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General Purpose Technologies and Productivity Surges: Historical Reflections on the Future of the ICT Revolution


  • Paul A. David

    (All Souls College & Stanford University)

  • Gavin Wright

    (All Souls College & Stanford University)


Presented to the International Symposium on ECONOMIC CHALLENGES OF THE 21ST CENTURY IN HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE, Oxford, England, 2nd-4th July, 1999 Celebrating the Scholarly Career of Charles H. Feinstein, FBA. Re- examination of early twentieth century American productivity growth experience sheds light on the general phenomenon of recurring prolonged swings in total factor productivity (TFP) growth rate experienced in the advanced industrial economies. After a “productivity slowdown” lasting more than a quarter of a century (during which TFP for in the manufacturing sector grew at less than 1 percent per annum, industrial TFP surged to average 6 percent per annum during 1919-29. This contributed substantially to the absolute and relative rise of the US domestic economy’s TFP residual, and in many respects it may be seen as the opening of the high-growth era that persisted into the 1970s. The productivity surge marked the culminating phase in the diffusion of “the dynamo” as a general purpose technology (GPT); that saw a shift in the underlying technological regime brought about by the implementation of critical engineering and organizational advances originating in some two decades earlier. Closer analysis reveals the significant concurrence of the factory electrification movement in this period with important structural changes that were taking place in US labor markets; in addition, there were significant complementarities between managerial and organizational innovations and the new dynamo-based factory technology, on the one hand, and, and the reinforcement of both kinds of innovation by the macroeconomic conditions of the 1920s. This more complicated, historical view of the dynamics of GPT diffusion is supported by comparisons of the US experience of factory electrification with the developments taking place in Japanese industry during the 1920’s, and in the UK manufacturing sector during the 1930’s. Concluding sections of the paper reflect on the analogies and contrasts between the historical case of a socio-economic regime transition involving the electric dynamo and the modern experience of the information and communications technology (ICT) revolution. Our formulation the GPT concept in explicitly historical terms contributes to explaining the paradoxical phenomenon of the late twentieth century productivity slowdown in the US. It also points to some contemporary portents of a future phase of more rapid ICT-based growth in total factor productivity.

Suggested Citation

  • Paul A. David & Gavin Wright, 2005. "General Purpose Technologies and Productivity Surges: Historical Reflections on the Future of the ICT Revolution," Economic History 0502002, University Library of Munich, Germany.
  • Handle: RePEc:wpa:wuwpeh:0502002
    Note: Type of Document - pdf; pages: 42

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. David, P.A., 1989. "Computer And Dynamo: The Modern Productivity Paradox In A Not-Too Distant Mirror," The Warwick Economics Research Paper Series (TWERPS) 339, University of Warwick, Department of Economics.
    2. Paul David & Gavin Wright, 1999. "Early Twentieth Century Productivity Growth Dynamics: An Inquiry into the Economic History of Our Ignorance," Oxford Economic and Social History Working Papers _033, University of Oxford, Department of Economics.
    3. Claudia Goldin & Lawrence F. Katz, 1998. "The Origins of Technology-Skill Complementarity," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 113(3), pages 693-732.
    4. Feinstein, Charles H. & Temin, Peter & Toniolo, Gianni, 1997. "The European Economy Between the Wars," OUP Catalogue, Oxford University Press, number 9780198774815.
    5. Robert J. Gordon, 1999. "U.S. Economic Growth since 1870: One Big Wave?," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 89(2), pages 123-128, May.
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    Cited by:

    1. Koski, Heli & Kretschmer, Tobias, 2010. "New product development and firm value in mobile handset production," Information Economics and Policy, Elsevier, vol. 22(1), pages 42-50, March.
    2. 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.
    3. Bronwyn H. Hall & Manuel Trajtenberg, 2004. "Uncovering GPTS with Patent Data," NBER Working Papers 10901, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    4. Francesco Vona & Francesco Nicolli & Lionel Nesta, 2012. "Determinants of renewable energy innovation: environmental policies vs. market regulation," Sciences Po publications 2012-05, Sciences Po.
    5. repec:ebl:ecbull:v:15:y:2006:i:7:p:1-8 is not listed on IDEAS
    6. Kenneth Carlaw & Richard Lipsey, 2011. "Sustained endogenous growth driven by structured and evolving general purpose technologies," Journal of Evolutionary Economics, Springer, vol. 21(4), pages 563-593, October.
    7. Timothy F Bresnahan, 2019. "Technological change in ICT in light of ideas first learned about the machine tool industry," Industrial and Corporate Change, Oxford University Press, vol. 28(2), pages 331-349.
    8. Müge Adalet McGowan & Dan Andrews & Valentine Millot, 2017. "Insolvency Regimes, Technology Diffusion and Productivity Growth: Evidence from Firms in OECD Countries," OECD Economics Department Working Papers 1425, OECD Publishing.

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    • N - Economic History

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