When innovations meet institutions: Edison and the design of the electric light

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Citation: Andrew B. Hargadon, Yellowlees Douglas (2001) When innovations meet institutions: Edison and the design of the electric light. Administrative Science Quarterly (RSS)
Internet Archive Scholar (search for fulltext): When innovations meet institutions: Edison and the design of the electric light
Tagged: Sociology (RSS) Institutionalism (RSS), Innovation (RSS), Entrepreneurship (RSS), Design (RSS), Product Design (RSS)


Hargadon and Douglas set up a tension between innovation on the one hand as a means of introducing change, and institutions on the other which is a way of helping keep change in check or slowing it down. The basic argument in the paper is that successful entrepreneurs can use robust design to contextualize their innovations in terms of existing institutions and to work within them as opposed to challenging them completely. The paper uses historical data from Thomas Edison's roll-out of electric lighting to support their argument.

The concept of robust design is framed at least in part as a reference to Padgett and Ansell's (1993) Robust action and the rise of the Medici, 1400-1434 which argues that Cosimo Medici was able to challenge and manipulate groups from within. The authors define robust design as, "when [a design's] arrangement of concrete details are immediately effective in locating the novel product or process within the familiar world, by invoking valued schemas and scripts, yet preserve the flexibility necessary for future evolution, by not constraining the potential evolution of understanding and action that follows use." In other words, designers should ideally choose features that can be shown as familiar to users so they understand the innovation, others which are shown as new features, and then keep other hidden from view or deemphasized.

In the case of Edison and electric lighting, the incumbent technology was gas lighting and it was extraordinarily entrenched when he started building an electric lighting system. These institutions both:

  • Constrained behavior through regulatory and normative environments.
  • Constituted the understandings, interest, and actions of actors to create a set of cognitive models which framed how people approached and viewed the competing innovations.

The authors argue that Edison deliberatively (and perhaps having learned from his experience with the phonograph previously) designed his new lighting system to be essentially a drop-in replacement for gas lighting. He chose to generate electricity centrally, offered lights of similar brightness, incorporated as a gas company, used meters similar to gas meters (at enormous expense).

The paper also includes example from two unsuccessful examples that include Edison's phonograph and the Prodigy online service. The authors argue that both designs were too radical and that users (or other businesses in the case of Prodigy) could not find a way to understand or interact with them. The paper ends with a discussion of the Tivo and the way that the Tivo company tried to pitch it's own radically powerful technology as like a VCR, except a little better, despite the fact that as a GNU/Linux based system, it was much more powerful.

Theoretical and Practical Relevance

Hargadon and Douglas's article has been cited more than 300 times since it was published in 2001, largely in the sociological literature on institutionalism.