Proposal preview

The new economic history of patents and innovation

Over the last two decades, historical patent data have become a very versatile indicator in the toolkit of economic historians interested in reconstructing sources and drivers of technical progress (cfr. J. Streb, ‘The Cliometric Study of Innovations’ in C. Diebolt and M. Haupert (eds.), Handbook of Cliometrics, 2016 ). In this respect, the main advantage of patents is to allow a systematic quantitative appraisal and testing of hypothesis concerning historical patterns of innovation, whereas previous research was, by and large, limited to impressionistic qualitative assessments.

Starting from seminal contributions on United States and Britain, several historical patent studies are now available for a growing number of countries and time-periods comprising, for instance, Germany, Italy, Spain and Sweden. In particular, this literature has shed light on important research issues such as the role of independent versus corporate innovation, the geographical clustering of inventive activities, the sources of breakthrough versus incremental innovations, the impact of different patent legislations on inventive activities, etc. Alongside, with this use of patent data, more recently, economic historians have also explored the construction of quantitative innovation indicators using a variety of sources such as exhibition catalogues, engineering records, biographical dictionaries, etc. This type of data have been a useful complement to patent data in charting the dynamics of technical change both at aggregate and sectoral level.

The aim of this session is twofold: the first goal is to take stock of the progress obtained in this field by showcasing papers that will illustrate the potential (but also the limitations) of historical patent data and other innovation indicators in different historical contexts; the second goal is to advance this research agenda by making some concrete steps towards the integration and harmonization of the available historical patent data-sets.

Organizer(s)

  • Michelangelo Vasta University of Siena vasta@unisi.it Italy
  • Jochen Streb University of Mannheim streb@uni-mannheim.de Germany
  • Alessandro Nuvolari Sant'Anna School of Advanced Studies - Pisa alessandro.nuvolari@santannapisa.it Italy

Session members

  • Javier Silvestre, Universidad de Zaragoza
  • Ugo Gragnolati, Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne
  • Leonard Dudley, Université de Montréal
  • Christopher Rauh, Université de Montréal
  • Zorina Khan, Bowdoin College
  • Alice Kügler , University College London
  • David E. Andersson , Uppsala University and Linköping University
  • Fredrik Tell , Uppsala University
  • Sibylle Lehmann-Hasemeyer , University of Hohenheim)
  • Alexander Donges , University of Mannheim
  • Jørgen Burchardt, National Museum of Science and Technology, Denmark
  • Felipe Valencia Caicedo, University of British Columbia
  • William F. Maloney, World Bank

Discussant(s)

  • Jim Bessen Boston University jbessen@bu.edu

Papers

Panel abstract

Over the last two decades, historical patent data have become a very versatile indicator in the toolkit of economic historians interested in reconstructing sources and drivers of technical progress. In this respect, the main advantage of patents is to allow a systematic quantitative appraisal and testing of hypothesis concerning historical patterns of innovation. Alongside, with this use of patent data, more recently, economic historians have also explored the construction of quantitative innovation indicators using a variety of sources such as exhibition catalogues, engineering records and biographical dictionaries. This type of data have been a useful complement to patent data in charting the dynamics of technical change both at aggregate and sectoral level. The aim of this session is to take stock of the progress obtained by showcasing papers that will illustrate the potential (but also the limitations) of historical patent data and other innovation indicators in different historical contexts.

1st half

Transatlantic Technology Transfer: Coal Mine Ventilation, 1870-1910

John E. Murray, Javier Silvestre

We document and analyze a new technology, mechanical mine ventilation, and its diffusion in two distinct streams from Europe to America. Mechanical ventilation significantly reduced fatal accident rates due to gas explosions in coal mines. In this paper we use systematic mine surveys collected several years apart to show (1) diffusion of an early Belgian ventilator (the Guibal ventilator) to the Ruhr and to eastern Pennsylvania, and (2) a later design from Britain (The Capell ventilator) to the Ruhr and to western Pennsylvania. We compare diffusion of the Guibal ventilator in eastern Pennsylvania to the Capell ventilator in western Pennsylvania in a rough difference-in-differences structure, by using as baselines the diffusion of Guibal fans in Belgium and of mechanical ventilation in general in Scotland. We show that the diffusion of technology can vary considerably across small differences in scale economies, law, geology and engineering.

