, and even scientists themselves. An ‘Index of Scientific Writings on Creativity’ in 1974 listed 9,968 articles and books from disciplines as diverse as medicine, psychiatry, psychology, anthropology, sociology, history, education and genetics. Today the internet holds listings for many times this number and adds the newer discipline areas of science and technology studies, economics, business and management. Social changes in industrialised societies have brought new perspectives to the study of creativity, shifting from a focus on the aesthetic, the philosophical and the psychological, to an analysis of the significance of creativity in social and economic development. Despite the intense interest in the subject, theoretical development has been slow. This paper examines recent theoretical journeys into the social shaping of genius and creativity.

Creativity, invention and genius are concepts used freely in everyday speech, the daily news media, fictional literature and in scholarly studies. The meaning of concepts such as invention are historically relative. During the period of the Renaissance (which spans roughly the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries cf. de la Croix & Tansey, 1980:451) the term ‘genio’ was applied to those with an extraordinary talent for imitating the work of the ancient Greeks and Romans. ‘Creativity’ was not about the production of something ‘new’ or unique. It was heretical to even countenance the idea of ‘improving’ upon the work of the ancients. Though this was challenged by people such as di Vinci and Vasari during the mid sixteenth century, creativity as imitation remained a dominant theme throughout the Renaissance (Becker, 1978:107).

In 18th century Europe the idea of creativity and invention underwent a dramatic change. During a period of nationalistic and imperialist expansion into North America and Asia as well as discovery beyond the confines of earth with the science of Kepler, Newton and Galileo (de la Croix & Tansey, 1980:630) a ‘modern’ conception of genius gathered strength. This notion emphasised the invention and production of original products by those of superior intellect, imagination and talent. Gone was the idea of genius as one who sought merely clever and methodical imitation (Becker, 1978:109).

These conceptions of creativity and genius were carried into the nineteenth century, but endowed with the flavour of Romanticism. Romanticism favours heroic emotion and revolutionary fervour accompanied by a ‘gothick’ taste for the fantastic and the macabre (de la Croix & Tansey, 1980:701-2). Many fictional works of this period offer tales of inventors and the emergence of modern science.

An example with which many of us are familiar is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The story was first published in 1818, when Shelley was nineteen years old and staying near Lake Geneva. In the book, Frankenstein, a young university student of chemistry and natural philosophy, passionately and compulsively seeks to ‘pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation’ (Shelley, 1994:46). After years of ‘painful’ labour, Frankenstein discovers the cause of the generation of life, and succeeds in bringing animation to ‘lifeless matter’ producing a creature made from discarded pieces of human bodies (ibid:50).

The story of Frankenstein illustrates the eighteenth century idea of creativity as the invention of something entirely new which advances knowledge rather than reiterates tradition, and portrays the inventor as a person of superior intellect. The novel is also firmly within the Romantic tradition, offering high drama and emotional pathos. This is particularly evident in Frankenstein’s reaction to his creation. He is horrified by what he has produced and flees across Europe as if a fugitive. Frankenstein is followed by the desperately lonely creature who becomes angry at Frankenstein’s refusal to assist him. The rest of the story is one of deepening sadness and horror as Frankenstein and his family face the consequences of his scientific discovery.

Frankenstein is the epitomÉ of the heroic inventor who suffers tragedy but eventually takes responsibility for his creation. The tale may be read as a dialogue about the morality of invention, contrasting ‘Christian values’ with those of modern science, a condemnation of intense intellectual labour as both ‘unlawful’ and ‘unnatural’ (cf. Shelley, 1994:53) and the expression of a newly developing concern about scientific invention and its threat to social convention.

Shelley’s story is part of a genre in which many writers expressed similar concerns. In 1849 Edgar Allan Poe published a short fictional tale about an alchemist called Von Kempelen, who had discovered the alchemist’s secret of converting lead into gold. It appears the alchemist came to the notice of the police when he purchased property despite having always been in poverty. He was suspected of fraudulent activities and kept under surveillance. Upon ‘bursting into his chamber’ the police found Von Kempelen at work with his test tubes and chemicals. As news of the invention spreads, the price of gold falls, the price of lead increases, and the rush to the gold fields of California ceases. Poe explicitly poses the question to the reader about whether the discovery ‘will be of service or disservice to mankind at large’ (1980:296). Though not as dramatic an example as Frankenstein, the tale of Von Kempelen also served as a warning about the value and direction of modern science.

