A General Purpose Technology at Work: The Corliss Steam Engine in the Late 19th Century Us

68 Pages Posted: 28 Sep 2001 Last revised: 3 Feb 2015

See all articles by Nathan Rosenberg

Nathan Rosenberg

Independent

Manuel Trajtenberg

Tel Aviv University - Eitan Berglas School of Economics; Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR); National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

Date Written: September 2001

Abstract

The steam engine is widely regarded as the icon of the Industrial Revolution and a prime example of a 'General Purpose Technology,' and yet its contribution to growth is far from transparent. This paper examines the role that a particular innovative design in steam power, the Corliss engine, played in the intertwined processes of industrialization and urbanization that characterized the growth of the US economy in the late 19th century. Waterpower offered abundant and cheap energy, but restricted the location of manufacturing just to areas with propitious topography and climate. Steam engines offered the possibility of relaxing this severe constraint, allowing industry to locate where key considerations such as access to markets for inputs and outputs directed. The enhanced performance of the Corliss engine as well as its fuel efficiency helped tip the balance in favor of steam in the fierce contest with waterpower. With the aid of detailed data on the location of Corliss engines and waterwheels and a two-stage estimation strategy, we show that the deployment of Corliss engines indeed served as a catalyst for the massive relocation of industry away from rural areas and into large urban centers, thus fueling agglomeration economies, and attracting further population growth. This illustrates what we believe is an important aspect of the dynamics of GPTs, whether it is electricity in the early 20th century or Information Technologies in the present era: the fact that GPTs induce the widespread and more efficient relocation of economic activity, which in turn fosters long-term growth.

Suggested Citation

Rosenberg, Nathan and Trajtenberg, Manuel, A General Purpose Technology at Work: The Corliss Steam Engine in the Late 19th Century Us (September 2001). NBER Working Paper No. w8485. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=285594

Nathan Rosenberg (Contact Author)

Independent

No Address Available

Manuel Trajtenberg

Tel Aviv University - Eitan Berglas School of Economics ( email )

P.O. Box 39040
Ramat Aviv, Tel Aviv, 69978
Israel
+972 3640 9911 (Phone)
+972 3640 9908 (Fax)

Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR)

London
United Kingdom

National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

1050 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

Register to save articles to
your library

Register

Paper statistics

Downloads
53
Abstract Views
2,243
rank
373,795
PlumX Metrics