The competitiveness of the U.S. economy depends on technological progress, but recent data suggests that innovation is getting harder and the pace of growth is slowing down. A major challenge in business and policy spheres is to understand the environments that are most conducive to innovation.
One way to do that is to look to history. In our research we focused on the golden age of invention: the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when America became the world’s preeminent industrial nation.
The golden age is associated with some of America’s leading technology pioneers, such as Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla in electrical illumination and Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray in telephony.
By analyzing this data, we were able to shed light on why the U.S. was so innovative.
The context for technological development was very different a century ago. For instance, in 1880 most inventive activity was the result of inventors operating outside the boundaries of firms.
Research laboratories, such as the famous one opened, in 1876, by Thomas Edison in Menlo Park, New Jersey, were rare.
From the middle of the 20th century, however, the modern corporation started to dominate patenting. By 2000 almost 80% of patents were assigned to inventors associated with firms.
Nevertheless, the impact of innovation on economic growth was typically large.
The chart below illustrates a strong relationship between patenting activity and GDP per capita at the state level. It predicts that an innovative state like Massachusetts, which from 1900 to 2000 had four times as many patents as a less innovative state, like Wyoming, would become 30% richer in terms of GDP per capita by 2000.
Innovation was more prevalent in some areas than others. The map below shows regions that today are declining, such as the Rust Belt, used to be innovation hotspots during the golden age.
Our research finds that innovation flourished in densely populated areas where people could interact with one another, where capital markets to finance innovation were strong, and where inventors had access to well-connected markets.
States with a legacy of slavery were considerably less innovative, and religion had a negative effect, too, though to a lesser degree.
Places that were economically and socially open to disruptive new ideas tended to be more innovative, and they subsequently grew faster.
For the full report, click here.