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Was Mechanization De-Skilling? The Origins of Task-Biased Technical Change

40 Pages Posted: 25 Mar 2011 Last revised: 31 Jan 2012

James E. Bessen

Boston University - School of Law; Research on Innovation

Date Written: March 18, 2011


Did nineteenth century technology reduce demand for skilled workers in contrast to modern technology? I obtain direct evidence on human capital investments and the returns to skill by using micro-data on individual weavers and an engineering production function. Weavers learned substantially on the job. While mechanization eliminated some tasks and the associated skills, it increased returns to skill on the remaining tasks. Technical change was task-biased, much as with computer technology. As more tasks were automated, weavers’ human capital increased substantially. Although technology increased the demand for skill like today, weavers’ wages eventually increased and inequality decreased, contrary to current trends.

Keywords: Skill-Biased Technical Change, Technology, Engineering Production Function, Mechanization, Human Capital, Wage Inequality, Learning-by-Doing

JEL Classification: J31, N31, O33

Suggested Citation

Bessen, James E., Was Mechanization De-Skilling? The Origins of Task-Biased Technical Change (March 18, 2011). Boston Univ. School of Law Working Paper No. 11-13. Available at SSRN: or

James E. Bessen (Contact Author)

Boston University - School of Law ( email )

765 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston, MA 02215
United States

Research on Innovation ( email )

202 High Head Rd.
Harpswell, ME 04079
United States
617-531-2092 (Phone)

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