I’ve just been reading a fascinating new book, Structures of Change in the Mechanical Age, by Ross Thompson (published 2009). It’s a fairly detailed study of technological innovation from 1790 through 1865, in a range of industries. Several histories have been written about how innovation systems emerged in the late 19th century: systems that included universities and technical institutes, research laboratories, and government agencies. Thomas Edison’s research laboratory, with its structured approach to invention, flourished in the late 19th century. But Thompson’s book is the first one to examine the innovation systems of the antebellum U.S.
The conclusion that I find the most intriguing is that, even in this early period, innovation occurred more rapidly in collaborative webs–networked groups of creators. As Thompson writes, “early in the development of any innovation, inventors and users formed networks that communicated technological knowledge and addressed problems….Networks sped diffusion by building on already high mobility among firms…For the economy as a whole, innovation consisted of a number of paths, each resting on distinct knowledge transmitted in different networks” (p. 315).
Thompson studied thirteen technologies that experienced significant patenting during this period: 1660 inventors from 1836 through 1865 that received over 6,900 patents. The inventors who were networked with others were about two-fifths of all inventors. The networked inventors averaged 2.8 patents whereas the non-networked inventors averaged only 1.9. Many innovations occurred when inventors moved from one field to another. Machinists spread machine-tool techniques as they moved among industries (locomotives, sewing machines, and shoe machines). Engineers used canal methods to build railroads (p. 316). I leave you with this important statement:
“The mobility of workers supported development in a wide range of sectors.” (p. 316)