We document and analyze a new technology, mechanical mine ventilation, and its diffusion in two distinct streams from Europe to America. Mechanical ventilation significantly reduced fatal accident rates due to gas explosions in coal mines. In this paper we use systematic mine surveys collected several years apart to show (1) diffusion of an early Belgian ventilator (the Guibal ventilator) to the Ruhr and to eastern Pennsylvania, and (2) a later design from Britain (The Capell ventilator) to the Ruhr and to western Pennsylvania. We compare diffusion of the Guibal ventilator in eastern Pennsylvania to the Capell ventilator in western Pennsylvania in a rough difference-in-differences structure, by using as baselines the diffusion of Guibal fans in Belgium and of mechanical ventilation in general in Scotland. We show that the diffusion of technology can vary considerably across small differences in scale economies, law, geology and engineering.

Innovation, Localized Knowledge Spillovers and the British Industrial Revolution, 1700-1850

Ugo Gragnolati, Alessandro Nuvolari

This paper estimates the determinants of the localization of innovative activities during the British industrial revolution. The main sources of the exercise are English patent data over the period 1700-1850. The location of innovative activities is reconstructed using the stated residence of patentees. We estimate a discrete choice model that allows to empirically disentangle the role of knowledge spillovers vis-à-vis other geographical advantages, and we find the former to be a key driver of the geography of innovative activities during the British industrial revolution. In a broader perspective, our findings suggest that, despite the growth of publications devoted to scientific and technological matters, a significant component of the body of knowledge underlying innovative activities remained irreducibly “tacit” and “sticky”.

This paper estimates the determinants of the localization of innovative activities during the British industrial revolution. The main sources of the exercise are English patent data over the period 1700-1850. The location of innovative activities is reconstructed using the stated residence of patentees. We estimate a discrete choice model that allows to empirically disentangle the role of knowledge spillovers vis-à-vis other geographical advantages, and we find the former to be a key driver of the geography of innovative activities during the British industrial revolution. In a broader perspective, our findings suggest that, despite the growth of publications devoted to scientific and technological matters, a significant component of the body of knowledge underlying innovative activities remained irreducibly “tacit” and “sticky”.

Innovation Growth Clusters: Lessons from the Industrial Revolution

Leonard Dudley, Christopher Rauh

What are the policy implications of the sudden arrival of Big Data – information available in large quantities at high frequency? Are such innovations a standard by-product of economic growth or is a major reorientation of economic policy necessary? This paper examines the impact of language standardization in the West. A simple variant of the gravity model suggests that urban regions which innovate will be able to attract the resources required to produce additional innovations and create downstream industries. Previous research has affirmed that a society’s economic success during the Industrial Revolution depended on its institutions. However, empirical tests with 117 innovations and 251 Western cities between 1700 and 1850 indicate that once one accounts for language standardization, institutional change has little further power to explain innovation or growth. Regarding policy, owing to “social learning”, the urban regions that grew most rapidly were those with the fewest barriers to “idea...

What are the policy implications of the sudden arrival of Big Data – information available in large quantities at high frequency? Are such innovations a standard by-product of economic growth or is a major reorientation of economic policy necessary? This paper examines the impact of language standardization in the West. A simple variant of the gravity model suggests that urban regions which innovate will be able to attract the resources required to produce additional innovations and create downstream industries. Previous research has affirmed that a society’s economic success during the Industrial Revolution depended on its institutions. However, empirical tests with 117 innovations and 251 Western cities between 1700 and 1850 indicate that once one accounts for language standardization, institutional change has little further power to explain innovation or growth. Regarding policy, owing to “social learning”, the urban regions that grew most rapidly were those with the fewest barriers to “idea flow.”

