Multiple Independent Inventions of a Non-Functional Technology: Combinatorial Descriptive Names in Botany, 1640-1830

Sara Scharf


Historians and sociologists of science usually discuss multiple independent inventions or multiple independent discoveries in terms of priority disputes among the inventors. But what should we make of the multiple invention of a technology that not only gave rise to very few priority disputes, but never worked and was rejected by each inventor’s contemporaries as soon as it was made public? This paper examines seven such situations in the history of botany. I devote particular attention to the inventors’ cultural and educational backgrounds, in particular, the scholastic education most of them shared, through which they would have become familiar with Llullian combinatorics and the mnemonic names used to distinguish syllogistic moods. I also examine their conceptions of the roles of nomenclature in botany, their assumptions about how memory works, their awareness of other similar efforts, and their contemporaries’ reactions to their proposals. Finally, I reflect on the impacts that a consideration of multiple independent inventions of failed technologies may have on current approaches to the history and sociology of science.

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