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    The Social Construction of Bakelite:Toward a Theory of InventionWiebe E. Bijker

    The aim of this chapter is to put forward some theoretical conceptswhereby the development processes of technological artifacts can beunderstood. The approach I suggest extends the social constructivistanalysis of the development outlined by Pinch and Bijker (this vol-ume). In the earlier work we proposed a descriptive model thatfocused on the various meanings attributed by different social groupsto an artifact. This allowed us to give a symmetric account of "suc-cessful" and "failed" artifacts, and it also had the advantage of

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    can be used for both purposes, whereas others, such as rubber, areused for one purpose only.Until the mid-nineteenth century, the use of plastics had been con-fined to luxury and fancy goods, ranging from shellac-lacq uered seen tboxes to ivory jewelry. The vulcanization of rubber, however, creatednew markets. During the vulcanization process, rubber is heated inthe presence of sulfur, which renders it more flexible and durable.This makes the rubber suitable for a wide range of applications. In thesecond half of the nineteenth century, both rubber and shellac wereincreasingly used for electrical insulation, especially "hard rubber,"also known as "vulcanite" or "ebonite." This rubber was manu-factured by mixing a much higher percentage of sulfur with the cruderubber than was done in the ordinary vulcanization process, and itwas used for several new industrial purposes for which none of theolder natural plastics had previously been employed. Apart from itsuse as an electrical insulating material, hard rubber was used for theinternal coating of chemical apparatus and accumulator storages andfor the manufacture of surgical instruments and artificial teeth. Thus,

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    ether. The "collodion," as this solution was called, was a clear fluidwith the consistency of syrup that, when poured out and allowed todry, resulted in a transparent film. Several applications, such aswound plaster, a means to render fabrics waterproof and a basis layerfor photosensitive materials, were successfully developed.

    Parkes was the first to attempt to produce "a hard, strong, brilliantmaterial" from nitrocellulose that could be cut and molded (Parkes1855). The development of a new plastic market for technical appli-cations, besides the traditional market of luxury consumer goods, isexemplified by Parkes's business policy. On several occasions, inpresenting his new plastic, Parkesine, Parkes did not distinguishclearly among the different uses to which it could be put: It could beused as a substitute for luxury plastics, such as ivory and tortoise-shell,as well as for industrial substances such as rubber and gutta-percha (asimilar substance to rubber but obtained from a different tropicaltree). Parkes placed the early emphasis on its use in the productionoffancy articles. For example, at the 1862 World Exhibition he pre-sented medallions, buttons, combs, pierced and fret work, inlaidwork, pens, and penholders (Kaufman 1963). However by 1866,when Parkes tried to persuade investors to put capital into a newly in-

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    was called Xylonite. This venture fared no better than the previousone, and it was abandoned in December 1874. Spill had an unshak-able faith in his material and established another company in 1875.This time he did succeed in finding a small but rather stable marketfor what he now also called Ivoride (Kaufman 1963).

    A third variant of solution to the scarcity problem of naturalplastics was developed by John Wesley Hyatt in Albany, New York.As the popular story goes, Hyatt's research was triggered by the offerofa $10,000 prize for the patent ofa material that could be used as asubsitute for ivory in the manufacture of billiard balls. Hyatt firsttried several wen-known plastic compositions, such as wood fiber withshellac. Although this did not result in a satisfactory substitute, animportant consequence was Hyatt's acquisition of familiarity withprocesses for molding plastics under heat and pressure (Friedel 1979) .This experience made Hyatt aware of the problems of liquid col-lodion solutions, such as the ones Parkes and Spill had used: Thedrying process inevitably caused shrinkage, which made it difficultfor such collodion mixtures to be used for molding solid objects. In his

