Harnessing nature's timekeeper: a history of the piezoelectric quartz crystal technological community (1880-1959)
McGahey, Christopher Shawn
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In 1880, French brothers Jacques and Pierre Curie discovered the phenomenon of piezoelectricity in naturally occurring quartz crystal, sometimes referred to as 'nature's timekeeper.' By 1959, tens of millions of devices that exploited quartz crystal's piezoelectric character were being used in the technologies of radio, telephony, and electronic timekeeping. This dissertation analyzes the rapid rise of quartz crystal technology in the United States by looking at the growth of its knowledge base as reflected primarily in patents and journal articles. The major finding of this analysis is that the rise of quartz crystal technology cannot be fully understood by looking only at individuals, institutions, and technological factors. Rather, this work posits that the concept of technological community is indispensible in explaining rapid technological growth and diffusion that would otherwise seem inexplicable. In the late 1920s, and again in the early 1940s, the knowledge base of quartz crystal technology experienced exponential growth, partly due to U.S. government patronage and enlightened regulation. However, as this study shows, quartz crystal engineers, scientists, and entrepreneurs could not have mobilized as quickly and effectively as they did unless a vibrant technological community already existed. Furthermore, the United States' ability to support such a thriving community depended in part on an early 20th century American culture that displayed an unmatched enthusiasm for democratic communications media, most especially broadcast radio and universal telephone service. Archival records, professional journal articles, government reports, manufacturer catalogs, and U.S. patents have been used to document this history of the quartz crystal technological community. This dissertation contributes to the literature on technological communities and their role in facilitating technological and ecomonic growth by showing that though such communities often form spontaneously, their growth may be nurtured and stimulated through enlightened government regulation. As such, this dissertation should be of interest to scholars in the fields of history of technology, business history, management studies, and public policy.