NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Distributing Knowledge for Invention's Sake

December 10, 2002

In a new book entitled "The Gifts of Athena" (Princeton University Press), Northwestern University economic historian Joel Mokyr examines how people came to organize and exchange useful knowledge. The process of exchanging useful ideas did not always exist, he argues, and had to await certain cultural developments in the 19th and 20th centuries.

  • Lots of things were invented in the Middle Ages, but those doing the inventing were out in the field with no connection to the educated elite -- and they had no general theories to explain and extend their inventions.
  • That changed in the 19th Century, when individual inventors not only flourished, but sparked still more inventions and continuing economic growth.
  • The reasons for this propitious change were that the ideal of open science prevailed, widely applicable scientific theories were developed and cultural changes connected practical and theoretical knowledge -- and made both more widely accessible.
  • Scientists and inventors were no longer satisfied by knowing that a thing worked, but sought to determine why and how it worked -- in other words, fundamental knowledge spared many an inventor a dead end.

The third important aspect of the "Industrial Enlightenment," Professor Mokyr writes, was the bridges it built between "those who controlled propositional knowledge" including scientific generalizations, "and those who carried out the techniques contained in prescriptive knowledge" -- that is, the practical expertise in fields like agriculture, engineering and navigation.

Practitioners and theorists no longer remained socially or intellectually isolated from one another -- a change which allowed knowledge to be applied and extended in all sorts of fields.

Source: Virginia Postrel (author of "The Future and Its Enemies"), "Economic Scene: When Knowledge Was Spread Around, So Was Prosperity," New York Times, December 5, 2002.


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