Public concern over new developments in science during this period can be related to dramatic social upheaval as cities industrialised and medicine grew as a profession (cf. Larson, 1977). The care of the sick, which had previously been the province of the community and particularly of women, was unexpectedly becoming the occupation of men who were increasingly being granted legitimacy by the State in their role of managing the community’s health (cf. Marland, 1993; Achterberg, 1990). The idea of the doctor as a respected and cultured gentleman (and there was an almost total predominance of male practitioners) existed simultaneously with one of the doctor as a scientist who turns from established practices and traditions in search of elusive discoveries. Becker proposes that creative individuals were given a ‘licence’ to challenge established rules and conventions, in order that they may guide the ‘course of civilisation’ (1978:112). If such a ‘licence’ existed, it did not prevent writers from expressing deep concern over the moral and physical dangers that could be unleashed by unwise scientific invention.

A third example of the genre is the work of Robert Louis Stevenson (1963). This writer also expresses the dilemma presented by the new ‘scientific’ practice of medicine. Stevenson’s story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was written towards the end of the nineteenth century. The central character is a medical doctor who takes up research in chemistry. His scientific experiments lead to a reign of horror and violence. Dr Jekyll devises a drug which ‘shakes his disposition’, separating his human nature into two parts. One side is pure and the other evil, each allowed to dominate the body in turn due to the action of the drug. The evil side, Mr Hyde, which had previously been suppressed, grows stronger each time he possesses Jekyll’s body. It is only constrained with ever increasing dosages of the drug. Unable to reproduce the experiment and synthesise more of the drug, the respected doctor is eventually consumed by the darker side of his nature.

In the story of Jekyll and Hyde the author is ambiguous about locating a ’cause’ for the horror unleased by the inventor Dr Jekyll. At one point Stevenson asserts that the problem lies with the drug which Dr Jekyll invented, but elsewhere he argues that it lies with ‘human nature’. Here Stevenson suggests the doctors’ ambition is at the root of the problem, for had the doctor first taken the drug under ‘more pious aspirations’ it may have produced an angel rather than the evil Hyde (Stevenson, 1963:87). This dilemma over ‘root causes’ is not evident in Frankenstein. Shelley is adamant that the problem lies with the ‘unhallowed’ pursuit of science which mocks the ‘stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world’ (1994:9,53).

Theories of Creativity and Invention

Explanations for creativity during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries ranged from the divine, to the genetic, the psychological and the social. Ancient Greek mythology offered the theory of creation through divine intervention. The Gods gave people original ideas through breathing on them and thus ‘inspiring’ them (Weisberg, 1993:7). Writers and artists of the Romantic period often expressed invention in terms of divine inspiration or as a mystical process which was at times almost indistinguishable from ‘possession’.

These elements of the divine as a source of inspiration for invention are evident in the late nineteenth century novel The Invisible Man by HG Wells. In the novel, Griffin, a research chemist who invents a means to render both animate and inanimate objects invisible, describes the moment of his invention:

‘I went on working … and suddenly, not by design but by accident, I made a discovery … It came suddenly, splendid and complete into my mind … It was overwhelming. I left the filtering I was doing, and went and stared out of the great window at the stars.” I could be invisible!” … To do such a thing would be to transcend magic’ (Wells, 1987:90-1).

Other writers of the nineteenth century proposed that the ability to be inventive derived from an essential facet of human nature. This theory is implicit in the work of Frankenstein, where the genius in Frankenstein is ‘driven’ by an irrational impulse for creativity and intellectual freedom. In Frankenstein, the compulsion for discovery is taken to an extreme as the young scientist grows weak and pale in his laboratory yet continues to work on his project. He describes his own need to be inventive:

‘… a resistless and almost frantic impulse urged me forward; I seemed to have lost all soul or sensation but for this one pursuit … [I was] urged on by an eagerness which perpetually increased’ (Shelley, 1994:52).

These explanations for inventive behaviour were challenged by the emerging behavioural and social sciences of the nineteenth century. The new sciences suggested that social factors could shape human behaviour, and there were many debates over the extent to which humans are subject to ‘society’ rather than their ‘human nature’ or ‘free will’. This dilemma is manifest in the story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde where Jekyll dreams of being free from social restraint, from the imperative to be always ‘good’:

‘… I had learned to dwell with pleasure, as a beloved daydream, on the thought of the separation of these elements. If each, I told myself, could but be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust might go his way, delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his more upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path, doing the good things in which he found his pleasure, and no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil. It was the curse of mankind that these incongruous faggots were thus bound together – that in the agonised womb of consciousness, these polar twins should be continuously struggling’ (Stevenson, 1963:82).

The dilemma of the duality of human nature – part ‘social’, part ‘natural’ – was a dilemma explored by many writers including the early sociologist Emile Durkheim. Durkheim proposed that psychic consciousness is composed of two opposing aspects; the subjective consciousness, which represents the personal and responds to the sensory demands of the body; and the objective consciousness, which is impersonal, moral, and social, expressing itself in relation to the outside world (1960:327-8). Under this schema, one part of the individual listens to the ‘voice’ of society, the other to the animalistic needs of the body. These aspects were thought to be substantially different from one another, independent, and often in conflict (cf. Durkheim, 1960:326).

