Much hay has been made out of the recent writings of Robert J Gordon. Some of the more fascinating thoughts concern futurism, resolving around biomechanical engineering (cyborg technology) from Noah Smith, artificial intelligence from Kevin Drum, to a full-on dystopian vision of the future courtesy of Paul Krugman. Others, like Dean Baker and Matt Yglesias question whether Gordon is channeling Charles Holland “Everything that can be invented has been invented” Duell’s 1902 statement:
In my opinion, all previous advances in the various lines of invention will appear totally insignificant when compared with those which the present century will witness. I almost wish that I might live my life over again to see the wonders which are at the threshold.
I can almost give Duell the benefit of the doubt, given Gordon tells us this in his Wall Street Journal op-ed:
The growth of the past century wasn’t built on manna from heaven. It resulted in large part from a remarkable set of inventions between 1875 and 1900. These started with Edison’s electric light bulb (1879) and power station (1882), making possible everything from elevator buildings to consumer appliances. Karl Benz invented the first workable internal-combustion engine the same year as Edison’s light bulb.
Even 110 years after the U.S. Patent Office’s commissioner (Duell) made such a famously odd statement, well-meaning economists fail to see that ground-breaking innovations require more than serendipity. Watershed technologies flow from great demand, usually military in origin. I’ve seen the term “weaponized Keynesianism” used in various respects recently, but a reading of history shows that this phenomenon predates John Maynard Keynes’s birth in 1883.
Robert Gordon divides the industrial revolution’s innovations into three phases:
- IR #1 (steam, railroads) from 1750 to 1830;
- IR #2 (electricity, internal combustion engine, running water, indoor toilets, communications, entertainment, chemicals, petroleum) from 1870 to 1900; and
- IR #3 (computers, the web, mobile phones) from 1960 to present.
At first glance, these technologies might seem to lack common origins and all be the results of tinkering and serendipity alone. While these factors are indeed important (steam power dates back thousands of years but the breakthroughs during the 18th century that made steam commercially viable required almost 100 years of development), most of the 19th century advances revolved around ocean-going vessels.
The “first practical steamboat,” the Charlotte Dundas, sailed on her maiden voyage on 4 January 1803, the year before high-pressure steam engines finally became available to power the first locomotives. Railroads would power a transportation revolution across the breadth of the North American continent, but the improvements in steam power centered around naval powerplants. The vast increase in displacement of naval vessels after the introduction of ironclads in 1858 required the development of more powerful engines, resulting in the development of compound and multiple-expansion reciprocating engines. In 1884, the technology encountered a sea change (sorry for the pun)–Sir Charles Parsons developed the prototype steam turbine engine, connected to a 7.5kW dynamo.
Electrical power and the internal combustion engine are often argued to be the key technologies of the industrial revolution, a base on which the modern world was built. But if the thought is that these technologies were developed in isolation, I would have to quibble with that conclusion. Internal combustion engines seem more like an outgrowth of the massive maritime reciprocating engines (Gordon mentions Karl Benz invented the internal combustion engine in 1879, the same year Thomas Edison invented the light bulb). The contribution of maritime needs to the development of electrical power seems understated, the credit often going to Thomas Edison and private enterprise.
The first land-based use of Michael Faraday’s 1831 invention of the dynamo (today known as an electrical generator) was in 1858 to power arc-lights in lighthouses. The first warship ever equipped with an electrical network, the Royal Navy’s HMS Inflexible, was launched in 1876 and commissioned in 1881; the same year the first passenger liner equipped with electric lights, Cunard’s RMS Servia, was launched. This sequence of events often is overlooked, as Edison is credited for inventing the power station with the 1882 commissioning of the DC-generating Pearl Street Station in Lower Manhattan.
Why harp on history that ignores some factors in the development of important technologies? Does it really matter that in the past, supremacy at sea was the primary route to world power? What bearing on economics is the fact that great powers without fail rise on the power of their naval and merchant marine fleets? One reason is history has consequences. The U.S. Navy is preeminent currently, displacing the Royal Navy during the Second World War, which in turn displaced the Spanish fleets starting in 1588, and so on. This sequence runs all the way back to the Battle of Salamis, which merely shaped the whole course of Western Civilization in 480 B.C. But more importantly, since 1884 the technological needs of the military have become the primary driver of innovation.
