Joel Mokyr Speaks on History of Technology

Watch a video of the lecture here.

For most of history, human life was nasty, brutish, and short. People were poor: from 0 to 1800 AD, the annual GDP grew about .2 percent a year.

But those born in the 20th century were and are vastly richer, healthier, and more comfortable that any other time.

So what changed?

“The Industrial Revolution marks the beginning of modern economic growth,” said Joel Mokyr when he spoke to faculty and students as part of the Dean’s Seminar Series on May 25. “Economic growth…was driven increasingly by technology.”

How technology drives the economy is Mokyr’s area of expertise. As the Robert H. Strotz Professor of Arts and Sciences and professor of economics and history at Northwestern, Mokyr specializes in economic history and the economics of technological change and population change.

Since the Industrial Revolution, he said, GDP has grown, on average, 10-15 times faster than before, with fewer major reversals in growth. The revolution began in Britain in the late 18th century with the growth of useful knowledge – that is, knowledge of the physical, biological, and chemical realms.

That knowledge was limited before that point due to high access costs: there was a vast social separation between those who learned things (philosophers) and those who made things (artisans), and those who made things did not have easy access to books.

But in the 17th century, those barriers began to fall: the social divide grew thinner, and scientific work became more accessible through publishing, correspondence, and the creation of intellectual communities. Scientific societies began to meet in homes and taverns, and people began to apply science toward engineering and manufacturing.

“That was the beginning of what is known now as public science,” Mokyr said.

A market for useful technology also developed during that time. John Smeaton famously became a consultant who traveled from farm to farm and offered his advice. Scientist Humphrey Davy collaborated with mining engineer John Buddle to create the Davy lamp, which provided light for miners – a major problem at the time.

“In modern growth, technology is closely related and interacts with science, mathematics, and other forms of propositional knowledge,” Mokyr said, and technology requires bridges between those who know things and those who create things.

“The connection between science and technology became closer and closer,” he said. “It helped inventors, but it also inspired science. And the rest, they say, is history.”