Tech’s Greatest Age of Innovation Happened Already, According to New Stanford Research

Stanford Tech Acceleration

As each individual technological revolution changes the pace of advancement, new data from the Stanford Graduate School of Business reveals the a small handful of years changed our technological trajectory more than any time in human history.

Stanford GSB professor Amit Seru and his research team hoped they could identify trends in innovation so they might understand how large changes in innovative activity move with policy changes. The team built a large “correlation matrix” based on their analysis of over 9 million patent text documents.

They reviewed the “innovative importance of almost every U.S. patent over the past 200 years” to identify historical spikes of large-scale inventing, which they hoped might address more contemporary questions: “Is the right amount of innovation taking place? Is it shifting from large firms to small ones or vice versa? Is it coming from public firms or private firms? Is there a shift toward or away from universities or government agencies?”

Seru and his team found that “their top-ranked patents synced up well with the assessments of historians.” It may not come as a surprise to the general public that some of those major game-changers have taken place over the last 20 years, but according to Seru’s research, “the biggest surge came in the early to mid-1800s,” a time period that featured inventions that “revolutionized transportation, manufacturing, and the nature of big cities,” such as Charles Goodyear’s vulcanized rubber, Elisha Otis’ elevator, and Elias Howe’s sewing machine.

The late 1800s and early 1900s saw a major second wave of innovation, including Bell’s telephone (1876), the internal combustion engine (1877), Edison’s incandescent light bulb (1880), the mechanical calculator, the electric motor (both 1888), the Wright Brothers’ airplane (1906), Philo T. Farnworth’s television, Edwin Armstrong’s FM Radio, and Robert Noyce’s semiconductor. The articles also notes several unsung innovations like Gail Borden’s condensed milk and the safety pin.

Seru concludes, “Economists agree on the importance of technological progress when it comes to fostering economic activity, but we don’t really have many good ways of measuring it, especially over a long horizon. [This] new way of ranking important inventions appears accurate and sets the stage for deeper understanding of the conditions in which real innovation can thrive.”

Click here to read more about the Stanford GSB study.


About the Author

Jonathan Pfeffer

Jonathan Pfeffer joined the Clear Admit and MetroMBA teams in 2015 after spending several years as an arts/culture writer, editor, and radio producer. In addition to his role as contributing writer at MetroMBA and contributing editor at Clear Admit, he is co-founder and lead producer of the Clear Admit MBA Admissions Podcast. He holds a BA in Film/Video, Ethnomusicology, and Media Studies from Oberlin College.

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