A bold statement, isn’t it? Strangely, it is one that is easily proven. 1884 was the year the Parsons steam turbine engine debuted, as I mentioned previously. Without that development, the electrical grid would not be possible. It was the first machine capable of scalable electricity generation. In fact, 90% of electricity generation in the United States currently is accomplished with steam turbines. Edison already envisioned in a 1885 patent application the utility for wireless telegraphy in the maritime setting. Once the issues with electrostatic induction were finally overcome to make radio communications a reality, Marconi bought out Edison’s patent. To think, this all came before 1900…
Since the dawn of the twentieth century, the impact of military development has become far more overt. Aviation, beyond the Wright brothers designing the aileron, is almost entirely a creation of the various air and naval forces around the world. The system of instrument flying routes and approaches were designed by the U.S. Army and first demonstrated by future Gen. Jimmy Doolittle in 1929. Aviation distances and velocities are measured in nautical miles and knots. Several mainstays of post-World War II civil fleets were ex-military (Curtiss Jenny, C-47, C-54). Almost every airline in the U.S is part of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF). Iconic airliners were developed for military application (the 707 is a derivative of Boeing’s 367-80 prototype that first went into production for the USAF as the KC-135; the 747 is derived from Boeing’s competitive entry for the USAF CX-HLS contract that became the C-5). Even the word “airliner” comes from the naval term “ship-of-the-line.”
The two world wars and the prosperous aftermaths undoubtedly had a massive impact on the industrialization of the United States, and significant advances stemmed from military utility. Civil communications, the original technologies having been developed with ships in mind, allowed far more efficient dissemination of important instructions. Most people know the story of how the national highway system was created, but suffice to say it didn’t hurt Eisenhower still was upset the 1950s about the 1919 transcontinental motor convoy. Then came the Cold War’s military spending…
The technologies of the modern world all came from military development. ENIAC was designed to calculate artillery firing tables for the United States Army’s Ballistic Research Laboratory. The web was originally named ARPANET, run by the precursor to the DOD’s DARPA. As for hand-held devices…
Most histories of mobile phones show they are entirely the creation of private enterprise. Bruce Bartlett in a Fiscal Times column months ago wrote about the first time he saw one:
I still remember the first time I ever saw a mobile phone back in the 1980s. My friend Wayne Valis, a lobbyist, had one. It was the size of a car battery and had to be carried with a strap over his shoulder because it was so bulky and heavy. I don’t think it was even a cellular phone, but a radio telephone. It undoubtedly cost several thousand dollars at the time, probably equivalent to about $10,000 today.
His argument is that the rich are important as consumers, to get new technologies over the hurdle that they become viable for the average consumer. He later extrapolates that the first person with an electrified house was a very rich person, and we have those rich consumers to thank for the development of the electrical grid. I call bullshit on both counts (I’m not going to explain electricity again). I respect Bartlett–he is far and away the smartest and sanest conservative economist in this country, but I think I can safely say the the communications needs of the U.S. Army (probably the Royal Army and both nations’ Marines as well) developed the radio telephone–combat radio operators are a staple in all war films since World War II, and naturally the military has a vested interest in making communications gear lighter and more portable (enabling a soldier to carry more armament and ammunition). I’m just guessing here, but I would wager military communications gear became small enough to fit in a soldier’s pocket sometime in the 1990s…
I have endeavored to demonstrate and explain at length the central role military utility (and military spending) has played in fostering innovation in the United States. Still, I have not lost sight that Robert Gordon is not worried innovation is coming to a complete end, rather his statement is crystal clear: Innovation Won’t Save Us. I agree, but I think the effects are more sinister. Innovations are linked–one leads to another. This history shows almost exclusively positive effects. Next time, I will consider the opposite.