Arts and Commerce Promoted? Patents and Prizes as Incentives for Innovation in the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850

Zorina Khan

Debates have long centered around the relative merits of prizes and other incentives for technological innovation. The paper analyzes the experience of the Royal Society of Arts, which offered inducement prizes for innovation. The Society initially was averse to patents and prohibited the award of prizes for patented inventions. The empirical results indicate the presence of adverse selection. Inventors of items that were valuable in the marketplace typically chose to obtain patents and to bypass the prize system. The Society subsequently acknowledged that its efforts had been “futile” because of its hostility to patents, and switched from offering inducement prizes towards lobbying for reforms to strengthen the patent system. The findings suggest some skepticism is warranted about claims regarding the role that elites and nonmarket-oriented institutions played in generating technological innovation and long-term economic development.

Debates have long centered around the relative merits of prizes and other incentives for technological innovation. The paper analyzes the experience of the Royal Society of Arts, which offered inducement prizes for innovation. The Society initially was averse to patents and prohibited the award of prizes for patented inventions. The empirical results indicate the presence of adverse selection. Inventors of items that were valuable in the marketplace typically chose to obtain patents and to bypass the prize system. The Society subsequently acknowledged that its efforts had been “futile” because of its hostility to patents, and switched from offering inducement prizes towards lobbying for reforms to strengthen the patent system. The findings suggest some skepticism is warranted about claims regarding the role that elites and nonmarket-oriented institutions played in generating technological innovation and long-term economic development.

The Responsiveness of Inventing: Evidence from a Patent Fee Reform

Alice Kügler

Do financial incentives induce inventors to innovate more? I exploit a large reduction in the patent fee in the United Kingdom in 1884 to distinguish between its effect on increased efforts to invent, and a decrease in patent quality due to a lower quality threshold. For this analysis I create a detailed new dataset of 54,000 British inventors with renewal information for each patent, which serves as the main quality measure. In the longer run high-quality patenting increases by over 100 percent, and the share of new patents due to greater effort accounts for three quarters of the pre-reform share of high-quality patents. To test for the presence of credit constraints I generate two wealth proxies from inventor names and addresses, and find a larger innovation response for inventors with lower wealth. These results indicate efficiency gains from decreasing the cost of inventing and in addition, from relaxing credit constraints.

Do financial incentives induce inventors to innovate more? I exploit a large reduction in the patent fee in the United Kingdom in 1884 to distinguish between its effect on increased efforts to invent, and a decrease in patent quality due to a lower quality threshold. For this analysis I create a detailed new dataset of 54,000 British inventors with renewal information for each patent, which serves as the main quality measure. In the longer run high-quality patenting increases by over 100 percent, and the share of new patents due to greater effort accounts for three quarters of the pre-reform share of high-quality patents. To test for the presence of credit constraints I generate two wealth proxies from inventor names and addresses, and find a larger innovation response for inventors with lower wealth. These results indicate efficiency gains from decreasing the cost of inventing and in addition, from relaxing credit constraints.

Dependent Invention and Dependent Inventors: Evidence from Historical Swedish Patent Data

David E. Andersson, Fredrik Tell

This paper examines to what extent invention and inventors were independent in Sweden 1819-1914. By using biographical dictionaries together with a new dataset on the universe of Swedish patents it employs a prosopographical methodology to study the inventive careers of the 100 most productive patentees in Sweden and to pinpoint their actual workplaces at the time of their patent applications. The results indicate that by using place of work as an indicator of the organizational setting of invention as few as 20% of all inventions patented by individuals can be considered to be truly independent, while as much as 10% originate inside state-owned institutions. The remaining 60% of the patents are made up of firm-employees, entrepreneurs and spin-offs. This suggests that the “decline of the Schumpeterian inventor” and the shift from individuals to research laboratories may not have been as sharp or drastic as previous research has suggested.

