Lever of Riches

  • p6 “technical change is like God. It is much discussed, worshipped by some, rejected by others, but little understood” - Thomson, an economic historian
  • p9 Herjee asserts that technological change cannot be explained by standard economic theory of rational choices subject to known constraints
  • “Technological change involves an attack by an individual on a constraint that everyone else takes as given”
  • Francis bacon asserted that there were two kinds of inventions
    • Inventions that required all the current state of knowledge
    • Inventions that could have been invented at any time. Hard to know whether these were pushed by unique external circumstances
      • Wheelbarrow
      • Stirrup
  • Mokyr asserts that telling the difference between the two is hard
  • p10 Mokyr defines inventions as “an increment in the set of the total technological knowledge of a given society, which is the union of all sets of individual technical knowledge”
  • Unapplied knowledge makes no difference to economic welfare
  • “At any moment there is a large gap between average and best practice technology; reducing this gap by disseminating the techniques used by producers at the cutting edge of knowledge is technological progress without invention.”
  • “without further increments in knowledge, technological diffusion and the closing of the gap between practices will run into diminishing returns and eventually exhaust itself”
  • Invention and Innovation are compliments
  • Invention is an individual act and depends on things that affect individuals
  • Innovation is a group act and depends on things that affect inter-individual interactions
  • Technological invention involves getting the environment to yield secrets and then manipulating those secrets.
  • Three conditions for technologically creative society
    • Challengers: resourceful people who are willing and able to challenge environment for their own improvement
    • Incentives for the challengers to do their work
    • Openness to new things
  • Conception of a technology is important even though there is a learning process where costs decline
  • Microinventions are the “small incremental steps that improve adapt and streamline existing techniques already in use, reducing costs, improving form and function.
  • Macroinventions are where “a radical new idea without clear precedent emerges more or less ab nihilo”
  • A dispensability axiom is of the form “if X had not Y, it would have been done by Z”
  • The dispensability axiom holds for some inventions but not others
    • incandescent Lightbulb
    • telephone
  • Mokyr claims the dispensability axiom does not hold for many inventions
  • Analogy - both privates and generals are important but saying “Napoleon won the battle” is a useful shorthand
  • Whiggish interpretations of history are ones where it is a story of progress
  • People’s ability to manipulate nature has increased
  • Costs of bundles of goods have decreased
  • Greeks and Romans had different views of technological success and progress and did well on their metrics
  • Early Iron Age (1100-500BC) saw a ton of invention
    • iron
    • lathes, saws, pegs
    • shears
    • scythes
    • axes
    • picks
    • shovels
    • rotary quern
    • Ships
    • wagons
  • Hellinistic inventors pioneered “machines”
    • lever
    • wedge
    • screw
  • Simple machines were used in war but few other places, even though the same principles were used thousands of years later
  • Hero of Alexandria created
    • Aeolipile - steam engine used to open temple doors
    • Coin operated vending machine for holy water
    • Dioptra - similar to modern transit for surveying
    • combined theodolite with the level
  • Ctesibius (3rd c bc)
    • hydraulic organ
    • metal springs
    • water clock
    • force pump
  • “The binding constraint on metallurgical technology was the inability of ancient blacksmiths to produce iron at temperatures high enough for casting”
  • Celts invented many things
    • Harvesting machines
    • Barrels
    • enameling
    • spoked wheel
    • soap
    • advanced ironworking
    • pegs to function as bearings
  • Middle Ages culture continued to not prioritize invention
    • “The upper classes devoted themselves to the subtle art of hacking each other to pieces with even greater dedication than the romans had”
  • p32
  • Pulverizing soil prevents evaporation and brings subsoil minerals to the surface via capillary action
  • Shifting the sail spar over the mast during tacking prevented the romans from building larger ships using fore and aft riggings
  • Lateen sails solved that problem and allowed ships to sail 65 degrees off the wind
  • Penetration of paper into norther Europe was slow (took until 13th c.) even though Muslim world was using it a lot
  • Claims “A process to separate silver from copper ores by means of lead, developed around 1450, was the most important discovery of this age”
  • Diagram of weight driven clock
  • Clocks created a the concept of communicable facts and concepts (“I-see-what-you-see” information diffusion)
  • Buttons created in 1230’s in Germany
  • Buttons never invented in asia
  • Innovations (esp chemical) were created with no theory of how it worked and for the most part with an intention to do alchemy.
    • Progress was attained by thousands of forgotten tinkerers and craftsmen, often replicating each other, many of them wasting their creative energy in the fruitless pursuit of alchemy and other dead ends
  • Many inventions were imagined in 1500-1750 that couldn’t be executed on
  • New husbandry techniques led to increased output in 1500-1750
  • The “dutch” plow was patented in England :troll:
  • Technical literature emerged from how-to books after 1450 - first time engineers were writing for other engineers
  • technical literature described machines that were state of the art more complex or expensive than most people could build
  • hard to adapt machines between sites because of lack of skilled labor
  • British bounty for building an accurate clock that could be used on a ship to find longitude had a bounty of 20000 lbs in 1714.
