Virginia Postrel has an interesting column and comment in her weblog regarding the success of the Industrial Revolution. Joel Mokyr, author of The Lever of Riches, has a new book The Gifts of Athena in which he argues the success of the Industrial Revolution was due to cultural encouragements to share information.
Through most of human history, periods of invention did not create sustained economic growth. Population might increase because, say, agricultural yields improved. But eventually the standard of living returned to its old equilibrium.
That pattern changed in the 19th century. Individual inventions not only flourished but also sparked still more inventions and continuing economic growth.
“The true question of the Industrial Revolution is not why it took place at all but why it was sustained beyond, say, 1820,” Professor Mokyr writes.
The reason, he argues, lies in what he calls the Industrial Enlightenment, a series of cultural changes that connected practical and theoretical knowledge and made both more widely accessible.
Beginning in the late 18th century, he writes, the Industrial Enlightenment “sought to reduce access costs by surveying and cataloging artisanal practices” so best practices could spread.