This paper examines to what extent invention and inventors were independent in Sweden 1819-1914. By using biographical dictionaries together with a new dataset on the universe of Swedish patents it employs a prosopographical methodology to study the inventive careers of the 100 most productive patentees in Sweden and to pinpoint their actual workplaces at the time of their patent applications. The results indicate that by using place of work as an indicator of the organizational setting of invention as few as 20% of all inventions patented by individuals can be considered to be truly independent, while as much as 10% originate inside state-owned institutions. The remaining 60% of the patents are made up of firm-employees, entrepreneurs and spin-offs. This suggests that the “decline of the Schumpeterian inventor” and the shift from individuals to research laboratories may not have been as sharp or drastic as previous research has suggested.

2nd half

Discrimination against Foreigners. The Wuerttemberg Patent Law in Practice

Sibylle Lehmann-Hasemeyer, Jochen Streb

The empirical analysis of historical patenting activities in Germany usually starts with the introduction of the 1877 Imperial Patent Law. Based on a new data set that covers all 1,141 patents granted in Wuerttemberg between 1818 and 1868, we concentrate our research on the period of early German industrialization in which private inventors had still dominated the patent statistics. A special feature of the Wuerttemberg patent law was that the patent authority could freely choose annual patent fees that ranged between five and twenty guilders and the duration of patent protection that could last up to ten years. We show that foreigners paid much higher patent fees even after controlling for the realized life span of their patent (measure for quality). Citizens of Zollverein states were discriminated too. We conclude that Wuerttemberg‘s patent practice discriminated against foreigners thereby allowing locals to imitate advanced foreign technology faster than under fair conditions.

The empirical analysis of historical patenting activities in Germany usually starts with the introduction of the 1877 Imperial Patent Law. Based on a new data set that covers all 1,141 patents granted in Wuerttemberg between 1818 and 1868, we concentrate our research on the period of early German industrialization in which private inventors had still dominated the patent statistics. A special feature of the Wuerttemberg patent law was that the patent authority could freely choose annual patent fees that ranged between five and twenty guilders and the duration of patent protection that could last up to ten years. We show that foreigners paid much higher patent fees even after controlling for the realized life span of their patent (measure for quality). Citizens of Zollverein states were discriminated too. We conclude that Wuerttemberg‘s patent practice discriminated against foreigners thereby allowing locals to imitate advanced foreign technology faster than under fair conditions.

The Consequences of Radical Patent Regime Change – A Natural Experiment

Alexander Donges, Felix Selgert

This paper analyzes the consequences of radical patent regime change by exploiting a natural experiment: the compulsory and immediate adoption of the Prussian patent system in regions that Prussia annexed after the Austro-Prussian War of 1866. In order to analyze the consequences of this patent regime change, we use a new patent data set, which is based on hand-collected archival data and spans the period 1845 to 1877. Our empirical analysis shows that, after 1866, the number of patents per capita decreased significantly in territories where the former legislation had been more patent-friendly than in Prussia. We rule out alternative explanations such as migration, other institutional factors than patent law, or differences in local economic growth trends. Finally, in the second step of our analysis, we discuss whether the change in patent law affected innovation, which we measure with data on inventions exhibited at world fairs.

This paper analyzes the consequences of radical patent regime change by exploiting a natural experiment: the compulsory and immediate adoption of the Prussian patent system in regions that Prussia annexed after the Austro-Prussian War of 1866. In order to analyze the consequences of this patent regime change, we use a new patent data set, which is based on hand-collected archival data and spans the period 1845 to 1877. Our empirical analysis shows that, after 1866, the number of patents per capita decreased significantly in territories where the former legislation had been more patent-friendly than in Prussia. We rule out alternative explanations such as migration, other institutional factors than patent law, or differences in local economic growth trends. Finally, in the second step of our analysis, we discuss whether the change in patent law affected innovation, which we measure with data on inventions exhibited at world fairs.

