Abstract: The Government and Innovation in the United States: Insights from Major Innovators

Ross Thomson


The role of the U.S. government in forming innovative capabilities, at least prior to World War II, is often understated. Building on recent insights into the government's role in interchangeable parts, biological, and mineral innovation, this essay maintains that from 1820 through 1929, federal, state, and local governments developed means to acquire and spread technological knowledge that shaped technologies across wide ranges of the economy. I study biographies of 1,123 major innovators; by selecting not only inventors but also engineers and agriculturalists, I am able to identify a wider range of innovations. Governments proved significant through two mechanisms. A quarter of the innovators learned in government-funded colleges, and over half learned from government employment and contracting in ways that shaped their innovations. Both forms of learning increased over time. Government learning was more prevalent among biological, construction, transportation, and mining technologies than among mechanical technologies. Types of innovation with the greatest government impact had low patenting rates but high publication rates. The publications and employment of innovators, in turn, strengthened government-funded colleges and agencies.

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