Abstract: From the Old to the New: The Social Basis of Innovation in the Antebellum United States

Ross Thomson


Between 1830 and 1865, a series of major innovations arose that reshaped the nineteenth-century American economy. These innovations cannot readily be explained by the dynamics of existing industries or firms because they created industries and were developed largely by new firms. In a comparative study of the railroad, the telegraph, the reaper, and the sewing machine, I advance an institutional argument for the origins and development of innovations. Each innovation fundamentally depended on knowledge communicated through machinery sector institutions, the pure and applied scientific community, and institutions surrounding invention. As each developed, it formed its own institutions (including firms, occupations, and relations with government and scientists) that shaped the innovation's development. Innovations followed different paths because they involved different kinds of knowledge, evolved out of different institutions, and built networks with different ties to science, machinery sectors, and users. That so many distinct innovations arose attests to the importance of economy-wide machinery, and scientific and inventive institutions. Patent records, census manuscripts, biographical dictionaries, contemporary documents, and case studies provide evidence for these contentions.

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