Tag Archives: Patents

Linking the Growth of Globalisation with the Evolution of Transport Technology

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.

URL: http://EconPapers.repec.org/RePEc:nbr:nberwo:23047

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.


Brooklyn Bridge, took 14 years to be constructed (1869-1883). Source: Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images, found in The Guardian, “Brooklyn Bridge under construction – picture of the day,Brooklyn Bridge under construction – picture of the day,” May 24, 2013. 

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.


Patents, Super Patents and Innovation at Regional Level

Related Variety, Unrelated Variety and Technological Breakthroughs: An analysis of U.S. state-level patenting

By Carolina Castaldi  (c.castaldi@tue.nl), School of Innovation Sciences, Eindhoven University of Technology

Koen Frenken, (k.frenken@tue.nl) School of Innovation Sciences, Eindhoven University of Technology

Bart Los, (b.los@rug.nl), Groningen Growth and Development Centre

URL: http://econpapers.repec.org/paper/eguwpaper/1302.htm


We investigate how variety affects the innovation output of a region. Borrowing arguments from theories of recombinant innovation, we expect that related variety will enhance innovation as related technologies are more easily recombined into a new technology. However, we also expect that unrelated variety enhances technological breakthroughs, since radical innovation often stems from connecting previously unrelated technologies opening up whole new functionalities and applications. Using patent data for US states in the period 1977-1999 and associated citation data, we find evidence for both hypotheses. Our study thus sheds a new and critical light on the related-variety hypothesis in economic geography.

Review by Anna Missiaia

This paper by Carolina Castaldi, Koen Frenken and Bart Los was distributed by NEP-HIS on 30-03-2013. The paper is not, strictly speaking, an economic or business history paper. However, it provides some very interesting insights on how technological innovation and technological breakthroughs happen. This is a large and expanding field in economic history and on-going research on the economics of innovation, I believe, can be of interest to many of our readers.

Professor Butts and the Self-Operating Napkin: The “Self-Operating Napkin” is activated when the soup spoon (A) is raised to mouth, pulling string (B) and thereby jerking ladle (C) which throws cracker (D) past parrot (E). Parrot jumps after cracker and perch (F) tilts, upsetting seeds (G) into pail (H). Extra weight in pail pulls cord (I), which opens and lights automatic cigar lighter (J), setting off skyrocket (K) which causes sickle (L) to cut string (M) and allow pendulum with attached napkin to swing back and forth, thereby wiping chin. (Rube Goldberg, 1918).

The paper is concerned with the study of how innovation in a region is affected by the connections within its sectors in terms of shared technological competences. The term “variety” conveys this concept. The authors differentiate in two types of variety: related and unrelated variety. The former describes the connection among sectors that are complementary in terms on competences and can easily exchange technological knowledge. Unrelated variety, on the other hand, steams from sectors that do not appear to have complementary technology.

These two different types of variety are useful to distinguish for their effects on innovation. Related variety supports productivity and employment growth at regional level. However, unrelated variety is the one that causes technological breakthroughs, as it brings a completely new type of technology into a sector. In a subsequent stage, unrelated variety becomes related, being absorbed by the new sector.

The paper keeps these two types of variety separate and tests for their effects. The authors use patent data for US states in the period 1977-1999. The methodology implies regressing the number of patents as a proxy for innovation, on measures of related variety, unrelated variety, research and development investment, time trend and state fixed effects.  Variety is measured by looking at the dispersion of the classification of patents within and between technological classes of the patents. The paper also proposes two different regressions, one using the total number of patents as dependent variable and one using the share of superstar patents, which represent patents that lead to breakthrough technologies. Superstar patents are distinguished from “regular” patents according to the distribution of their citations: superstar patents have a fat tail, meaning that they are cited more in later stages of their development compared to regular patents.

A nice contribution of this paper is to measure super patents through their statistical distribution of their citations instead of relying on superimposed criteria such as being on the top 1% or 5% of the citations. The idea here is to distinguish between general innovation (regular patents) and breakthrough innovation (superstar patents). Theory predicts that regular patents will be positively affected by related variety, producing general innovation, while superstar patents will be positively correlated with unrelated variety, producing breakthrough innovation. The empirical analysis nicely confirms the theory.

Technological progress is said to resemble a flight of stairs

The possible shortcomings of the paper are related to the role of geography in the analysis. The sample is at US state level and the underlying implication is that variety in the state affects the number of patents registered in it. There could be, under this assumptions, some issues of spatial dependence. The authors touch upon this point in two parts of the paper: in the methodology section they explain that superstar patents tend to cluster in fewer states that general patents and this pattern requires a different approach for the two types of patents. It would be useful if this issue could be elaborated further by the authors in a future version of the paper.