These theories of human nature also had a normative dimension, where it is assumed that the ‘bodily’ self is unquestionably inferior to the ‘intellectual’ or ‘non-bodily’ self. The normative distinction between body and mind was expressed by Durkheim in terms of a dichotomy between the profane and the sacred (1960:326). In Stevensons’ story, the animalistic, pleasure-seeking Hyde is portrayed as inferior to the intellectual and sexually chaste Dr Jekyll.

The concept of the inventor which emerges from this literature is clearly unlike the inventor of the earlier Enlightenment period which portrayed the genius as inherently rational and in control of their destiny (cf. Becker, 1978:26). In contrast, the inventor of the nineteenth century when the behavioural sciences were developing, was, despite an illusion of free will, fundamentally controlled by unseen forces:

‘What distinguished the genius in this deterministic conception of man, was that he, more than most others, was a victim of necessity – a necessity dictated by his own particular constitution’ (Becker, 1978:77).

What were these ‘social forces’ shaping the behaviour of the inventor? By the middle of the nineteenth century it became popular to study prominent artists and scientists to investigate the factors which brought forth inventive people. This interest has been sustained in the twentieth century (eg. Weber, 1992; Zuckerman, 1977). Studies come from many discipline areas, particularly Psychology, Economics and Sociology. Psychological studies emphasise aspects of the individual as a personality or character ‘type’, whereas studies from Economic and Sociology focus on variables which effect the inventiveness of an industry, enterprise, society or social group.

Psychological Studies of Inventors

A much repeated theme of psychological studies of inventors has been the association between creativity and insanity. This theme has ancient roots. Aristotle argued that ‘There is no excellent knowledge without mixture of madness’ (Ackroyd, 1993:66). The Romantic conception of invention as a product of human desire and intuition rather than rational judgement and traditional knowledge, rekindled the idea of such an association (Becker, 1978:77).

One of the early studies which systematically investigated this association was the French physician LÉlut who wrote the first clinical history of genius in 1836, declaring Socrates to have been a victim of hallucinations (in Becker, 1978:28). By the 1880s the subject was a major one throughout Western Europe, England and the United States (Becker, 1978:29). Such studies offered an extremely negative image of the inventor/genius, drawing associations between the genius, the criminal, the prostitute, the anarchist, the insane, and the physically weak. The studies of Morel (1857) Lombroso (1863) and Nordau (1900), popularised these ideas, identifying apparently common characteristics (such as specific facial features, head sizes, left-handedness) which were assumed to belong to all ‘degenerates’ (Becker, 1978:38-9). Moreover, influenced by Darwin’s newly published Origin of Species, the orthodoxy of the time was that the genius was a poor survivor who would almost inevitably meet an ill-timed death and be too frail to pass on inherited talents to offspring.

The mythology which grew around the idea of the genius focussed on their mental and physical inadequacy. These themes are found in both Frankenstein and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. For example, after realising that he has created a monster, Frankenstein is said to be ‘thin and pale’ and have a ‘wildness’ in his eyes. When greeted by an old friend, he laughs with a loud, unrestrained, ‘heartless’ laughter, and falls into a fit, raving incessantly, and takes several months to recover his senses (Shelley, 1994:55-60). Similarly, in Stephenson’s tale, Jekyll’s scientific inventions lead him to ill-health:

‘If I slept or even dozed for a moment in my chair, it was always as Hyde that I awakened. Under the strain of this continually impending doom and by the sleeplessness to which I now condemned myself … I became, in my own person, a creature eaten up and emptied by fever, languidly weak both in mind and body …’ (1963:103-4).

Becker contends that by the turn of the century the stereotype of the ‘mad genius’ was at its peak, and it was discredited after World War Two (1978:29). By this time, studies began to show the lack of empirical data for a causal relationship between mental instability and creativity. Studies suggesting an association were shown to be prone to sampling problems and to suffer from either over or under-inclusion (eg. Rothenberg, 1990:159; Weisberg, 1993:88).

Criminality was another variable often associated with genius and invention in the literature and studies of this period. It is a connection explored in the fictional work The Invisible Man. The main character, Griffin, has many of the characteristics of the ‘mad inventor’ stereotype. He has exceptional talents but few social skills, is rude and demanding. Like a number of other scientists Griffin experiments upon himself, changing his body to become invisible. His passion for discovery leads him first to immoral behaviour – robbing his father to provide him with essential research funds – and later to physical violence and murder (Wells, 1987:91,131).

More recent psychological studies of invention and creativity have focused on identifying a genius ‘personality type’, where an individual is thought to have a psychological ‘propensity’ toward creativity (eg. Bienaymé, 1986:139) or a cluster of personality characteristics enabling the individual to produce original ideas (Simonton, 1984,1988).