The value of patents in Italy, 1861-1913

Laura Magazzini, Alessandro Nuvolari, Michelangelo Vasta

This paper uses renewal data to estimate the value of Italian patents during the so-called Liberal Age (1861-1913) controlling for inventor and patent characteristics. We make use of a new dataset comprising all patents granted in Italy in five benchmark years. Using renewal data, we estimate both the value of patents “ex-ante” (that is in the moment in which the patent was granted) and “ex-post” (that is in the moment in which the patent expires). Overall, we find a highly skewed distribution of patent values. Furthermore, we find that patents issued to firms and to foreign inventors and patents covering high-tech inventions are more “valuable” than those issued to independent inventors and domestic inventors or in low-tech sectors.

This paper uses renewal data to estimate the value of Italian patents during the so-called Liberal Age (1861-1913) controlling for inventor and patent characteristics. We make use of a new dataset comprising all patents granted in Italy in five benchmark years. Using renewal data, we estimate both the value of patents “ex-ante” (that is in the moment in which the patent was granted) and “ex-post” (that is in the moment in which the patent expires). Overall, we find a highly skewed distribution of patent values. Furthermore, we find that patents issued to firms and to foreign inventors and patents covering high-tech inventions are more “valuable” than those issued to independent inventors and domestic inventors or in low-tech sectors.

Circulation of technical knowledge – foreign patents in Denmark 1864-1980

Jørgen Burchardt

The presentation will, through an analysis of patents registered in Denmark, tell about the dissemination of technical knowledge. There will be answers to questions such as which countries the patents came from, which industries were covered, what topics the patents were about, and how the pattern changed over times. In order to qualify the analysis at the same time, details of the individual industry's patents can be seen in order to take a closer look at technical developments. The geographic origins of the patents are compared with a corresponding analysis of the number of Danish patents in the United States during the same period.

The presentation will, through an analysis of patents registered in Denmark, tell about the dissemination of technical knowledge. There will be answers to questions such as which countries the patents came from, which industries were covered, what topics the patents were about, and how the pattern changed over times. In order to qualify the analysis at the same time, details of the individual industry's patents can be seen in order to take a closer look at technical developments. The geographic origins of the patents are compared with a corresponding analysis of the number of Danish patents in the United States during the same period.

Engineering Growth: Innovative Capacity and Development in the Americas

Felipe Valencia Caicedo, William F. Maloney

This paper offers the first systematic historical evidence on the role of a central actor in modern growth theory- the engineer. It collects cross-country and state level data on the labor share of engineers for the Americas, and county level data on engineering and patenting for the U.S. during the Second Industrial Revolution. These are robustly correlated with income today after controlling for literacy, other types of higher order human capital (e.g. lawyers, physicians), and demand side factors, as well as after instrumenting engineering using the Land Grant Colleges program. A one standard deviation increase in engineers in 1880 accounts for a 10-15% increase in US county income today, while patenting capacity contributes another 10%. We further show engineering density supported technological adoption and structural transformation across intermediate time periods. Our estimates help explain why countries with similar levels of income in 1900, but tenfold differences in engineers diverged in...

This paper offers the first systematic historical evidence on the role of a central actor in modern growth theory- the engineer. It collects cross-country and state level data on the labor share of engineers for the Americas, and county level data on engineering and patenting for the U.S. during the Second Industrial Revolution. These are robustly correlated with income today after controlling for literacy, other types of higher order human capital (e.g. lawyers, physicians), and demand side factors, as well as after instrumenting engineering using the Land Grant Colleges program. A one standard deviation increase in engineers in 1880 accounts for a 10-15% increase in US county income today, while patenting capacity contributes another 10%. We further show engineering density supported technological adoption and structural transformation across intermediate time periods. Our estimates help explain why countries with similar levels of income in 1900, but tenfold differences in engineers diverged in their growth trajectories over the next century. The results are supported by historical case studies from the US and Latin America.

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