In this paper we analyse the early development of the steam engine as a search process in a multidimensional design space. This conceptualisation allows us to make use of recent insights coming from complex systems theory, in particular, a generalised version of
Kauffman’s NK model. We analyse yearly distribution of steam engine designs and their
sector of applications for the period 1760-1800. We interpret the patterns of variety and
differentiation characterizing the behaviour of these distributions as emerging properties of
underlying search processes unfolding on the design space. We conclude that the early
development of steam power technology can be understood as a process of ‘technological
speciation’ of various engine designs in distinct users’ niches.
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