This essay is based on the working paper “The Rise of the Engineer: Inventing the Professional Inventor During the Industrial Revolution by W. Walker Hanlon.

Recent improvements in artificial intelligence have generated speculation about whether, someday soon, the way that new technologies are developed may be fundamentally altered. Contemplating the possibilities of such a novel paradigm shift in one of the key drivers of longrun prosperity is challenging but also extremely important. Examining historical experience can provide one tool, albeit limited, through which we can approach difficult questions about the future. As we consider the potential consequences of future changes in the process of technology development, it can be useful to search for similar changes in the past. Of course, history does not repeat itself. Historical experience can, however, provide perspective, a fixed point of reference that can be useful as we navigate into an uncertain future.

In “The Rise of the Engineer,” I study how the process of technology development changed during a key turning point in economic history, the Industrial Revolution. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, human societies were trapped in a world of Malthusian stagnation characterized by a very slow rate of technological progress and living standards that fluctuated around a relatively fixed low level. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, which began in Britain in the second half of the eighteenth century and spread from there throughout the world, human societies began breaking away from the previous stagnant equilibrium and launching into sustained modern economic growth. This led, in just over two centuries, to the vast advances in technology and enormous improvements in material living standards that we enjoy today.

Technology development was at the heart of this transition into modern economic growth. Using a wide variety of data sources, I delve into the process of technology development during this formative period. This examination reveals that there was a fundamental, but previously unrecognized, shift in the technology production process during this period. This shift was the emergence of the first specialized group of inventors and designers, a group that began calling themselves engineers.

Engineering work, ranging from the development of new mechanical technologies to the design of major infrastructure project, had obviously been done before the Industrial Revolution. So, what changed? The key difference is that, starting in Britain around the 1770s, we observe the emergence of people specializing in this type of invention and design work. This was a remarkable departure from what we observe up to that point. In the middle of the eighteenth century, most mechanical inventions were produced by manufacturer-inventors. So, for example, we often see textile manufacturers patenting new textile technologies. This is a different innovation system from one in which individuals specialize in producing new machine designs— and then monetize their inventions by selling or licensing their patents or by partnering with business owners (as the steam engine inventor James Watt did with Matthew Boulton).  

A similar process of professionalization was also taking place in civil engineering. The construction of Westminster Bridge, for example, illustrates how civil engineering work was done before the emergence of an engineering profession. To oversee this enormously expensive infrastructure project, Parliament chose Charles Labelye. Labelye may have been brilliant, but he had, up to that point, no experience overseeing major infrastructure projects. That someone with little experience could be put in charge of such an important project was emblematic of how civil engineering was done before the Industrial Revolution. By 1800, this had changed. The emergence of professional engineers—people such as John Smeaton, William Jessop, John Rennie, and Thomas Telford—who led established engineering firms and training the next generation of engineers, made it unthinkable that, after 1800, such an important project would have been entrusted to an inexperienced engineer.

The emergence of a group of individuals that specialized in applied design and innovation— engineers—mattered because, as Adam Smith illustrates with his famous example of the pin factory, specialization can improve productivity. Using patent data, I document that, indeed, engineers were more productive when it came to developing new (and better) technologies than older types of inventors had been. Thus, the emergence of professional engineers represented a fundamental improvement in the way that new technologies were developed. By the middle of the nineteenth century, engineers made up the largest group of British inventors, and the profession was beginning to spread to other countries. Today, engineers play an even more important role in technological development.

What are the implications of these findings for long-run economic growth and prosperity? In standard economic growth theories, the production function through which new technologies are developed is typically fixed. This leads to models in which, conditional on fundamentals, economies approach some constant rate of economic growth. I introduce, in a simple way, the idea that the method through which technologies are developed can shift, in this case through the emergence of a group specialized in developing new innovations. The model shows that a shift in the way new technologies are developed can launch an economy on to a new and more rapid growth path—just as the Industrial Revolution launched Britain, and then the world, into modern economic growth.

Read the full working paper here.

Walker Hanlon is an associate professor in the Department of Economics at Northwestern University. His research focuses on understanding how economies evolve over the long run using novel historical data.

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