The Idea of Improvement

Sunday, August 28th, 2016

What caused innovation to accelerate in so many different industries during the British Industrial Revolution? Anton Howes suggests the emergence of an idea that was even simpler and more fundamental than systematic experimentation or Newtonian mechanics, though it was implicit to each of them — the idea of improvement itself:

I present new evidence on the sources of inspiration and innovation-sharing habits of 677 people who innovated in Britain between 1651 and 1851. The vast majority of these people — at least 80% — had some kind of contact with innovators before they themselves started to innovate. These connections were not always between members of the same industry, and innovators could improve areas in which they lacked expertise. This suggests the spread, not of particular skills or knowledge, but of an improving mentality. The persistent failure to implement some innovations for centuries before the Industrial Revolution, despite the availability of sufficient materials, knowledge, and demand, further suggests that prior societies may have failed to innovate quite simply because the improving mentality was absent. As to what made Britain special, we cannot know for sure without constructing similarly exhaustive lists of innovators for other societies. But a likely candidate is that the vast majority of innovators — at least 83% — shared innovation in some way, while only 12% tried to stifle it. Just like a religion or a political ideology, the improving mentality spread from person to person, and to be successful required effective preachers and proselytisers too.

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