As for the possible spatial dependence effect among explanatory variables, the authors try to control for the fact that R&D in one state could affect the patent output of neighboring states as well. They construct an adjacency matrix to capture the effect of the R&D effort of neighboring states.

The conclusion is that the analysis is robust to spatial dependence. In spite of this robustness check for spatial dependence, some concerns remain. Restricting the R&D effect only to neighboring states could be a limit, as the effect could not only go through physical proximity, but also through other types of connections: for example, the same firm could have different branches in different non-adjacent states, leading to an influence not captured by the adjacency matrix.

In short, this paper provides a very interesting insight on how two types of innovations can arise as measured by patent citations at regional level. The results are consistent with the theory and could be useful to future research in historical perspective. A further improvement of the paper could be to conduct more robustness check on the geographical aspects of these results, especially expanding them to non-adjacent states.

Images of the future technology – The Jetsons, 1962

To patent or not to patent, that is the question

Inventors, Patents and Inventive Activities in the English Brewing Industry, 1634-1850

Alessandro Nuvolari (alessandro.nuvolari@sssup.it) and James Sumner (james.sumner@manchester.ac.uk)

URL: http://ideas.repec.org/p/ssa/lemwps/2012-18.html


This paper examines the relationship between patents, appropriability strategies and market for technologies in the English brewing industry before 1850. Previous research has pointed to the apparent oddity that large-scale brewing in this period was characterized both by a self-aware culture of rapid technological innovation, and by a remarkably low propensity to patent. Our study records how brewery innovators pursued a wide variety of highly distinct appropriability strategies, including secrecy, selective revealing, patenting, and open innovation and knowledge-sharing for reputational reasons. All these strategies could co-exist, although some brewery insiders maintained a suspicion of the promoters of patent technologies which faded only in the nineteenth century. Furthermore, we find evidence that sophisticated strategies of selective revealing could support trade in inventions even without the use of the patent system.

Review by Chris Colvin

Much about the recent legal dispute between Apple and Samsung suggests that our patent system is broken. The conventional economic argument for patent protection is that it is socially beneficial because it: (1) incentivises invention in areas where there would otherwise be few rewards for inventors; and (2) aids in the dissemination of ideas and combats secrecy (for a good explanation of the conventional view, see Suzanne Scotchmer’s excellent textbook). But in their 2008 polemic, and again in a recent working paper, Michele Boldrin and David K Levine argue that patents create only ‘an “intellectual monopoly” that hinders rather than helps the competitive free market regime that has delivered wealth and innovation to our doorsteps’. The authors argue instead that: (1) patents neither increase invention, nor adequately reward inventors; and (2) patents simply create a market in patents and in associated legal services.

Nuvolari and Sumner try to understand the remarkably low propensity to patent in brewing before 1850.

It is against this on-going debate on the value and efficacy of patent protection that Alessandro Nuvolari and James Sumner’s new working paper should be read. Distributed on NEP-HIS-2012-11-03, the paper offers an excellent industry case study from history with which to understand the role of patents within a single sector. Nuvolari (Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna, Pisa) and Sumner (University of Manchester) track their use in the brewing industry before, during and after the Industrial Revolution. Not only do they compile a new dataset of patents and patentees in brewing across the period, but they also catalogue alternative appropriability strategies used by innovators at the time: trade secrecy, complete openness, and everything between. Of particular interest to economists and historians studying innovation and incentives are the authors’ findings that the strategies of “insiders” and “outsiders” to the brewing industry differed substantially, and that there was a large trade in inventions, even for those that were not protected by patents.

Today, and with few exceptions, we have a one-size-fits-all patent system that offers the same levels of protection to inventors in all sectors of the economy. One mooted solution to our current patent mess is that these government-granted monopoly rights should be redesigned to be sector-specific; they are perhaps more appropriate to some industries than others and should have different protection lengths, breadths and costs to reflect this. For example, patents that relate to tablet computers should be weakened, whilst those relating to pharmaceuticals strengthened. Nuvolari and Sumner give us a warning shot from history for policymakers considering such an approach: a great deal of different appropriability strategies can be present even within the same industrial sector, let alone between sectors. Redesigning today’s patent system to be sector-specific would fail to reflect the different ways in which inventors compete; it may force rivals to use the same strategies, and may hamper rather than help progress.