  • The bounty wasn’t claimed until 1762 by John Harrison
  • 17th century instrument making involved apprenticeship, making their own tools. Art not science.
    Instrument making in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was an art, not a standardized technique. Most imporvements were the result of serendipity and trial-and-error searches. Learning and training took place mostly through apprenticing and informal contact. Mechanics had to build their own parts and often the gap between the visionary who saw what might be done and the craftsman whose material and tools limited what could be done was too wide to be bridged.
  • The renaissance was unique because people doing science also created technology.
  • Before the rennaisance there was a distinction between thinkers and makers.
  • After the renaissance there was the distinction between scientists and engineers.
  • Arabic numerals were introduced by Leonardo Fibonacci of Pisa in the book Liber Abaci in 1202.
  • William Oughtred, the Rector of Albury in England created the slide rule in 1621
  • 1588 - Giambastia della Porta created an egg incubator which he stopped after the inquisition clamped down. The technology was continued by a dutchmen and a frenchmen.
  • Huegonauts were technically skilled and were kicked out of France which led to one helping Huygens invest the steam engine in Holland.
  • Manufacturing moved to the countryside in 1500-1750 because of guild restrictions on technological progress.
  • There is no settled definition of the industrial revolution
  • Wrigley proposes that it was a substitution of inorganic for organic materials
  • Cipolla proposes that it is an increase in energy inputs and a focus on steam
  • Paulinyi proposes that the industrial revolution was a focus on machines instead of hand tools
  • Many different things were improved that actually had few things in common
  • Some industries changed a lot and some not at all
  • Technological innovation revolved around individuals in the industrial revolution
  • <quote about characteristics of innovators> 91
  • The breast wheel was more efficient than the overshot and undershot waterwheels
  • Cort combined a number of innovations together to create a better process for making iron in 1784
  • The product that resisted innovation most stubbornly was steel 🥰
  • The self-acting mule was adopted extremely slowly despite obvious advantages because
    • they were expensive and sources of capital were scarce
    • self actors were good for lower quality yarn until 1860
    • Non-self acting mules needed skilled ‘minders’ who would not need to be skilled
  • The foudrinier machine reduced the time to make a piece of paper from 3 weeks to 3 minutes
  • Gas lamps had little direct impact on wellbeing but a huge impact on wellbeing
  • The first commercialization of gas lighting was a single factory owned by the company that bought the patent to the lamp
  • Aimé Argand put together the different pieces of knowledge for the gas lamp in the early 1780’s
  • Argand died poor because there was no way to prevent imitation of his lamp
  • Mining output in the industrial revolution increased because there were more resources devoted to it, not better tech. The demand curve did not change shape.
  • Ballooning (1783) had few economic impacts but large effects
  • In the 1800’sThe number of technological breakthroughs that were purely empyrical did not decline though their relative importance did
  • Increasing returns to scale (which happened in the 19th century) changes the way we think about research, development, diffusion, and adoption.
  • Structural constraints occur when you have multiple pieces interacting in a complex system
  • Before the 19th century, most technology stood as discrete chunks. After the 19th century it became a complex system.
  • Paul David asserts that in complex systems, certain components will hold back the whole system because those components need to comply with existing standards.
  • Ships are some of the first examples of these complex systems.
  • Pooling resources to purchase high capital cost equipment gave rise to larger firms
  • Henry Bessemer figured out the Bessemer Process for making cheap steel through inspiration from another source.
  • The bessemer process was simultaneously invented.
  • Mokyrs explanation for simultaneous invention is that a problem was defined jointly by a perceived market need and by the tstate of the art as defined by previous inventions and accumulation of knowledge and that the two inventors may have had 2nd or 3rd degree connection
  • systematic research was needed to make new chemicals
  • the people doing this systematic research needed to be protected from short term demands for practical results
  • State sponsored research in the mid 19th century in Saxony was necessary for better results because of the need for long term systematic research
  • This was especially focused on agriculture
  • tea clippers were the peak of sailing ship design and could achieve speeds of 15 knots
  • steam ships displaced sailing ships on short routes but needed longer to overcome all their problems
    P 130
  • The optimal design of the bicycle was difficult because the attributes of the bicycle spanned a number of dimensions: speed, comfort, safety, elegance, and price were all considered and had to be traded off against each other.
    P 133
  • Parsons and Gustav de Laval simultaneously invented the steam turbine solved the problem that reciprocating compound steam engines could only develop so much speed.
