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The Political Economy of Discovery Stories: The Case of Dr Irving Langmuir and General Electric

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The rhetorical uses of discovery and invention stories are legion, but of particular concern in this paper are those that are deployed for economic or commercial reasons, especially in claiming intellectual property rights, usually in the form of patents. The case of stories about Dr Irving Langmuir (1881-1957) of the General Electric Research Laboratory, who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1932 and was the first industry-based laureate from the United States, is examined. Langmuir won the prize for his 'outstanding discoveries and inventions within the field of surface chemistry', which also happened to underlie the virtual monopoly that General Electric gained in the supply of electric light. Langmuir was the inspiration for the stereotypically absent-minded and disinterested character of Dr Felix Hoenikker in Kurt Vonnegut's novel, Cat's Cradle (1963). My case study focuses on this and other representations of Langmuir as a discoverer, especially those generated by the General Electric Company, and explores the utility of these representations for Langmuir himself, and for his employer, in corporate PR, in ongoing struggles over patents, and in the post-war organisation of R&D. It is argued that, while the era of corporate research produced new collective modes of discovery and invention their description in heroic, individualistic terms long continued, and for good reason.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Program in HPS, School of History & Philosophy, The University of New South Wales, Sydney, NSW, Australia

Publication date: 2011-01-01

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