The results of empirical studies seeking a ‘genius personality type’ as a predictor of genius are largely disappointing. Results vary according to the selection of candidates for study as well as between fields of endeavour. There are many methodological problems with studying such populations, and most studies have not used control groups (Weisberg, 1992:40-1). Simonton prefers to argue that most studies of genius have failed to find common features because they have been based largely on first year university undergraduates and he doubts whether ‘many minds of the first calibre have filled out the questionnaires’ (Simonton, 1984:43). Despite the difficulties of proving the existence of a ‘psychological type’, the creative genius has variously been proposed as self-confident, intuitive, to have broad interests, an independence of judgement, a ‘firm sense of the self as creative’, sensitive, flexible, motivated (Weisberg, 1992:73, 76), more intelligent than others, effeminate (in the case of male poets), psychotic, and emotionally unstable (Simonton, 1984:29,45,55; Becker, 1978:91).

Another focus of contemporary psychological studies of genius and creativity has been to identify a unique style of thinking. According to this view, the genius is thought to be more ‘flexible’ in their cognitive ability, enabling them to find solutions where others cannot. Simonton (1988) is an exponent of this view, as is de Bono (1968). They offer the theory that all individuals produce new ideas through a random process of chance. However the genius produces more innovative ideas because they are less constrained by conventional associations and habitual ways of thinking. This is why many psychologists favour the use of the Remote Associates Test to assess creative ability (Weisberg, 1993:56).

According to this perspective, creativity arises from extraordinary thinking processes which are qualitatively different from the thought processes used by ‘ordinary’ individuals. Other scholars refuse to privilege creativity, arguing that creativity results from ‘ordinary thinking’. ‘New’ thoughts are said to be not altogether unconnected with other thoughts but ‘firmly rooted in past experience’ and have their ‘source in the same thought processes that we all use every day’ (Weisberg, 1993:3). These explanations of creativity have produced a sub-speciality of careful work dealing with heuristics and chains of association where it is assumed ‘creative thinking styles’ can be taught or enhanced.

A focus on the apparently unique cognitive characteristics of the genius enable some scholars to argue that inventors are successful because they focus on solvable, valuable problems, whereas ‘ordinary’ scientists waste time on projects which are not socially meaningful or important (Weisberg, 1993:79). Similarly, the successful artist is assumed to be more sensitive to others, and this insight enables them to produce art which more effectively communicates with the audience at the emotional level (ibid:8-9). In other words, characteristics of the inventor are held to be responsible for the success or failure of the invention.

Social-Psychological Studies of Inventors

Studies from a social-psychological perspective often focus on identifying common social features of successful, creative people. Victor and Mildred Goertzel (1962) for example, systematically studied the biographies of over four hundred successful individuals, examining their family and school environments. The Goertzels argued that factors such as orphanhood, birth order in the family, and parenting styles could be responsible for supporting or discouraging the creation of genius. For example, it was thought that ‘dominant and possessive’ mothers could bring about gender confusion and thus encourage artistic creativity.

Psychological studies of creativity often include social factors such as upbringing and environment in the theories (eg. Rothenberg, 1990:10). Their focus is nevertheless the individual, and this focus may exaggerate the importance of the individual in the process of invention. It also tends to mean an exclusion of information about the events which precede the ‘scientific breakthroughs’. Explanations for the success or failure of an invention, or even the lack of invention, are sought within the personality structure or cognitive activity of the individual. As a consequence, factors in the social or technical environment tend to be overlooked.

Economic Studies of Invention

The discipline areas of economics and business studies offer an alternative perspective on invention, even though much of this is implicit rather than explicit. This is because the focus of these studies is the innovation process as a whole rather than invention per se. Schumpeter defined innovation as a shift in the production function (1934). More recently there has been a notable change of focus from invention to innovation, so that there is now less emphasis on the creation of new products and more emphasis on the development and transfer of products to the market (eg. OTA, 1984:17). The emphasis on ‘successful’ inventions rather than invention per se, means that inventions without commercial application are ignored:

‘From the point of view of the firm, successful innovation is about choosing technologies which embody the potential for a sequence of developments that meet market possibilities as the product or the process diffuses into the commercial environment’ (Georghiou et al, 1986:27).

In economic studies, invention is either consider external to the innovation process, or it is implicitly subsumed within the process of innovation. In the first instance invention is assumed to be an essential ‘event’ which occurs before the innovation process ‘proper’ begins. In the second case, inventions of importance will be discovered through the actions of the market. In both cases invention is left untheorised.

