Transferring Technical Knowledge and Innovating in Europe, c.1200-c.1800

Transferring Technical Knowledge and Innovating in Europe, c.1200-c.1800

By Stephan Epstein

Endogenous Institutional Change (2005)

Introduction: The role of technology in the transition from premodern, ‘Malthusian’ to modern economies in late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe is among the major questions in economic history, but it is still poorly understood. In particular, the view that technological change before c.1800 was close to zero due to poorly specified property rights to knowledge and pervasive rent seeking by guilds is hard to square with the fact that the surge of technological innovation in the eighteenth century occurred within institutional frameworks not too dissimilar to those of 1300.

A plausible explanation of premodern European technological development and industrialisation must account for three established facts. First, in the early thirteenth century Europe was still a technological backwater by comparison with the great Asian civilisations. Only a process of small-scale incremental innovation in metallurgy and instrument making, mining, building and shipbuilding, chemical process and cloth production, can explain the technological and industrial success of steam power— the most salient European contribution to premodern technical knowledge— six centuries later. The most striking feature by comparison with other coeval societies, however, is not so much that technological progress in premodern Europe occurred at a faster rate than elsewhere, but that progress was persistent and uninterrupted. By contrast, technological development in the great Asian civilizations of India and China experienced comparatively short periods of efflorescence, lasting a few centuries at a time, which were regularly followed by long phases of near-stagnation.

Second, the geographical location of technological leadership in premodern Europe moved over time. Between the eleventh and the nineteenth centuires, Europe’s technological frontier shifted increasingly north-west: from the east-central Mediterranean to northern Italy during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, to southern Germany and Bohemia in the late fifteenth, to the southern Low Countries in the sixteenth, to the Dutch Republic and finally to Britain during the seventeenth and eighteenth. Each new regional leader added the innovations of its predecessors to its local technical stock and recombined them for further technological advances. Although leadership was temporary, falling prey over time to technological sclerosis, declining marginal returns, and rent seeking by producers and elites, loss of leadership did not lead to a technological dead end. The existence of an increasingly integrated Europen market for skilled labor with a great deal of ‘ecological’ variation in demand, and of many polities whose rulers’ peaceful and military competition created spatial and temporal variation in demand for skills, generated the market and institutional conditions for new technological growth poles to take over.

Last, the technical knowledge of premodern craftsmen and engineers was largely experiencebased (Reber 1993). Thus, practically all premodern technical knowledge— which I define simply as knowledge of how to make things, and get them right— had to be transferred in the flesh. The shifts in regional technical leadership I just described could therefore only occur if technicians could take their knowledge elsewhere. This was arguably more easily done in Europe than in other parts of Eurasia, because European technicians were not members of ascriptive (kin-, religion- or locality-based) communities, and because they benefited from competitive bidding for technical expertise across a fragmented political and economic system.

The implications for premodern economic history of the basic cognitive limitations to how technical knowledge can be expressed, processed and transmitted have yet to be examined in any detail. This paper asks how premodern European societies were able to generate incremental technical innovation under three headings: How was established and new knowledge transmitted? How was premodern technical knowledge stored to avoid loss? How were tacit, visual, verbal, and written means of transmission used heuristically? In answering these questions, I aim to sketch a model of endogenous technological progress that incorporates and explains the three stylised processes outlined above. I focus mainly on the period before 1700, in order to emphasize the similarities with betterknown eighteenth-century conditions. Section 2 discusses the nature of experiential knowledge and its intergenerational transfer. Section 3 addresses knowledge transfer between peers, including technical codification and heuristics. Section 4 discusses technological transfer across space. Section 5 concludes.

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