When Knowledge Was Spread Around, So Was Prosperity

The New York Times, "Economic Scene" , December 05, 2002

The "knowledge economy" did not begin (or end) with the Internet boom. But technology, institutions and attitudes that lower the cost of information and encourage people to share knowledge have not always been around.

Indeed, a new book argues, to understand why the West not only grew rich after the Industrial Revolution but also kept growing richer, we have to understand the revolution in how people organize and exchange "useful knowledge."

"The main thing I'm interested in is how societies can end up knowing more and how that changes us," said Joel Mokyr, an economic historian at Northwestern University and author of The Gifts of Athena (Princeton University Press).

Through most of human history, periods of invention did not create sustained economic growth. Population might increase because, say, agricultural yields improved. But eventually the standard of living returned to its old equilibrium.

That pattern changed in the 19th century. Individual inventions not only flourished but also sparked still more inventions and continuing economic growth.

"The true question of the Industrial Revolution is not why it took place at all but why it was sustained beyond, say, 1820," Professor Mokyr writes.

The reason, he argues, lies in what he calls the Industrial Enlightenment, a series of cultural changes that connected practical and theoretical knowledge and made both more widely accessible.

Beginning in the late 18th century, he writes, the Industrial Enlightenment "sought to reduce access costs by surveying and cataloging artisanal practices" so best practices could spread.

Through "search engines" ranging from Diderot's huge Encyclopedie to handbooks and periodicals, "useful knowledge" traveled from individual practitioners to anyone with an interest in improving techniques.

"The idea that knowledge is power did not translate into the idea that knowledge should be monopolized," Professor Mokyr said in an interview. Instead, the ideal of open science prevailed. Even patents required that inventors make ideas public.

In addition, the Industrial Enlightenment "sought to understand why techniques worked by generalizing them" -- a critical step in turning new knowledge into an engine of continuing progress.

"In the Middle Ages they invented lots of things," said Professor Mokyr, whose 1990 book The Lever of Riches (Oxford University Press) chronicled many medieval inventions. "But the people who invented things were people out in the field who were smart and came up with things" by trial and error, he added.

These inventors had no connection to the educated elite, and they had no general theories to explain and extend their inventions. Medieval inventors could not generalize from a water mill to the laws of hydraulics, for instance.

Without widely applicable scientific theories, one invention was not likely to lead to another.

"In 1796 Edward Jenner invents vaccination, but he has no clue why it works," Professor Mokyr noted. "There is no other vaccination for almost another 100 years, because nobody has an idea why it works."

In the 20th century, by contrast, deeper scientific understanding allowed the development of a host of new vaccines. That pattern, he said, "is true of almost any field of human production that you can think of."

Fertilizer has been used since antiquity, for instance. But before the 19th century, farmers did not know that nitrogen was a crucial ingredient or how it got into the soil. They thus engaged in practices like burning stalks, which released nutrients into the air rather than returning them to the soil.

After the discovery of nitrogen's role, soil scientists and chemists developed synthetic fertilizers and improved farming practices.

Connecting practical invention to broader "epistemic knowledge" also avoids blind alleys. "When no one knows why things work," Professor Mokyr writes, "potential inventors do not know what will not work and will waste valuable resources in fruitless searches for things that cannot be made, such as perpetual-motion machines or gold from base metals."

The third important aspect of the Industrial Enlightenment was the bridges it built between "those who controlled propositional knowledge," including scientific generalizations, "and those who carried out the techniques contained in prescriptive knowledge," the expertise in fields like agriculture, engineering and navigation.

Practitioners and theorists no longer remained socially or intellectually isolated from one another.

The pottery magnate Josiah Wedgwood, one of the earliest industrialists, corresponded with leading scientists like Antoine Lavoisier and Joseph Priestly. He also "consulted artisans who had specialized in areas of interest to him, such as a Liverpool glassmaker," Professor Mokyr writes.

For this exemplar of the Industrial Enlightenment, he adds, "useful knowledge was to be accessed and applied wherever it could be found."

In a sense, the Industrial Enlightenment represented the end of pure science. Now "knowledge isn't just because we're curious and we want to know things but because we're going to do something with it," Professor Mokyr said.

In the Middle Ages, Chinese science was the most advanced in the world. But its discoveries belonged to a courtly elite who had little interest in the applications of inventions like the mechanical clock.

"It rarely occurred to them that it might be of interest to an artisan or engineer," Professor Mokyr said.

With the advent of the Industrial Enlightenment, "those bridges were built increasingly in the West," he said. "That is a truly momentous historic development. We're no longer investigating nature just because we want to know what it means. We really are curious about how we can exploit nature for all kinds of purposes."