Studies have followed this shift in focus from invention to innovation (or invention to the ‘successful transfer of invention’) and have shown a keen interest in measuring the extent to which an enterprise or industry sector is innovative. Scholars have noted that the level of innovation is effected by factors such as the existence of other (perhaps competitive) products already on the market (eg. Scott-Kemmis et al, 1988:3,14); the size, structure and ownership of the firm (eg. Scott-Kemmis et al, 1989:63; Roberts, 1989:39); and the relationship between the enterprise and clients, government or suppliers (eg. Bienaymé, 1986:155; PMSC, 1991:132). The innovativeness of firms is explained in terms of a firms’ propensity to innovate under competition, and although it is acknowledged that innovativeness cannot be ’caused’ by the above-mentioned factors, innovativeness is said to be ‘stimulated’ by factors external or internal to the firm. Thus management is encouraged to support the development of an innovative enterprise ‘culture’ (eg. Westwood & Sekine, 1988:16; Abernathy and Rosenbloom, 1982).

Despite the interest in innovation, few of these studies theorise innovation itself. It is implied that innovation is the result of factors such as market forces, consumer needs, the application of scientific principles, or the natural consequence of a technological trajectory (eg. Nelson & Winter, 1977; Abernathy & Utterback, 1978; Rothwell & Zegveld, 1985). Underlying these views are several highly questionable assumptions about the nature of markets, firms, the science-technology relationship, and human nature. These studies also display a general lack of interest in problematising the nature of market ‘success’, in examining which groups might define the innovation as a ‘success’, and in asking why other (possibly more socially valuable) innovations have ‘failed’. These assumptions have been addressed in more detail elsewhere (eg. Self, 1993; Braun, 1992:216). In brief, these studies suppose that the ‘market’ is an entity existing separately from ‘society’; that self-interest fundamentally organises behaviour in the market; that innovations are the result of ‘technical factors’ which are inherent properties of inventions and must, by dint of their survival in the market place, constitute an improvement over existing technologies; and that science and scientific principles form the basis of, and are essential precursors to technological development.

The Sociological Study of Invention

Sociological and philosophical studies have challenged the assumption that innovation is a consequence of the market. The market is conceptualised as socially constituted and its operation is shown to be shaped by, and subject to, differing interests and hierarchies of power (Holton, 1992; Pusey, 1991). Innovation is also conceptualised as a social process, and it is argued that the contractual obligations of the market rely upon a society with a moral order which regulates social relations (cf. Durkheim, 1933:276). From such studies it is demonstrated that an exogenous ‘market’ cannot account for why invention occurs, what form it might take, or who will benefit or suffer from a given invention.

Sociological studies also reject the proposition that the innovation process is merely a developmental consequence of the application of scientific principles in the search for solutions to current problems or needs. For example Rose & Rose (1969) contend that science is not necessarily the basis of all technology, and that technological development is multi-directional rather than a linear process.  McKinlay (1981) examines inventions which have come into widespread use and shows that inventions ‘succeed’ in the market place because of their powerful sponsors rather than as a consequence of any intrinsic worth of the innovation itself.

Some studies offer an explanation for technological development in terms of class and gender (eg. Navarro, 1986; Wajcman, 1991). Others problematise the concept of innovation itself, suggesting that only those new ideas, techniques or artefacts deemed socially ‘appropriate’ and ‘valuable’ within a given social context become known as ‘inventions’ (Collyer, 1994a). Furthermore, not all creative individuals are given recognition as an ‘inventor’, and the process whereby recognition occurs is the result of social interaction between often unequal parties. This interaction may be fraught with conflict (Collyer, 1993:417). As a consequence, the terms ‘inventor’ and ‘invention’ are retrospectively applied to past events and individuals. The concept of invention is also problematic because the recording of past events are always subject to interpretation and the possibility of historical inaccuracies (ibid).

These challenges from the social sciences and humanities have been critical to establishing a more adequate theoretical understanding of technology and innovation. Sociology has taken the lead in the examination of the impact of technological innovation on society (eg. Bates & Lapsley, 1985); Science and Technology Studies has taken up the challenge to theorise the processes of technological development and diffusion (eg. Hughes, 1987); while Philosophy and Cultural Studies have brought analytic and ethnographic skills to bear on the examination of ethics and the production of scientific knowledge in the laboratory (eg. Kuhn, 1970; Knorr Cetina, 1988, 1992).

Despite these developments, few important studies from any of these discipline areas have concentrated on the social process of invention. For example, Richardson et al’s use of the term ‘innovation’ implicitly excludes invention (1991:5) and McKinlay’s study begins after the process of invention has occurred, starting the analysis at the announcement of a ‘scientific breakthrough’ (1981:375). These authors focus instead on the adoption and diffusion processes, where doctors and hospitals begin to use technologies which were, presumably, invented elsewhere. One consequence of excluding invention from the innovation process in this way, is to place an artificial division between the activities of invention and the practical application of the invention – a distinction which does not necessarily exist in all areas of scientific or medical practice (cf. Collyer, 1993:207).

