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The Rate and Direction of Invention in the British Industrial Revolution: Incentives and Institutions

  • Ralf Meisenzahl
  • Joel Mokyr
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    During the Industrial Revolution technological progress and innovation became the main drivers of economic growth. But why was Britain the technological leader? We argue that one hitherto little recognized British advantage was the supply of highly skilled, mechanically able craftsmen who were able to adapt, implement, improve, and tweak new technologies and who provided the micro inventions necessary to make macro inventions highly productive and remunerative. Using a sample of 759 of these mechanics and engineers, we study the incentives and institutions that facilitated the high rate of inventive activity during the Industrial Revolution. First, apprenticeship was the dominant form of skill formation. Formal education played only a minor role. Second, many skilled workmen relied on secrecy and first-mover advantages to reap the benefits of their innovations. Over 40 percent of the sample here never took out a patent. Third, skilled workmen in Britain often published their work and engaged in debates over contemporary technological and social questions. In short, they were affected by the Enlightenment culture. Finally, patterns differ for the textile sector; therefore, any inferences from textiles about the whole economy are likely to be misleading.

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    Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 16993.

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    Date of creation: Apr 2011
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    Publication status: published as The Rate and Direction of Invention in the British Industrial Revolution: Incentives and Institutions , Ralf R. Meisenzahl, Joel Mokyr. in The Rate and Direction of Inventive Activity Revisited , Lerner and Stern. 2012
    Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:16993
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    1. Jasjit Singh & Ajay Agrawal, 2011. "Recruiting for Ideas: How Firms Exploit the Prior Inventions of New Hires," Management Science, INFORMS, vol. 57(1), pages 129-150, January.
    2. Patrick Wallis, 2007. "Apprenticeship and training in premodern England," Economic History Working Papers 22515, London School of Economics and Political Science, Department of Economic History.
    3. Sascha O. Becker & Erik Hornung & Ludger Woessmann, 2009. "Catch Me If You Can: Education and Catch-up in the Industrial Revolution," CESifo Working Paper Series 2816, CESifo Group Munich.
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