An Example of Technology Diffusion

Binghamton, New York, is one of the few decent-sized cities in the state that’s off the path of the traditional transportation spine: New York-Albany-Buffalo. That inverted L path (north from NYC to Albany, west to Buffalo) was created by nature (the Hudson River is the first leg, the Mohawk River and its valley through the Adirondack Mountains is a big chunk of the second leg) and then followed by, successively, a water route using the Hudson and the Erie Canal, the rail route of the New York Central, and interstate highways 87 and 90. The ten biggest cities in the state are all on that path. Binghamton is not: it’s south of Syracuse and Utica1, and west of Albany, in the mostly-agricultural southern tier.

This baby skyscraper was the headquarters of the Security Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York when it was completed in 1905 and still is today. In that 117 years it’s gone from being a symbol of modernity – one of Binghamton’s very few early skyscrapers – to being a landmark of interest for its age. It’s a fairly generic building with a steel moment frame and a mostly-brick curtain wall.

The architectural designer was T. I. Lacey & Son, a firm based in Binghamton for decades before Security Mutual went up. They also built a number of other big buildings in Binghamton and elsewhere. (They ranged as far as Carbondale, Pennsylvania, where they designed the city hall.) Assuming they were a forward-thinking firm and recognizing that Binghamton was not a backwater but a prosperous small city in a wealthy state, it’s no surprise that they were willing to take on the design of local skyscrapers. By 1905, the basic architectural and structural design of a ten-story steel-frame building had been worked out, published repeatedly in professional journalism, and more or less accepted by the public.

New technology does not appear everywhere all at once. It starts somewhere – in the case of steel-frame skyscrapers, mostly in Chicago and New York2 – and then diffuses out. It can be deliberately copied outside of the ordinary diffusion, which is referred to as “technology transfer” but most of the time diffusion does the job. The best description of this phenomenon comes from William Gibson, a science fiction writer: “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.” The future arrived in Binghamton about twenty years after New York and about ten years after Buffalo.

  1. People in the nineteenth century took the whole “Empire State” thing a little too seriously.
  2. Alphabetical order.
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