Abstract: Understanding Machine Tool Development in the United States: Uniting Economic and Business History

Ross Thomson


The evolution of machine tools in the United States from 1820 through 1930 played an indispensable part in the development of mechanized production. But machine tool development can be understood in quite different ways. Economic historians often look at whole industries and at patents as quantitative measures of invention. Business historians frequently use firm records to relate inventions to the strategy, organization, and growth of the firm. I argue that both approaches are needed to understand how machine tools originated and spread, and that an evolutionary idea of firms and industries can integrate these approaches. Many types of firms produced, invented, and sold a wide range of machine tools, and firms were further differentiated by new methods or markets. Some particular firms and some types of firms ascended, but they never dominated and always found competition from new and different kinds of firms. To understand this process, patents and industry sources depict innovation as a whole. Firm records for the Brown and Sharpe Manufacturing Company and studies of ten other innovating firms demonstrate various ways in which firms made use of innovations and, in the process, educated others who would continue to innovate.

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