One aspect of the invention process which has been theoretically investigated is the formation of ideas. There have been numerous sociological studies which consider this element of invention, and many associate the generation of ideas with the social context or material conditions of the society. These reveal the extent to which ideas are socially shaped (eg. Knorr Cetina, 1995). For example Dahrendorf argues that at all points in history there is a large chaotic ‘reservoir’ of ideas, and a hegemony of power which organises and defines ideas according to relevance, validity, and reward (1980:15). Other studies have considered the relationship between ideas and innovation, suggesting that ideas and beliefs often remain hidden within the design configurations of the invention:

‘The design imperatives [in technology] are so totally taken for granted that the values inherent in them and the socio-economic biases they embody are not even recognised as such’ (Commission For The Future, 1988:7).

Ideas are obviously essential components of invention. However most studies which theorise the social formation of ideas and knowledge focus on the production of scientific knowledge in the laboratory (eg. Knorr Cetina, 1995; Whitley, 1977). Though such studies provide plausible and useful explanations of the social shaping of ideas, they are unable to offer a satisfactory basis for a theory of invention because they are limited to the activity of scientists in research laboratories. Invention is not necessarily an outcome of scientific research nor is it confined to laboratory work. Industrial inventions most often occur within commercial enterprises, and medical inventions – particularly those in instrumentation and equipment – are often the result of practitioners seeking to find solutions to clinical problems (see for example the case of the anaesthetic ventilator, Collyer, 1993:147). Invention is an activity of individuals and groups from many occupations and institutions. It includes practitioners and teachers as well as researchers, those working outside academic institutions in both large and small research operations, as well as members of commercial enterprises and even individuals who are not directly associated with research and development organisations.

The nature of invention means that theories of the production of scientific knowledge are too narrow to take into account the many factors which shape the production of inventions. Invention involves an extremely diverse reward system; a wide range of actors and institutions; the use of copyright, patenting and other strategies to maintain commercial secrecy as well as academic publication; and diverse knowledge systems other than science.

More significantly perhaps, theories of knowledge production are unable to satisfactorily provide a theory of invention because they cannot take into consideration the often embodied nature of invention. Invention is not limited to the world of ideas. It extends well beyond the realm of ideas into the physical, tangible world. Though the term invention is commonly reserved for the creation of new objects, it is also used to refer to the creation of new techniques, processes, forms of organisation, substances, devices, equipment and machinery. Invention encompasses a wide range of phenomenon from the idea through to the physical, tangible object (Collyer, 1993:224).

A potentially rich source for a theory of invention comes from Science and Technology Studies. This has produced models of technological development which take into account the often embodied nature of technology, while retaining the idea that technology is socially, culturally and politically shaped. More recent developments have moved beyond social constructionist accounts of technology (eg. Pinch & Bijker, 1984) which provide only for the social determinants of technology. Hughes (1983) has proposed that technology and society form a ‘seamless web’ in which the ‘technical’ and the ‘social’ can be defined only in relation to one another. As Hill suggests:

‘… technology and technological change are not autonomous forces that in themselves transform a society. Rather, they are forces that fit into an infrastructure, into a social system, but with inter-independence on the society’s economic and social structures, world views and culture’ (1983:31).

Bijker discusses the idea of ‘socio-technical ensembles’ to explain the way technology shapes social practices but is itself shaped and constructed by social processes (1995:252). The idea of a ‘socio-technical ensemble’ brings together the ‘social’ and the ‘natural’ which are essential to a theory of invention because invention generally necessitates the use of both ‘natural’ and ‘social’ capacities to produce ideas, processes or artefacts. For example, learning and memory are central to scientific activity as they provide scientists with a capacity to retain historical knowledge and a faculty for invention rather than just repetition (Callon, 1995:44). Learning and memory involve both the ‘biological’ and the ‘social’ capacities of humans, even though neither the ‘biology’ nor the ‘social’ exist as separately identifiable capacities. The model of a socio-technical ensemble is therefore preferable as a theory of invention to social constructionism, because it can better explain the role of socio-natural capacities and the mutual shaping of the ‘technical’ and the ‘social’.

Another theoretical development which is important for developing a theory of invention is the idea of a ‘translation network’. This is a:

‘… compound reality in which inscriptions (and in particular, statements), technical devices, and human actors (including researchers, technicians, industrialists, firms, charitable organisations, and politicians) are brought together and interact with each other’ (Callon, 1995:52).

Within the translation network are a number of ‘actants’ – a notion borrowed from Latour (1988) and semiotics. Actants are defined as entities ‘endowed with the ability to act’ (Callon, 1995:53). An ‘actant’ may be a political party, a machine, chemical or even a researcher.