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    Bakelite 163

    However, his later use of the term "solution" probably added to theperceived importance of the role of solvents in the Celluloid produc-tion. Ironically, Hyatt himself did not mention camphor as a solvent,only as an additive. I return to this point concerning the role ofsolvents later. Together with his brother, Isaiah S. Hyatt, Hyattfounded the Albany Dental Plate Company in 1870. They advertised

    a newly-invented and patented material for Dental Plates or bases forartificial teeth, that cannot fail to delight every dentist who desires a bettermaterial for the purpose than hard rubber. (The Dental Cosmos 13 (1871);cited in Friedel 1979, p. 53)The dental plates did have various imperfections. Some of them had astrong camphoric taste; some became soft in the mouth (sufficiently sofor the teeth to become loose), and plates were found to warp afterhaving been adjusted to the patient's mouth (Friedel 1983) . Althoughthese dental plates were far from satisfactory, the concerted effort toproduce a material with specific, consistent qualities resulted in theHyatt brothers' forming the Celluloid Manufacturing Company inorder to produce Celluloid in semifinished form (rods, sheets, tubes,etc.). From 1872 to 1880 the Hyatts granted licenses to different

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    lines of development. Spill mostly valued the use of his plastic as asubstitute for expensive natural plastics, as is indicated by the nameIvoride and his emphasis on the need for the material to be white.Consequently, mass production by molding was not his first priority.For Hyatt the goal of constructing a material that could be used toproduce a large number of narrowly defined products of consistentquality led inevitably to focusing on the production process andespecially on the molding characteristics of the material.

    The patent dispute between Spill and Hyatt was resolved bySamuel Blatchford, at that time a justice of the US Supreme Court,and "the most highly regarded patent judge of his time" (Friedel1983, p. 132). He decided on August 21,1884, that neither Spill norHyatt should be named as the inventor of a camphor-nitrocelluloseplastic, because Parkes had already covered that combination ofsubstances in his patents. In effect, this meant a victory for Hyatt,because the judge's decision denied Spill the novelty of using cam-phor and thus nullified his grounds for litigation against Hyatt. TheCelluloid Manufacturing Company succeeded in putting itself on a

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    LDDKATTHISCDUARAND rsrs cIlFrs,JDHNYDUMAY'tI(U SCOWL ANa POUTCELLULOID DONTNEED WASHINS JOHNSOTAKE YOIIR cue AND GET DOT.

    Bakelite 165PLENTY DIRTE SHIRT;JfBUT JDHNE NO WAsHEE MO~.fiTlLLEE PAYEETHRcELypOLLE!$YOU OWEE JOHN BEFORE.

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    national and local authorities made special safety regulations forCelluloid processing industries (Worden 1911).Another Artifact and Its Interpretative Flexibility: ThePhenol-Forrnaldeliyde Condensation ProductAt about the same time that Hyatt was establishing his company forthe manufacture of dental plates, Adolf Baeyer in Germany wasobserving condensation reactions between aldehydes and phenolics.Although he found that under specific conditions chemical com-pounds that belonged to the group of phenolic dyes were formed,most of the condensation products were resinous and difficult tocrystallize (Baeyer 1872).Many historians of the plastics industry identify Baeyer's conden-sation product as the first synthetic resin. Having produced the"resin," researchers directed their efforts toward rendering it in anindustrial process. This was eventually accomplished by Leo HendrikBaekeland. For Baeyer himself, however, the reaction product meantsomething completely different from a synthetic resin. Because the

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    Technological Frames and Why No Phenol-FormaldehydeCondensation Plastic Was ConstructedMore than a decade passed after the initial observation of the con-densation reaction between phenol and formaldehyde, and nobodyseemed interested in studying its potential for the production of asynthetic plastic, although at the same time Celluloid's success sug-gested an attractive market. One might think of the high price offormaldehyde as an explanation for this neglect of the possibility ofdeveloping a commercial synthetic plastic. If that explanation iscorrect, then we would expect the availability of cheaper formalde-hyde to lead to a concerted research effort to make a phenol-formaldehyde plastic.

    It was not until 1888, after a catalytic process had been developedthat enabled formaldehyde to be synthesized directly, that formal-dehyde became an easily available material. The dye industry, forexample, started to use it in the synthesis of several dyes. We might askwhether there was any trace of a renewed interest in making asynthetic plastic out of the phenol-formaldehyde condensation prod-uct at this point.

