on May 26, 2000
Bijker's case studies could be read as fascinating histories of technology, but their strength lies in the analysis of the chosen artefacts. Bicycle presents mechanical technology, bakellite chemical and the fluorescent lighting electrical; the cases are also different in their approach: bicycle is discussed from end user viewpoint (who rode the bicycle and how); bakelite is a story of an inventor and a birth of a new industry, whereas the bulb presents a case of an established industry going through a turbulent technological renewal.
Bicycle was not a useful thing: it was a completely useless hobby of a few inventors and daredevils, and Bijker traces the developments that made the bicycle an indispensable form of transportation. The case offers hilarious deja vu: bicycle means death of distance ! Before the safety bicycle established itself as the dominant design, bicycle races and speed tests were used for advertising, not unlike the PC performance tests that were numerous not too many years ago.
Bakelite and Baekeland are described in a "heroic innovator" way, but taking into account historical context, professional trajectories of the involved scientists and the dead ends and failed experiments. Synthetic resin business is also covered.
Fluorescent lighting case shows how the invention goes through various phases before it is established as we know it today. In the case of fluorescent lighting, things developed rapidly between 1938 and 1940 and the lamp transformed itself from low intensity lamp for coloring purposes to energy saving lamp to high intensity daylight lamp. The power struggle within the industry is obvious because the lamp supplier got only 4% of profits in incandescence lighting but 24% in fluorescent case, with the share of the utility dropping from 80% to 44%.
Bijker's approach calls for identifying all relevant social groups, and these are very different in the different cases: sewing machine makers were important in bicycle manufacturing because of related skills and economic downturn in their major business; but non-users of bicycles were also important (because they were, by definition, numerous in the beginning). Sports cyclists, touring cyclists, elderly men and women all had special requirements, like sideways sitting and pedaling designs for women riding in long skirts.
The style is ready readable, and background science is suitably discussed. Enjoyable book !