  • More than 200 patents had been filed for steam turbines already.
  • Mokyr uses this as a warning against generalizing that things emerge when the time is right.
    P 144
  • Wireless telegraphy is an example of science leading to invention
  • Telegraphy was implied by Maxwell’s laws
    P 146
  • The “Leonardo problem” is that Gadgets and devices can be conceived that are known to be possible but cannot be built efficiently because supporting technologies are lacking
    P 147
  • claims that only technological progress can support sustained growth because it doesn’t suffer from diminishing returns
  • Pushes back on the idea that “necessity is the mother of invention” and cites counterexamples and authorities who agree.
  • Mokyr rejects the fact that higher incomes determine which technologies are created
  • Culture matters because there are high costs to adopting technology and the more the cultural barriers the less people will be to bear those costs
  • A ‘Crusoe Game’ pits players against nature (Neumann and Morgenson)
  • Technology is a Crusoe game at first
  • White: A group can conceive nothing that is not first conceived by a person
  • Rudolf Diesel: two phases of technological progress - first the creative inventive part and then the part to drive adoption
  • Risk aversion plays a role in where technological progress happens but there are no good theories for it
  • Examples of successful inventions based on incorrect theory
    • Hot air balloons
    • Chlorine bleaching
    • Steel making
  • Technology is often resisted because the benefits are diffuse and the harms are acute
  • most autocratic rulers in history have been anti technology
  • Asserts that government sets the cultural attitude towards non conformists
  • Argues that islam and judaism adopted the attitude that challenging previous knowledge was sacriligeous
  • Constantine and Diocletian tied people to the work of the forefathers
  • Mokyr attributes the reforms of C and D to declining technological progress in late Rome
  • Often argued that a gap between the people who work with their hands and presteige hurts progress
  • Management and ownership were separated in the classical period which led to misaligned incentives and lack of invention
  • Asserts that western christianity had something to do with technological change
  • Gave the attitude that nature was given by God to man to do what he pleased with it
  • Technology requires a slight ‘crime against nature’
  • Monastic orders created a small bridge between the upper classes and the people who do stuff
  • once you expose creative people to labor they start making ways for that labor to go away
  • The argument that Chinese frame of mind is not suitable to technological advancement is weak - there was tech advancement that stopped without a huge change of culture
  • Needham argued that Chinese default is homeostasis and western default is instability
  • This difference may be because of cultural attitudes towards the people who are hurt by technological change
  • In china, large tech changes that would change the social order were avoided
  • In the west the state supported very few non-military inventions before the industrial revolution
  • In china needed government support to do any innovation in mining (and other areas)
  • Chinese bureaucracy came to play a huge role in tech progress
    • This is possibly because of the coordination needed for rice farming and irrigation
  • Chinese state monopolized trade in goods and infrastructure and intervened directly in the economy
  • By contrast, European government was just another player in the economy
  • Innovation run by beaurocrats is dependent on their goodwill
  • Valuing stability will inevitably come into conflict with technology and if there is an absolute government that values stability it will tamp technology
  • At the end of the 17th century Britain was technologically “100 years behind” the continent
  • Many technologies converge on mining (chemistry, civil engineering, metallurgy) which makes it a good tech barometer
  • Britain had a unique set of human capital shaped by social structures: middle class and many closed doors to nonconformists
  • Many of the British invented devices during the industrial revolution were dumb luck
  • Strong transportation networks in Britain made the markets large which increased incentives to invent things
  • But large markets aren’t sufficient (per the example of china)
  • Patent systems encourage marginal inventions because they only give you the benefit for a finite time so you won’t get most of the value from a huge thing whose impact will only be latter
  • One reason the industrial revolution happened in Britain may be because there were not as many entrpreneurs (distinct from inventors) on the continent
  • Two positive feedback loops - imitation effect where people wanted to get rich the way other people have and complementarily effect, where when more things were created more things could be created
  • There is some game theory that says there is a positive feedback loop that makes it less likely new technology will be adopted every time a new technology is not adopted
  • Cardwell’s Law
  • you could model technological change as a biological process
  • What is progress?
  • Economist definition is “the capacity of the productive sector to meet human needs relative to resources”
  • This throws some questions on whether there was progress before 1850
  • A macroinvention is an invention without clear cut parantage, representing a clear break from previous technique
  • Although all technology has precursors, you need to evaluate the precursors on how successful they are
  • Technology advances at different rates in different areas
  • Rapid change is less likely in complex systems (ships, mines farms)
  • Rapid technological advancement is more likely when it is not location specific
  • History deals with what people have done - counterfactuals are hard
  • Failures in tech don’t
  • By the nature of technology we rarely miss what was not invented


    Joel Mokyr

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