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    material meant something different. It was no potential plastic to betamed for molding; nor was it a potential dye to be analyzed forsynthesis; it also was not an instrument for studying natural resins;rather it was an uninteresting substance to be avoided because onewas after something else.

    Apart from further demonstrating the interpretative flexibility of theartifact resinous condensation product of phenol and formaldehydeby adding a fourth construct to the list, the works of Kleeberg,Manasse, and Lederer also indicate that it was not the high price offormaldehyde before 1886 that explains the neglect of the potentialityof that resin as a commercial plastic. Cheap formaldehyde did not leadto the development of a commercial plastic. Another explanationmust be sought.

    The observation that "they just did not see it" is only a rephrasingof what has to be explained. Why didn't the possibility of producing asynthetic resinous material out of the phenol-formaldehyde reactionfigure on the agenda of chemists at the time? Certainly chemistssuch as Baeycr, Manasse, Lederer, and Kleeberg did not lack com-

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    Bakelite 169

    could not occur to them. Chemical theory at that time could not copewith such a substance. Neither could chemical practice: Their dailylaboratory practice included all kinds of chemical analysis and syn-thesis, but the application of pressure and molding techniques were ofanother world. The technological frame of synthetic plastics was notyet in existence. The same applies to Manasse's and Lederer's notseeing the potentiality of the condensation product: It simply did notfit in the technological frame of their community.Searching for a Celluloid Substitute within the CelluloidTechnological ErarneCelluloid, notwithstanding its success and stabilization in varioussocial groups, still had some important problems. As mentionedpreviously, for some groups it was quite dangerous because of itsflammability; also it was rather expensive because of the price ofcamphor; and, third, it was not suited to high temperatures, whichposed a barrier to many technical applications. This situationprompted several chemists to start searching for an alternative toCelluloid. Other cheaper solvents were tried to replace camphor. Allkinds of chemical additives were studied to temper the flammability.

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    material, they hoped, could be treated like Celluloid. Their strategyto accomplish this was to apply all kinds of different solvents atdifferent stages of the reaction. In the words ofBaekeland, comment-ing on Luft's patent:The whole process of Luft looks clearly like an attempt to make a plasticsimilar to celluloid and to prepare it and to use it as the latter. The similaritybecomes greater by the use of camphor and the same solvents as in thecelluloid process. (Baekeland 1909a, p. 322)However, this strategy did not work in this context and none of thesemen succeeded in making a commercially viable synthetic resin.

    ./

    Different Degrees of Inclusion, or How BaekelandSucceededFinally, I come to Baekeland. My contention is that Baekelandworked to an important degree within the Celluloid frame and thathe worked equally importantly to some extent nol according to thatframe. I want to tackle the descriptional problem by this situation

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    Bakelite 171strategies of the electrochemical engineering frame. He carried out along systematic investigation to study all the different factors bearingon the reaction. This was the first time that anybody had researchedthis, despite Baeyer having observed the condensation reactionthirty-three years earlier.

    This investigation enabled Baekeland to control the violent con-densation reaction. He distinguished three phases in the reaction and,because he could stop the reaction after the first and second phases, hewas able to manipulate the molding mass before it changed duringthe third and final phase of the now well-known (but at that timenotorious) thermosetting plastic. The key element in this procedurewas formulated in the famous "heat-pressure patents" (Baekeland1907a, 1907b). Only when high pressure is applied while heat triggersthe condensation reaction is the production of gaseous productscounteracted; otherwise the product is porous and worthless formolding applications.

    We leave the Bakelite story at this point in order to return to thenotions of technological frame and inclusion.

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    172 Sim/)/ijjing the Complexity

    nological frame should be understood as a frame with respect totechnology, rather than as the technologist's frame.PThe case of the high-wheel Ordinary bicycle (Pinch and Bijker, thisvolume) provides an illustration. The using practice of the socialgroup of "young men of means and nerve," that is, racing, showingoff, and impressing the ladies, constituted the macho machi~e,whereas the using practice of the social groups of women and elderlymen, that is, touring, falling off, and "breaking limbs and bones,"constituted the unsafe machine. The macho machine led to a designtradition with larger wheel radius, and the unsafe machine gave riseto a variety of designs with, for example, smaller wheels, backwardsaddle, or the smaller wheel In front. Thus different using practicesmay bear on the design of artifacts, even though they are elements oftechnological frames of nonengineer~.

