Will We Ever Invent Anything Important Again?

Two professors at Northwestern University have been arguing: Is the age of innovation coming to an end?

Professor Robert Gordon, a 73-year-old economist, argues that we’re nearing the end of a historically unusual period of rapid innovation. Professor Gordon knows that we’ve invented many amazing things in the past 250 years; he just thinks today’s innovations are puny by comparison. Reading the historical list, one might be tempted to agree with him: indoor plumbing, running water, urban sanitation, steam power, electricity (and everything enabled by it: telephone, television, air conditioning), antibiotics. Many of these innovations saved millions of lives each year. Even the most optimistic Internet visionaries can’t believe that Uber or Instagram will do that. Dr. Gordon likes to ask: if you had to choose, would you give up indoor plumbing, or your iPhone?

His colleague, Professor Joel Mokyr, a 67-year-old economist, argues that technological innovation is most likely to continue its historical trajectory, and perhaps even to accelerate. The Wall Street Journal published an article about this debate on June 16, 2014 (subscriber content only), with a graph showing a fairly linear increase in GDP per capita, like the one below.

Most economists agree with Professor Mokyr that this historical rate of growth will continue, and that it will be driven by technological innovation.

So what do you think? Are you an innovation optimist, or an innovation pessimist?

Innovation in the 19th Century

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)