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Transferring technical knowledge and innovating in Europe, c.1200-c.1800


  • Epstein, Stephan R.


The role of technology in the transition from premodern to modern economies in late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe is among the major questions in economic history, but it is still poorly understood. A plausible explanation of premodern European technological development must account for why Europe industrialised in advance of the great Asian civilisations, despite still being a comparative backwater in the twelfth century. What appears to set Western Europe apart is not that technological progress occurred at a faster rate than elsewhere, but that progress was more persistent and uninterrupted. The technical knowledge of premodern craftsmen and engineers was largely experience-based; thus, virtually all premodern technical knowledge was, and had to be, transferred in the flesh. However, the implications for premodern economic history of the basic cognitive limitations to how technical knowledge can be expressed, processed, and transmitted have yet to be examined in any detail. This paper asks how premodern European societies were able to generate incremental technical innovation under three headings: How was premodern technical knowledge stored to avoid loss? How were tacit, visual, verbal, and written means of transmission used heuristically? How was established and new knowledge transmitted?

Suggested Citation

  • Epstein, Stephan R., 2005. "Transferring technical knowledge and innovating in Europe, c.1200-c.1800," Economic History Working Papers 22547, London School of Economics and Political Science, Department of Economic History.
  • Handle: RePEc:ehl:wpaper:22547

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. David E. Wildasin, 2000. "Labor-Market Integration, Investment in Risky Human Capital, and Fiscal Competition," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 90(1), pages 73-95, March.
    2. Allen, Robert C., 1983. "Collective invention," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 4(1), pages 1-24, March.
    3. Epstein, S. R., 1998. "Craft Guilds, Apprenticeship, and Technological Change in Preindustrial Europe," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 58(03), pages 684-713, September.
    4. Griffiths, Trevor & Hunt, Philip A. & O'Brien, Patrick K., 1992. "Inventive Activity in the British Textile Industry, 1700–1800," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 52(04), pages 881-906, December.
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    JEL classification:

    • O3 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Innovation; Research and Development; Technological Change; Intellectual Property Rights
    • O52 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Economywide Country Studies - - - Europe
    • B1 - Schools of Economic Thought and Methodology - - History of Economic Thought through 1925


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