The significance of translation networks is that it offers a more adequate explanation of invention than psychological or economic models. Translation networks have more explanatory power than the concept of knowledge paradigms (eg. Kuhn, 1970) because translation networks take into account both the social and technological content of inventions. Translation networks constitute a ‘socio-nature’ weaving together technical devices, statements, documents, skills, techniques and human beings (Callon, 1995:50,58). The model consequently offers an explanation of the link between various scientific statements in the manufacture of knowledge and it brings the laboratory into contact with the ‘external’ world of practitioners, investors, industrialists and policy makers.

Translation networks are also useful for understanding invention because they explain how it is that knowledge production is never perfectly repetitious. It is suggested that the transfer and distribution of knowledge requires adaptation to the local social context, and, in the process, there are always alterations, eliminations and additions (Callon, 1995:49). This means the very process of scientific activity brings about invention, and invention is held to be a consequence of the process of science itself (ibid). Thus while sociological theories of knowledge production explain the determinants of knowledge, its conservatism, continuity, and its lack of radical change; the idea of a translation network explains its underlying innovative and imaginative character.

An analysis of The Invisible Man using the idea of a translation network can expose the ‘cognitive trail’ of ideas and events which led Griffin to invent a process for producing invisibility. Wells proposes that Griffin had an idea that, without changing other properties of matter, he could lower the refractive index of a substance so that its visibility would alter. If it no longer reflects, refracts nor absorbs light, then it will become invisible (Wells, 1987:87-8). Griffins’ invention might simply be explained in relation to a system of ideas about theories of light and optical density, but the translation network suggests the importance of taking into account the socio-technical context in which he works. The latter could indicate that Griffin developed his invention with the assistance of physical objects (eg. light sources) and processes (such as stirring powdered glass into a glass of water and observing its properties). This is because an exploration of the socio-technical context includes the idea of ‘tacit’ knowledge, a concept developed by Polanyi (1958) to identify the importance of information which cannot be transmitted in a codified form (Callon, 1995:42). In this case Griffin can be shown to rely upon information received not just from text books or the spoken word, but from observation, instruments and data gathered from his experiments.

The translation network approach is amenable to explaining the success or failure of an invention as an outcome of a combination of psychological, social, or technical factors because it does not exclude factors of different phenomenological status. It is unlike the psychological theories which explain the success or failure of technologies in terms of the abilities, capacities and actions of the inventor; or technologically determinist accounts of innovation which locate success or failure in ‘technical’ properties of an invention itself; or social constructivist theories of technology which examine only the contribution of ‘social’ factors. Instead, the translation network approach suggests that innovation is the product of both human and non-human ‘actants’.

Another application of the translation network approach is in its ability to explain how it is that particular ideas and technologies come to be common features of particular societies. Callon suggests that translation networks produce opportunities for the accumulation of knowledge, lengthen to include new actants, and become stabilised and irreversible, offering a well-determined path of development and reducing the opportunity for change (1995:59). The translation network approach explains the effect of technology on social practice without resorting to technological determinism. This idea is not entirely new. For example, Johnston (1984) proposes that particular technologies can become historically entrenched and ‘self-perpetuating’ within a network of technologies. The result can be a series of unintended constraints on choices and behaviour as it becomes too costly (or involves too great a disruption to existing social practices) to alter the technology in favour of a completely different design. As a consequence, the range of acceptable technological options are narrowed:

‘Beyond a certain level of technological development, technology becomes a self-generating, self-perpetuating, self-programming mechanism, and human ends become adapted to suit the technological means available. This is ‘entrenchment’ with a vengeance’ (Johnston, 1984:107).

Limitations of the Translation Network Model

The translation network model offers an opportunity to theorise the development of technologies in regard to their socio-technical properties. However from a sociological perspective, the framework has a number of theoretical difficulties which limit its usefulness for the study of invention.

First of all the model brings together various ‘actants’ but offers no means to understand the relationship between the ‘actants’ or the differing capacities of the actants to direct or control the invention process. The model assumes an equivalence between actants. Yet the ‘actions’ of a ‘policy network’ are both quantitatively and qualitatively different from the actions of an individual, an amoeba, or piece of technical apparatus. There is an asymmetric relationship between actants in terms of capacity to shape the course of a translation network. Individuals or groups can impose meaning upon an inert substance or develop computer programs, and these technologies offer characteristics which influence and shape this meaning. However the impact of the various ‘actants’ is not equivalent.

Secondly, the model does not in itself theorise the relationship between the ‘translation network’ and the ‘society’ in which it operates. Translation networks are assumed to produce ‘their own coherence’ (cf. Callon, 1995:59). There is no consideration of the operation of the translation network in terms of wider structures of power/knowledge. Nor are we offered a means to systematically organise and analyse the events, actants, and outcomes, despite the continuing relevance of many ‘old fashioned’ categories such as class, ethnicity or gender. Callon admits to an inability to integrate studies of gender with his model, though puts this down to merely a difference of focus (1995:60). (Fox Keller’s 1995 study of the exclusion of women scientists from positions of power is brought up in this discussion). It is true that Callon’s work assumes a different focus. Nevertheless the inability to integrate factors such as the influence of gender on the production, development and diffusion of technology points to a significant and basic flaw of the model.

