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Invention and innovation: An introduction
Invention and innovation: An introduction

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5.13 Diffusion and suppression

As an innovation becomes accepted by an increasing number of individual and organisational users it goes through the process of diffusion, which is the process of adoption of an innovation over time from limited use to widespread use in the market.

From its original installation within the grounds of Edison's Menlo Park laboratory in late 1879, his system of electric lighting was installed in increasing numbers of individual factory and textile mill installations, and urban street lighting. This included the fulfilment of one of his visions when his electric light system started operating in the Pearl Street district of lower Manhattan in 1882 (Figure 17). His system gradually eclipsed its rivals and diffused into widespread use in commercial, civic and domestic situations.

Figure 17
Figure 17 Interior of the Pearl Street generating station, 1882 (Source: Smithsonian Institute)

As you saw earlier with the example of the telephone there are also factors that can lead to suppression or delayed adoption of an innovation in the early years of its availability when it may compete with a dominate design.

First of all there may be patent disputes over the ownership of the invention. These can delay widespread sales until it becomes clear who has the right to market the innovation. Then for the duration of the patent other inventors are discouraged from devising improvements when they can't benefit from them.

There are also those individuals and companies currently providing technology and products that might be threatened by a newcomer, like telegraph companies faced with the telephone. They can sometimes use their power and influence to make it difficult for the new product to succeed – from influencing government legislation to outright sabotage. Then there's also a certain degree of protective inertia in business and institutional structures that tends to resist change in order to allow innovation to be absorbed in a steady evolutionary way rather than a more disruptive revolution.

Once an innovation has achieved widespread diffusion so that most of its market has been captured and the dominant design has had incremental improvement until it is relatively stable or mature, then one of two things usually happens. Either the mature innovation continues to sell with only minor modifications, unchallenged by any serious competition, or a radical new invention is devised that sets off another cycle of the innovation process to challenge what already exists.