A General Purpose Technology at Work: The Corliss Steam Engine in the late 19th Century US
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 favor 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 fueling 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.
|Date of creation:||Sep 2001|
|Date of revision:|
|Publication status:||published as Rosenberg, Nathan and Manuel Trajtenberg. "A General Purpose Technology at Work: The Corliss Steam Engine in the late 19th Century US." The Journal of Economic History 64, 1 (March 2004): 61-99.|
|Contact details of provider:|| Postal: National Bureau of Economic Research, 1050 Massachusetts Avenue Cambridge, MA 02138, U.S.A.|
Web page: http://www.nber.org
More information through EDIRC
Please report citation or reference errors to , or , if you are the registered author of the cited work, log in to your RePEc Author Service profile, click on "citations" and make appropriate adjustments.:
- Nathan Rosenberg, 1996. "Uncertainty and technological change," Conference Series ; [Proceedings], Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, vol. 40(Jun), pages 91-125.
- Elhanan Helpman & Manuel Trajtenberg, 1994.
"A Time to Sow and a Time to Reap: Growth Based on General Purpose Technologies,"
NBER Working Papers
4854, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
- 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.
- 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.
- Trajtenberg, M. & Bresnahan, T.F., 1992.
"General Purpose Technologies: "Engines of Growth","
16-92, Tel Aviv.
- 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.
- 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.
- Kenneth L. Sokoloff, 1988.
"Inventive Activity in Early Industrial America: Evidence From Patent Records, 1790 - 1846,"
NBER Working Papers
2707, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
- 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.
- Kenneth L. Sokoloff, 1988. "Inventive Activity in Early Industrial America: Evidence From Patent Records, 1790-1846," UCLA Economics Working Papers 499, UCLA Department of Economics.
When requesting a correction, please mention this item's handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:8485. See general information about how to correct material in RePEc.
For technical questions regarding this item, or to correct its authors, title, abstract, bibliographic or download information, contact: ()
If references are entirely missing, you can add them using this form.