Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. In his work is it possible to see the supposed separation of technical and social factors? Edison has been studied by Thomas Hughes in the context of the electrification of the United States (1983, 1985).
Edison did not just ‘invent’ the lightbulb. The model of technology which supposes the application of reason to material and objective reality is not at all adequate. The light bulb was part of a sociotechnical system which required and enabled its invention and use. Edison was a system builder (Hughes 1987). He worked on inanimate physical materials, on and through people, texts, devices, councils, architectures, utility companies, economic considerations … . He travelled between these different domains weaving an emergent web which constituted and reconstituted the bits and pieces that it brought together. In the history of Hughes the distinctions between humans and technical devices is subordinated to exploring a sociotechnical system: cable laying, electrical transmissions and resistances, city power stations, politics of city government, gas utility companies, laboratory experimentation. It was the characteristics of this network that conditioned the design of the light bulb – down to the material of the filament which had to perform in a particular way to suit the rest of the network.
In the words of John Law, Edison was a heterogeneous engineer, linking diverse elements in his work, elements which do not respect the conventional and abstract boundaries between people and things, the social and the technical (Law 1987).
Many other works in the sociology and history of technology and science reveal this intermixture of people and things (Mackenzie and Wajcman (eds) 1985; Bijker, Hughes and Pinch (eds) 1987; Elliott (ed) 1988; Law (ed) 1991; Latour 1987, 1988). Their ‘thick description’ results in concepts such as heterogeneous engineering, seamless webs (Hughes 1988), actor networks (Callon 1987, 1991), wherein are no absolute distinctions and categorisations; they are all being historically defined and redefined.