Technology and the Era of the Mass Army

The Journal of Economic History, 2014

69 Pages Posted: 11 Dec 2012 Last revised: 8 Jan 2017

See all articles by Massimiliano Gaetano Onorato

Massimiliano Gaetano Onorato

University of Bologna - Department of Economics

Kenneth Scheve

Stanford University

David Stasavage

New York University (NYU)

Date Written: July 1, 2013


War and the extent of mass mobilization for war has a significant impact on a wide variety of economic and political development outcomes. In this paper, we investigate to what extent technological change has influenced the choice by governments to field mass armies. Focusing on a sample of thirteen great powers between 1600 and 2000 we argue that changes in transport and communications technology were the single most important factor that ushered in the era of the mass army and subsequently led to its demise. During the nineteenth century the development of the railroad made it possible for the first time to mobilize and feed armies numbering in the millions. During the late twentieth century further advances in transport and communications technology made it possible to deliver explosive force from a distance and with precision, making mass armies less desirable. We find strong support for our technological interpretation using a new data set that measures army size, population mobilization, and methods of recruitment from the beginning of the seventeenth century. In so doing we also consider several other plausible determinants of military mobilization. Contrary to what is often suggested by scholars, we find little evidence that the French Revolution and the invention of the concept of "the nation in arms" was associated with a substantial increase in levels of mobilization across nations. Even for the French case alone, the magnitude of what is sometimes referred to as the "Napoleonic watershed" was smaller than what is often believed.

Keywords: military, security, soldiers, technological change, technology, technology adoption, war, warfare

JEL Classification: F52, N4, N7, O33

Suggested Citation

Onorato, Massimiliano Gaetano and Scheve, Kenneth F. and Stasavage, David, Technology and the Era of the Mass Army (July 1, 2013). The Journal of Economic History, 2014. Available at SSRN: or

Massimiliano Gaetano Onorato (Contact Author)

University of Bologna - Department of Economics ( email )


Kenneth F. Scheve

Stanford University ( email )

Stanford, CA 94305
United States

David Stasavage

New York University (NYU) ( email )

Bobst Library, E-resource Acquisitions
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