Transferring Technical Knowledge and Innovating in Europe, c.1200-c.1800
By Stephan Epstein
Abstract: The role of technology in the transition from premodern to modern economies in late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe is among the major questions in economic history, but it is still poorly understood. A plausible explanation of premodern European technological development must account for why Europe industrialised in advance of the great Asian civilisations, despite still being a comparative backwater in the twelfth century. What appears to set Western Europe apart is not that technological progress occurred at a faster rate than elsewhere, but that progress was more persistent and uninterrupted. The technical knowledge of premodern craftsmen and engineers was largely experience-based; thus, virtually all premodern technical knowledge was, and had to be, transferred in the flesh.
However, 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 premodern technical knowledge stored to avoid loss? How were tacit, visual, verbal, and written means of transmission used heuristically? How was established and new knowledge transmitted?
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