The Rise of American Ingenuity: Innovation and Inventors of the Golden Age
By Ufuk Akcigit (University of Chicago), John Grigsby (University of Chicago) and Tom Nicholas (Harvard Business School)
Abstract: We examine the golden age of U.S. innovation by undertaking a major data collection exercise linking historical U.S. patents to state and county-level aggregates and matching inventors to Federal Censuses between 1880 and 1940. We identify a causal relationship between patented inventions and long-run economic growth and outline a basic framework for analyzing key macro and micro-level determinants. We find a positive relationship between innovation and drivers of regional performance including population density, financial development and geographic connectedness. We also explore the impact of social structure measured by slavery and religion. We then profile the characteristics of inventors and their life cycle finding that inventors were highly educated, positively selected through exit early in their careers, made time allocation decisions such as delayed marriage, and tended to migrate to places that were conducive to innovation. Father’s income was positively correlated with becoming an inventor, though not when controlling for the child’s education. We show there were strong financial returns to technological development. Finally, we document an inverted-U shaped relationship between inequality and innovation but also show that innovative places tended to be more socially mobile. Our new data help to address important questions related to innovation and long-run growth dynamics.
Circulated by NEP-HIS on: 2017-01-29
Review by Tom Spain (Bangor University)
In this paper Akcigit, Grisby, and Nicholas highlight the advancement of transportation technology in the United States between 1880 and 1940, while better transport responded to the need to link the more developed and innovative regions of the country. Akcigit, Grisby and Nicholas find that the American transport links were much stronger and of better quality between more developed regions in terms of finance and innovation, which, in turn, Hart and Milstein (2003) point to as key aspects for a successful capitalist society.
Research by Akcigit, Grisby and Nicholas is in line with others such as Harris (2015), who highlights that there is a direct link between advancements in technology and the growth of globalisation. The findings by Akcigit, Grisby and Nicholas, therefore, can be seen as the starting point for the globalisation of the American model of capitalism.
Akcigit, Grisby and Nicholas state that during the 1880s emerged a belief that “geographic connectivity” should increase for there to be a rise in innovation: this increase would open up new markets for businesses to sell to. Here Akcigit, Grisby and Nicholas rehearse a well-recognised argument that improvements in geographic connectivity lead to an increase in globalisation, and, therefore, advancements in transport technology are also an important factor for globalisation (Rodriguez 1999).
Another aspect discussed by Akcigit, Grisby and Nicholas is the link between the amount of investment of American states on transport infrastructure and the amount of innovation emerging from said states. Here it is shown that the more a state invested on transport infrastructure the more innovations came from that state. For instance, the authors mention that in the golden era of innovation the Midwest played a big part in US innovation via manufacturing. However, due to the constant value-seeking attitude towards capitalistic globalisation the contemporary Midwest is not as prosperous as it once was (Castle 1995). However, the question as to whether these states developed in terms of overall population is unanswered. As Banister and Berechman (2001) argue, the geographic connectivity aspects of globalisation may see areas lose resources, skills and, in turn, become poorer.
In terms of what could be improved in the paper by Akcigit, Grisby and Nicholas, the first thing to note is that it only highlights the level of innovation in terms of the amount of granted patents. This is unlike works conducted by the likes of Feldman and Florida (1994) who not only seek to see the level of innovation in each state but also what particular sector the innovations were in. The paper by Feldman and Florida (1994) also provides more detail of how many of the innovations were successful in terms of whether they were the technological underpinnings for future developments in a specific sector.
Akcigit, Grisby and Nicholas suggest that all of the American states where transport and innovation increased also saw a reduction in inequality. In fact, in many cases inequality amongst the most innovative of states rose. This concurs with other research which suggests that inequality is a by-product of globalisation (Piketty and Saez, 2003).
A possible venue of research along the lines suggested by the paper is the importance of the advancement in transport technology and the role that it played in being able to create geographic connectivity. This link can be seen in the work of Usselman (2002).
Banister, D. and Berechman, Y., (2001). “Transport Investment and the Promotion of Economic Growth.” Journal of Transport Geography 9(3), pp.209-218.
Castle, E.N., (1995). The Changing American Countryside: Rural People and Places. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.
Feldman, M.P. and Florida, R., (1994). “The Geographic Sources of Innovation: Technological Infrastructure and Product Innovation in the United States.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 84(2), pp.210-229.
Harris, J., (2015). “Globalization, Technology and the Transnational Capitalist Class.” Foresight 17(2), pp.194 – 207.
Hart, S.L. and Milstein, M.B., (2003). “Creating Sustainable Value.” The Academy of Management Executive 17(2), pp.56-67.
Piketty, T. and Saez, E., (2003). “Income Inequality in the United States, 1913–1998.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 118(1), pp.1-41.
Rodriguez, J.P. (1999). “Globalization and the Synchronization of Transport Terminals.” Journal of Transport Geography 7(4), pp.255-261.
Usselman, S.W. (2002). Regulating Railroad Innovation: Business, Technology, and Politics in America, 1840-1920. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.