    This aspect represents an important difference from most of therelated concepts used by other students of technological develop-ment. The concepts of technological style (Hughes 1983 and thisvolume), technological tradition (Constant 1980, 1984; Laudan,

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    Bakelite 173group structures this attribution of meaning by providing, as it were,a grammar for it. This grammar is used in the interactions ofmembersof that social group, thus resulting in a shared meaning attribution(that the meaning of an artifact is shared among members of a socialgroup is, after all, a key element in the identification of relevant socialgroups; see Pinch and Bijker, this volume). The interactional natureof this concept is needed to account for the emergence and disap-pearance of technological frames. 1..t~sJ},l"1212,gi

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    contrasting the engineer with a relatively low inclusion in a techno-logical frame with the notorious "marginal scientist" as cri ticized byGieryn and Hirsch (1983). There are at least three important differ-ences. First, the marginality concepts discussed by Gieryn and Hirschare one dimensional. For example, in one study scientists are consid-ered marginal if they recently migrated from another field, whereasin another study "marginal" is operationalized as "being young."The different dimensions yield contradictory results: IfGieryn andHirsch could choose any single dimension to characterize a scientist,all ninety-eight scientists of their sample would be marginal. Incontrast, the concept of inclusion is mult idimensional because it isrelated to the multifaceted concept of technological frame. Thus theinclusion of actors in a technological frame can be specified bydescribing their goals, problem-solving strategies, experimental skills,theoretical training, and so on; then one should go on to indicate towhat extent each of these elements is congruent with the respectiveelements of the technological frame. For example, Baekeland's goalswere congruent with the Celluloid producers' technological framein that Baekeland intended mass production of plastic articles; his

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    Bakelite 175

    being invented in such a clear-cut way. In 1907 there was not yet asuccessful innovation Bakelite. The exhibits Baekeland showed dur-ing his presentation at the New York Chemists' Club could haveproved as illusory as the earlier Parkesine exhibits shown at the 1862World Exhibition. The first synthetic plastic that would mark thebeginning of the "plastic era" still had to be constructed. To under-stand this part of the developmental process of Bakelite, we are onceagain helped by the concepts of technological frame and inclusion.No sophisticated chemical experience seemed to be involved in theBakelite process, nor hardly any theory (the macromolecular theoryto describe this type of process was not developed until the 1920s).That is why Baekeland initially envisaged that he himself could stayout of the manufacturing process; his intention was to issue licenses ona royalty plan for the use of his patents, butI soon found I was greatly mistaken in this, and that it would have caused noend of disappointment to teach to others chemical details which, to me,seemed rather simple. (Baekeland 1916, p. 155)

    This is understandable in the light of the previous discussion. The

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    176 SimplifYing the Complexityof the older processes in which these people had become skilled. This ratherunexpected drawback is so true that even to-day the most successful users ofbakelite arejust those who were not engaged in plastic before, this simply forthe reason that they did not have to divorce themselves from the routine ofolder methods, and were willing to listen patiently to suggestions fromnewcomers in the field. (Baekeland 1916, p. 155)

    To establish a social group of Bakelite producers, Baekeland had toenlist people from outside the existing plastics-producing groups orthose with a low inclusion in the Celluloid technological frame. Thusthe social group of Bakelite producers was in the beginning almosttotally congruent with the employees of the Bakelite Corporation.

