The Lever of Riches

lever-of-richesThe subtitle of this book by Joel Mokyr is “Technological Creativity and Economic Progress.” I requested the book to be sent to my local library after reading a reference that sounded interesting in “A Case for Nuclear-Generated Electricity” (reviewed previously). The author of that book observed that Mokyr discussed how China transitioned from being a technological, military, and economic power to becoming a backward country pushed around by the world because, simplistically, it stopped embracing innovation. I wanted to learn more so I obtained Mokyr’s book.

I’ll dispense with some of the bad news first. Mokyr should have had the friend who edited my first book “An Insider’s View of Rocky Flats: Urban Myths Debunked” by telling me I had the “curse of knowledge.” That curse results in putting much more information into a book than readers need. My “curse of knowledge” was less overwhelming than Mokyr’s. I must admit that I skimmed sections of the book looking for information of interest beyond the frequent lengthy dissertations about how the author disagrees with some or many other writers.

For the good news, anyone interested in the history of inventions and technology making it past the bad news should be fascinated with this book. I predict few will read the complete book.

The first sentence of the introduction says, “…the best predictor of the living standard that a newborn baby can expect to enjoy is the accident of where he or she is born.” Detailed analyses are given about areas of the world where the development of technology was and is embraced with resultant improvement in living standards. Technology was judged to be harmful in other areas with resultant economic stagnation. Europeans generally wanted to exploit new knowledge to acquire wealth. The British are said to have been particularly good at developing new technology because they tended to be “tinkerers.”  Islam and Judaism believed everything that was needed had already been invented and challenging tradition with new things was sacrilegious. Muslims went so far that their word for innovation “bidaa” was equivalent to heresy.

Mokyr observes that technology was not the single reason for the success of the West. He credits development of law, trade, administration, and institutions as being part of the story. However, “…technological creativity was at the very base of the rise of the West. It was the lever of its riches.”

Not all Europeans embraced technology. The workers who would be displaced by an invention were often organized and could at least temporarily block the use. Consumers who would profit from the invention weren’t organized. The inventor of a ribbon loom was reportedly drowned in 1579 under orders of the Danzig city council. There were also the Luddites who destroyed machines and any automated looms they could find to protect their hand weaving jobs. Laws were often passed prohibiting machinery but usually became ineffective.  There is a footnote that Pope Gregory the Great burned libraries of classical writings about 600 A.D. “…to prevent such writings from distracting the devout from reflecting on pious subjects.”

Chapter nine is titled “China and Europe.” I read that entire chapter because it was the reason I obtained the book. “In the centuries before 1400, The Chinese developed an amazing technological momentum …at a rate as fast or faster than Europe. The list of Chinese inventions is impressive. One was paper, which took more than a millennium to reach the West. However, technological progress began to slow in China about the time the Renaissance began in Europe. The Chinese actually lost some of the technology they had been using and “…in 1600 their technological backwardness was apparent to most visitors…” There were several examples where Chinese technology was lost or forgotten.

The reasons for the change in China were not as clearly stated. Technology takes hold more readily when there is weak government, and the Chinese emperors were absolute and autocratic. There was little if any of the “political competition” that was found in the multiple governments across Europe. Progress occurs when it has the good will of government and the rulers in China were more interested in suppressing anything that challenged the status quo. The Confucian party had an influence by advocating the “old ways were best.”

There is a lengthy discussion about patents. Inventors who are able to obtain patents can live well off their inventions. There are several examples given of inventors who were denied patents because of technicalities but were sufficiently clever to obtain patents secondary to their original ideas. (The book was copyrighted in 1990. I expect the author would have much more to say about patents in the technology world of today where patents and patent attorneys play such a huge role.)

The author describes the nonscientific taproots of invention to be serendipity, luck, and inspiration. (One specific example of that was how a broken thermometer led Badische Anilin und Soda Fabrik (BASF) to use mercury sulfate as a catalyst in the production of indigo.) Even more interesting to me is that he says the old saying “Necessity is the mother of invention” has it backwards. He says invention is the mother of necessity. How many machines and articles do we have in our homes that we cannot imagine living without? I cannot imagine life without electricity and all the machines and lights it powers, a washing machine, refrigerator, stove, garage door opener, computer, etc., etc.

I cannot recommend this book to the casual reader. I do recommend it as a resource for those interested in the history of inventions and their inventors.

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