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A General Purpose Technology at Work: The Corliss Steam Engine in the Late 19th Century

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  • Rosenberg, Nathan
  • Trajtenberg, Manuel

Abstract

The steam engine is widely regarded as the icon of the Industrial Revolution and a prime example of a ‘General Purpose Technology,’ and yet its contribution to growth is far from transparent. This Paper examines the role that a particular innovative design in steam power, the Corliss engine, played in the intertwined processes of industrialization and urbanization that characterized the growth of the US economy in the late 19th century. Waterpower offered abundant and cheap energy, but restricted the location of manufacturing just to areas with propitious topography and climate. Steam engines offered the possibility of relaxing this severe constraint, allowing industry to locate where key considerations such as access to markets for inputs and outputs directed. The enhanced performance of the Corliss engine as well as its fuel efficiency helped tip the balance in favour of steam in the fierce contest with waterpower. With the aid of detailed data on the location of Corliss engines and waterwheels and a two-stage estimation strategy, we show that the deployment of Corliss engines indeed served as a catalyst for the massive relocation of industry away from rural areas and into large urban centers, thus fuelling agglomeration economies, and attracting further population growth. This illustrates what we believe is an important aspect of the dynamics of GPTs, whether it is electricity in the early 20th century or Information Technologies in the present era: the fact that GPTs induce the widespread and more efficient relocation of economic activity, which in turn fosters long-term growth.

Suggested Citation

  • Rosenberg, Nathan & Trajtenberg, Manuel, 2001. "A General Purpose Technology at Work: The Corliss Steam Engine in the Late 19th Century," CEPR Discussion Papers 3008, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
  • Handle: RePEc:cpr:ceprdp:3008
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    1. Bresnahan, Timothy F. & Trajtenberg, M., 1995. "General purpose technologies 'Engines of growth'?," Journal of Econometrics, Elsevier, vol. 65(1), pages 83-108, January.
    2. Sokoloff, Kenneth L., 1988. "Inventive Activity in Early Industrial America: Evidence From Patent Records, 1790–1846," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 48(04), pages 813-850, December.
    3. Nathan Rosenberg, 2009. "Uncertainty and Technological Change," World Scientific Book Chapters,in: Studies On Science And The Innovation Process Selected Works of Nathan Rosenberg, chapter 8, pages 153-172 World Scientific Publishing Co. Pte. Ltd..
    4. Helpman, Elhanan & Trajtenberg, Manuel, 1994. "A Time to Sow and a Time to Reap: Growth Based on General Purpose Technologies," CEPR Discussion Papers 1080, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
    5. Paul Krugman, 1992. "Geography and Trade," MIT Press Books, The MIT Press, edition 1, volume 1, number 0262610868, January.
    6. Temin, Peter, 1966. "Steam and Waterpower in the Early Nineteenth Century," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 26(02), pages 187-205, June.
    7. Atack, Jeremy & Bateman, Fred & Weiss, Thomas, 1980. "The Regional Diffusion and Adoption of the Steam Engine in American Manufacturing," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 40(02), pages 281-308, June.
    8. Chandler, Alfred D., 1972. "Anthracite Coal and the Beginnings of the Industrial Revolution in the United States," Business History Review, Cambridge University Press, vol. 46(02), pages 141-181, June.
    9. Atack, Jeremy, 1979. "Fact in fiction? The relative costs of steam and water power: a simulation approach," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 16(4), pages 409-437, October.
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    Citations

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    Cited by:

    1. Atack, Jeremy & Bateman, Fred & Margo, Robert A., 2008. "Steam power, establishment size, and labor productivity growth in nineteenth century American manufacturing," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 45(2), pages 185-198, April.
    2. Josef Falkinger & Volker Grossmann, 2005. "Institutions and Development: The Interaction Between Trade Regime and Political System," Journal of Economic Growth, Springer, vol. 10(3), pages 231-272, September.
    3. Piva, Mariacristina., 2004. "The impact of technology transfer on employment and income distribution in developing countries : a survey of theoretical models and empirical studies," ILO Working Papers 993666903402676, International Labour Organization.
    4. 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.
    5. Thomas Hempell, 2005. "Does experience matter? innovations and the productivity of information and communication technologies in German services," Economics of Innovation and New Technology, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 14(4), pages 277-303.
    6. Carolina Castaldi & Alessandro Nuvolari, 2004. "Technological Revolutions and Economic Growth: The “Age of Steam” Reconsidered," LEM Papers Series 2004/11, Laboratory of Economics and Management (LEM), Sant'Anna School of Advanced Studies, Pisa, Italy.
    7. repec:ebl:ecbull:v:15:y:2006:i:7:p:1-8 is not listed on IDEAS
    8. Falkinger, Josef & Grossmann, Volker, 2005. "Distribution of Natural Resources, Entrepreneurship, and Economic Development: Growth Dynamics with Two Elites," IZA Discussion Papers 1756, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
    9. Mauro Napoletano & Andrea Roventini & Sandro Sapio, 2004. "Yeast vs. Mushrooms: A Note on Harberger's "A Vision of the Growth Process"," LEM Papers Series 2004/03, Laboratory of Economics and Management (LEM), Sant'Anna School of Advanced Studies, Pisa, Italy.
    10. Sukkoo Kim, 2005. "Industrialization and Urbanization: Did the Steam Engine Contribute to the Growth of Cities in the United States?," NBER Working Papers 11206, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    11. Nicholas Crafts, 2004. "Steam as a general purpose technology: A growth accounting perspective," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 114(495), pages 338-351, April.
    12. Sukkoo Kim, 2006. "Division of Labor and the Rise of Cities: Evidence from U.S. Industrialization, 1850-1880," NBER Working Papers 12246, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    13. Sandro Sapio & Grid Thoma, 2006. "The Growth of Industrial Sectors: Theoretical Insights and Empirical Evidence from U.S. Manufacturing," LEM Papers Series 2006/09, Laboratory of Economics and Management (LEM), Sant'Anna School of Advanced Studies, Pisa, Italy.

    More about this item

    Keywords

    General Purpose technologies; growth; steam engine; urbanization; waterpower;

    JEL classification:

    • O18 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Economic Development - - - Urban, Rural, Regional, and Transportation Analysis; Housing; Infrastructure
    • O40 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Economic Growth and Aggregate Productivity - - - General

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