    Synchronously with the stabilization of the artifact Bakelite and theformation of a social group of producers, a technological frame cameinto being. Thus the system of artifact, social group, and technolog-ical frame gains t echnolog ica l momen tum (Hughes 1983 and this vol-ume). These closely interlinked processes can be traced by followingthe various patent litigation trials and negotiations after 1909. Inthese trials the meaning of Bakelite for this group of producers was

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    One of the last important stages in the social construction ofBakelite was the enrollment of two new but increasingly importantsocial groups: the automobile and radio industries. For the radioindustry, Bakelite was a good insulating molding material, and, es-pecially for the wireless amateur, it also meant a versatile platematerial that could be sawed, drilled, and filed to provide a mountingframe for electrical parts.Baekeland had, as is also evident from his previous projects, anacute insight into the possibilities of the marketplace. This is illus-trated once more in his view of the tasks of an industrial chemist, inwhich he shows once more that there is much more to a successfulinnovation than simply producing a new substance:This question is not just related to the task of creating a certain chemicalsubstance. The subject ismuch more complicated, because the objective is tomanufacture a product in such a way that it can be used reliably for veryspecific technical purposes. (Baekeland 1909b, p. 2007)

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    Figure 2The electric hot water bottle made by R. A. Rothemel, Ltd. Obviously, Bakelitecould not be used as an imitation of the (soft) rubber material, but even in theindustrial design of products that used to be made of rubber, the imitation is evident.Photograph courtesy ofCollectie Becht, Naarden, The Netherlands.

    the production of consumer goods. In its meaning of a moldingmaterial for electrical insulating parts, Bakelite only partially sub-stituted for other materials; many applications were completely new.Bakelite's meaning as a material for consumer goods (figure 2) ismuch more ambivalent. Here, the old tension between an imitationmaterial and a material of its own, so intimately tied up with the

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    Bakelite 179

    Figure 3"De Vergulde Hand" soapbox. Form and decoration of refillable boxes were used toenhance the recognition of the product, even more so than the trademark.Photograph courtesy of Collectie Becht, Naarden, The Netherlands.

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    a b

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    Bakelite 181

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    is Toward a Theory of InventionBy now, the picture has become quite complicated, and I want toconclude by suggesting a way of bringing some order in the chaos ofartifacts, relevant social groups, technological frames, and variation,selection, and stabilization processes. As a first approximation Idistinguish three possible developmental situations in which an ar-tifact can be at a certain moment of time. These situations are charac-terized in terms of the concepts of social group, technological frame,and inclusion. In order to make the account more general, I drawon case studies other than Bakelite-v-the bicycle, the turbojet, andelectric power distribution.

    First, there is the situation in which no one social group with itsaccompanying technological frame is dominant." An example of sucha situation can be found, I think, in the development of the bicycle,around 1880. Although there were many social groups involved, it ishard to see anyone of them dominating the field and structuring withits technological frame the identification of problems and theproblem-solving strategies. The second situation is characterized by

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    Bakelite 183

    bicycle (1881) the small steering wheel was positioned ahead of thehigh wheel; Lawson's Bicyclette (1879) had a chain drive on thesmaller rear wheel. Thus "radically different" means that all aspectsof the bicycle were subject to variation. Hardly any detail of thebicycle was taken for granted, not even the number ofwheels (tri- andquatrocycles were constructed) or the method of foot propulsion(besides moving cranks in a circular motion, various lever deviceswere constructed, requiring a linear vertical motion of the feet).Selection and stabilization of variants will coincide almost totally inthis situation. One of the more important stabilization processes in asituation without a clearly dominant social group and, technologicalframe is enrollment (Calion and Law 1982). In such circumstances asocial group tries to propagate its variant of solution by the enroll-ment of other groups to organize support for its artifact. One way todo this is by the redefinit ion of the problem (Pinch and Bijker, thisvolume). If an artifact (for example, the air tire) offers a solution to aproblem that is not taken seriously by other powerful social groups,then the problem may be redefined in such a way that it does appealto them. The problem for which the air tire first was considered to be a

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    184 Simjliifying the Complexity

    than actors with a high inclusion in the frame. For example, identifi-cation of a presumptive a nomaly will typically occur among engineerswith a relatively low inclusion in the technological frame. A presump-tive anomaly, as Constant describes it,occurs in technology, not when the conventional system fails in any absoluteor objective sense, but when assumptions derived from science indicateeither that under some future conditions the conventional system will fail (orfunction badly) or that a radically different system will do a much better job.(Constant 1980, p. 15)

