Nothing New Under the Sun
| Peter Klein |
Back when the “New Economy” was in vogue I enjoyed challenging the claim that the “new” phenomena were really new. Before the internet, there was the telegraph. Before the Yahoo! directory there was the telephone book. Before the personal computer there was electric service, the refrigerator, the washing machine, the telephone, and the VCR. In short, such breathlessly touted phenomena as network effects, the rapid diffusion of technological innovation, and highly valued intangible assets are nothing new.
Now comes an interesting paper in the current issue of Economic History Review by Jochen Streb, Jörg Baten, and Shuxi Yin, “Technological and Geographical Knowledge Spillover in the German Empire 1877-1918.” The authors use patent and geographic data to identify four distinct technological waves during this period, drive by innovation in railways, dyes, chemicals, and electrical engineering, respectively. The general claim is that “inter-industry knowledge spillovers between technologically, economically, and geographically related industries were a major source for innovative activities during German industrialization,” and that “technological change affected the geographical distribution of innovative regions.” A nice application of the modern literature on clusters, innovation, and knowledge spillovers to the recent past. Perhaps Ecclesiastes was right after all.