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Diffusion of general-purpose technologies: understanding patterns in the electrification of US Manufacturing 1880--1930


  • Brent Goldfarb


I examine the diffusion of the electric motor between 1880 and 1930. I find that long lag times are determined by the degree of technical difficulty in application. After solutions became available, electrification generally proceeded rapidly. To make this claim, I explore three industries: urban transit, printing and paper making. I identify points at which viable electric solutions to particular problems were found and examine adoption patterns both before and after these events. The explanation contrasts with common demand-side explanations such as costly user-adaptation or information diffusion, and imposes conditions on the application of standard supply side models. The results are particularly important when examining the diffusion of broadly defined technological categories, such as general-purpose technologies. In the history of diffusion of many innovations, one cannot help being struck by two characteristics of the diffusion process: its apparent overall slowness on the one hand, and the wide variations in the rates of acceptance of different inventions, on the other. (Rosenberg, 1972: 191) Copyright 2005, Oxford University Press.

Suggested Citation

  • Brent Goldfarb, 2005. "Diffusion of general-purpose technologies: understanding patterns in the electrification of US Manufacturing 1880--1930," Industrial and Corporate Change, Oxford University Press, vol. 14(5), pages 745-773, October.
  • Handle: RePEc:oup:indcch:v:14:y:2005:i:5:p:745-773

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Salant, Stephen W, 1984. "Preemptive Patenting and the Persistence of Monopoly: Comment," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 74(1), pages 247-250, March.
    2. Anton, James J & Yao, Dennis A, 1994. "Expropriation and Inventions: Appropriable Rents in the Absence of Property Rights," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 84(1), pages 190-209, March.
    3. Norbäck, Pehr-Johan & Persson, Lars, 2012. "Entrepreneurial innovations, competition and competition policy," European Economic Review, Elsevier, vol. 56(3), pages 488-506.
    4. Nancy T. Gallini & Ralph A. Winter, 1985. "Licensing in the Theory of Innovation," RAND Journal of Economics, The RAND Corporation, vol. 16(2), pages 237-252, Summer.
    5. Pontus Braunerhjelm & Roger Svensson, 2010. "The inventor’s role: was Schumpeter right?," Journal of Evolutionary Economics, Springer, vol. 20(3), pages 413-444, June.
    6. Arora, Ashish & Fosfuri, Andrea & Gambardella, Alfonso, 2001. "Markets for Technology and Their Implications for Corporate Strategy," Industrial and Corporate Change, Oxford University Press, vol. 10(2), pages 419-451, June.
    7. Boone, Jan, 2000. "Competition," CEPR Discussion Papers 2636, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
    8. Granstrand, Ove & Sjölander, Sören, 1990. "The Acquisition of Technology and Small Firms by Large Firms," Working Paper Series 213, Research Institute of Industrial Economics.
    9. Granstrand, Ove & Sjolander, Soren, 1990. "The acquisition of technology and small firms by large firms," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 13(3), pages 367-386, June.
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    Cited by:

    1. Jung, Yonghun & Lee, Seong-Hoon, 2014. "Electrification and productivity growth in Korean manufacturing plants," Energy Economics, Elsevier, vol. 45(C), pages 333-339.
    2. Andergassen, Rainer & Nardini, Franco & Ricottilli, Massimo, 2017. "Innovation diffusion, general purpose technologies and economic growth," Structural Change and Economic Dynamics, Elsevier, vol. 40(C), pages 72-80.
    3. Edquist, Harald & Henrekson, Magnus, 2004. "Technological Breakthroughs and Productivity Growth," SSE/EFI Working Paper Series in Economics and Finance 0562, Stockholm School of Economics, revised 23 Jan 2006.
    4. Mario Coccia, 2017. "General purpose technologies in dynamic systems: visual representation and analyses of complex drivers," IRCrES Working Paper 201705, Research Institute on Sustainable Economic Growth - Moncalieri (TO) ITALY - former Institute for Economic Research on Firms and Growth - Moncalieri (TO) ITALY.
    5. repec:eee:tefoso:v:128:y:2018:i:c:p:287-295 is not listed on IDEAS
    6. Taalbi, Josef, 2017. "Origins and Pathways of Innovation in the Third Industrial Revolution: Sweden, 1950-2013," Lund Papers in Economic History 159, Lund University, Department of Economic History.
    7. Dolata, Ulrich, 2008. "The transformative capacity of new technologies. How innovations affect sectoral change: Conceptual considerations," MPIfG Discussion Paper 08/2, Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies.
    8. Clifford Bekar & Kenneth Carlaw & Richard Lipsey, 2016. "General Purpose Technologies in Theory, Applications and Controversy: A Review," Discussion Papers dp16-15, Department of Economics, Simon Fraser University.
    9. R. Andergassen & F. Nardini & M. Ricottilli, 2013. "Innovation diffusion, technological convergence and economic growth," Working Papers wp912, Dipartimento Scienze Economiche, Universita' di Bologna.

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