I recently ran across an interesting history of nanoelectronics — aka spintronics. The article (From Lab to iPod: A Story of Discovery and Commercialization in the Post-Cold War Era) by history professor W. Patrick McCray describes how a scientific discovery of giant magnetoresistance (GMR) led to a series of technological advances in electronics. The bases for these advances was the ability to control electrons’ spin, not just charge — hence the term “spintronics.” This made possible a number of breakthroughs in memory storage (both in size and in the ability of devices to retain their information without a power source). It also spurred interest in nanotechnology in general.
What is more interesting is McCray’s conclusion:
The story of spintronics can also shed light on debates that have reemerged among scholars about some major historiographical questions. One of these concerns the validity of the linear model of research. Presented most famously by Vannevar Bush in his 1945 report, Science: The Endless Frontier, the most basic form of the model supposes a direct path from scientific discovery to application. While historians have examined, refined, and problematized it for decades, this model remains a point of contention and scholarly inquiry.85 To a first order of approximation, the case of spintronics appears to lend credence to the traditional linear model, which posits science as a prime mover for technological applications. As members of the 2007 Nobel committee saw it, an unexpected laboratory discovery inspired IBM’s industrial research and successful exploitation of the phenomenon and consequently billions of computers and iPods followed. The full story, of course, was much more complex, revealing the interplay among basic science, instrumentation, federal policy, industrial research, and commercial goals. One cannot help but conclude that the “simple” linear model, when examined closely enough, is anything but.
So even in the cases whether the linear model seems to fit, it doesn’t. The case study really points out the role of the ecosystem — with numerous elements all coming together to make the technology possible.
McCray has written a more recent essay on that topic — Re-Thinking Innovation. In that essay he notes:
For decades, the predominant model was linear. Based on Science: The Endless Frontier, Vannevar Bush’s 1945 social contract for science, the linear model posited that investments in basic science research would produce new technologies and societal benefits–meaning innovation. Rhetorically powerful as well as easy to understand and explain to policymakers, deployment of the linear model ignores the historical contingency of Bush’s report, which has, for better or worse, been the touchstone for much U.S. R&D policy.
I would highlight just one other paragraph.
Historically, artistic endeavor, broadly construed, has been a powerful driver of technological innovation. Advances in metalworking and ceramics traditionally originated in the workshops of artisans who produced objects valued more for their aesthetic quality than purely utilitarian ones. The feedback is powerful–in Renaissance Venice, improvements in glassmaking stimulated the production of more capable scientific instruments that played central roles in the Scientific Revolution.
Clearly, the process has always been a lot messier than the linear model posited.