    For example, aerodynamical theory in the 1920s suggested a futurefailure of the conventional piston engine-propeller system for aircraftpropulsion. Itsuggested that proper streamlining would allow air-craft speeds to be increased at least twofold; the propeller wouldprobably not function at the near-sonic speed that would be neededfor such aircraft speeds; and theory suggested the feasibility of highlyefficient gas turbines. My contention is that especially young, recentlytrained engineers are in a position to recognize and to react on apresumptive anomaly: They are trained within the technological

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    Bakelite 185

    tion between two powerful, equally dominant social groups withrespective technological frames) no one wins a total victory. Amortiza-tio n oj vested interests is the stabilization process that will oft~ri;;-thlsslt~atTon-"{Hughe~ 1 B 3 ) . or course, th~~hetorlcar"closuremechariism-mayalso occur in the second situation, in which onetechnological frame is dominant. The key feature of this closurell1ec~anisl11..s,. after all,. th(tt...t b~ing-;"a"E()uistabil1za1:ion..by '~sh lg 'a;gun 1 ents "t~at"d~";;~t' ca;ry;;uch V\ '~ lght~{!~i r lthe. actor;~ ownte:G'hriological frame but appeal forcef~lly !()act;r~ out~ide it,

    I want to emphasize that the situations I have distinguished do notsucceed one another in any fixed pattern. For example, Baekeland'sfirst work on Bakelite can be understood, I think, as fitting in thesecond type of technology development-one technological frameand Baekeland being lowly included. But the subsequent develop-ment shows various characteristics that are more in line with the firsttype of development, in which no one technological frame is welldeveloped.Conclusion

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    only brought some order out of disorder but also enabled us to relatedifferent case studies to one other.NotesI am grateful to Michel Callon, Ed Constant, Ernst Homburg, Tom Hughes,Stephen Kline, Rachel Laudan, Simone Novaes, Trevor Pinch, Jeffrey Sturchio,Sharon Traweek, and my colleagues at De Boerderij for stimulating comments onprevious drafts of this chapter. Of course, this substantial help does not make me lessresponsible for any remaining flaws in the argument.

    I would like to thank the Stiftung Volkswagenwerk (Federal Republic of Ger-many), the Twente University of Technology, and the Netherlands Organization forthe Advancement of Pure Research (ZWO) for financial support.

    I am grateful to F. A. Becht, Naarden; the Museum Boymans-Van Beuningen,Rotterdam; and the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Insti-tution, Washington, D.C., for permission to reprint their material in the illustrationsof this chapter.1. The phrase "interpretative flexibility" may lead some readers to think, erro-neously, that there is an independent and invariable reality of which only theinterpretations may vary. To avoid this misunderstanding, perhaps we should haveadopted the phrases "artifactual flexibility" and "factual flexibility." I thank Michel

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    Bakelite 187for ages, but now our modern industrial society finds them insufficient to fill all needs.It has to turn elsewhere; it turns to the fourth kingdom-s- Plastics" (followed by acrescendo in the symphonic music, of course). I am grateful to Robert Bud forshowing me excerpts of this film.8.Jenkins (1985) also proposes to link the history of technology and the history of art.In his analysis of some aspects of Edison's designs, he gives some intriguingsuggestions.9. Obviously, it is a matter of personal judgment by the historian to decide whether atechnological frame is dominant or not. I can offer no quasi-objective measuringinstruments for this dominance. In most cases adequate arguments can be given, Ithink, for the choice of relevant social groups, their technological frames, and theirrelative importance. For example, the difference between the first and the thirdsituation is often clear. In the third situation, two powerful social groups, withtechnological frames that can be spelled out easily with respect to the artifacts inquestion, will have developed their two competing artifacts quite well. In the firstsituation, any bizarre variant may be considered and may eventually stabilize. Forexample, Dunlop's air tire became part and parcel of the Safety bicycle without everhaving been propagated from the beginning by one powerful social group.