Abstract: The Continuity of Wartime Innovation: The Civil War Experience

Ross Thomson


Capitalist development involves ongoing technological change in which a series of innovations develop and diffuse. Wars and other discontinuities thwart some innovations and generate others. Wartime experience illuminates the issue of whether innovation responds to the changing economic environment or maintains earlier directions. I examine the development of Civil War innovations in firearms, shoe mechanization, and petroleum. Using patent data, government procurement records, and firm records, I argue for the continuity of innovative content and in the occupation, network status, and location of patentees. Wartime innovation evolved out of antebellum firms, networks, and inventors, drawing on machinists, engineers, and applied scientists to transfer critical antebellum capabilities into innovating sectors. The war accelerated innovations in firearms and shoe mechanization, but it may have slowed petroleum innovation. Because antebellum innovation developed and spread knowledge in a wide variety of areas, innovations could come to fruition at the same time, even though they competed for some of the same resources.

BEH On-Line Paper