Without an organising framework which takes into consideration such factors, there can be no coherent explanation of the essentially hierarchical nature of work and its effect on invention, inventors, and socio-technological development. There may also be an over-estimation of the capacity of scientists and others within the network to shape their own circumstances and too little regard for the impact of factors beyond the immediate sphere of activity.

Thirdly, because the focus of the translation network model is internal, it is unable to explain how the boundaries of the network itself are created and maintained. Translation networks are said to emerge from scientific activity (cf. Callon, 1995:52), but this does not fully explain why some translation networks become dominant, and others marginalised. There is a need for the model to take into account the fact that not all technologies develop from scientific activity – many medical technologies for example have their origin in health and medical practice (cf. Collyer, 1993:206-7). There is also a need for an integration with other theoretical perspectives so that it can explain why only some knowledges, technologies and actors form significant translation networks.

A satisfactory theory of invention must address the fundamental question of why only particular individuals or groups are provided with the opportunity to be inventive and given recognition for their work. The story of Frankenstein clearly illustrates the need for the inventor to be well-positioned socially. Frankenstein had an independent income and was granted the opportunity to spend several years studying according to his areas of interest and tastes. He was provided with his needs by a university system which did not appear to be under any pressure for efficiency or quality of outcome (cf. Shelley, 1994). Not all individuals are provided with this sponsorship, nor are they all given equal recognition for their inventions. Studies have demonstrated the importance of sponsorship by powerful individuals or interest groups to ensure the ‘success’ of inventions on the market (eg. McKinlay, 1981); and the ability of more powerful actors to exclude others from gaining recognition for their inventions. Recent examples have occurred in Australia in regard to HIV/AIDS (Wynhausen, 1995) and there are many documented examples such as the development of insulin (Bliss, 1982) and the suppression of magnetic recording at Bell Laboratories by a management who were concerned that the recording of telephone conversations would reduce confidentiality and thus usage of the telephone (Clark, 1993).

A satisfactory theory of invention would be able to include inventions which are not physically embodied, and how the phenomenological status of an invention might impact upon associated social practices. Empirical evidence has demonstrated that the phenomenological basis of an invention (whether it is essentially idea-based or takes a physical, tangible form) brings into operation specific sets of meanings, social practices, and forms of control (Collyer, 1993:422,436-7). This occurs because social practices and meanings develop historically in relation to particular kinds of technology. For example, Australia has a well-developed and stringent system of government regulation and evaluation for pharmaceutical technologies, a far less stringent system for medical devices and equipment, and no regulation or evaluation for surgical techniques and clinical therapies (cf. Hailey, 1993; Sax, 1990:112-3; Weitz, 1980: 27-8). In another example, the different physical characteristics of inventions can have implications for researchers and for those who use the inventions. Research funding is much greater in areas which rely upon the use of technical equipment such as IVF than it is in areas which rely on systems of ideas – such as the development of strategies for preventative health or public health. For users of technology, higher rebates are provided by Medicare (an Australian government scheme for subsidising health care treatment) for services based on the use of technological equipment or machinery than for services based on ‘cognitive’ technologies such as counselling (HIC, 1988:31).


Invention has been a favourite topic in both popular literature and academic studies. The literature abounds with images of the ‘mad inventor’ and warns of the dangers of ‘interfering’ with either nature or society through ‘too much scholarship’ and ‘clever’ experimentation. Academic studies have both promoted the stereotypes and deconstructed the myths about inventors. Psychology has sought to delineate the characteristics of creative individuals, and Economics has built models of the innovative behaviour of enterprises, industry sectors and nations. Sociology, and Science and Technology Studies have built a partnership to theorise the nature of technological development.

Recent developments in the study of technology have provided a fertile area for exploring the socio-technical nature of this human activity. Nevertheless there is much ground yet to cover. This paper has demonstrated that existing theories have limitations in regard to a theory of invention.

The paper has offered some suggestions for a theory of invention. It is suggested that there is a need to integrate theories of technology within a theory of society so that it might better explain why only particular individuals and groups are offered the opportunity for invention; why only specific kinds of technologies are defined as inventions; and why recognition is conferred only in particular areas of practice and on some individuals or groups rather than others. Further, it is suggested that an adequate theory of invention would give greater consideration to the phenomenology status of the invention. Inventions can range from being wholly cognitive-based to almost completely ‘technical’. The extent to which they are presented in a physical, tangible form, shapes and is shaped by social meanings and social practices which have developed in relation to these forms.


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