Human capital, knowledge and economic development: evidence from the British Industrial Revolution, 1750–1930



Abstract: Endogenous growth models raise fundamental questions about the nature of human creativity, and the sorts of resources, skills, and knowledge inputs that shift the frontier of technology and production possibilities. Many argue that the experience of early British industrialization supports the thesis that economic advances depend on specialized scientific training, the acquisition of costly human capital, and the role of elites. This paper examines the contributions of different types of knowledge to industrialization, by assessing the backgrounds, education and inventive activity of major contributors to technological advances in Britain during the crucial period between 1750 and 1930. The results indicate that scientists, engineers or technicians were not well-represented among the cadre of important British inventors, and their contributions remained unspecialized until very late in the nineteenth century. The informal institution of apprenticeship and learning on the job provided effective means to enable productivity and innovation. For developing countries today, the implications are that costly investments in specialized human capital resources might be less important than incentives for creativity, flexibility, and the ability to make incremental adjustments that can transform existing technologies into inventions and innovations that are appropriate for prevailing domestic conditions.