INCREMENTAL TECHNOLOGICAL IMPROVEMENTS—THE PRINTING PRESS. We tend to think of the invention of movable type printing as a single event (that is, Johannes Gutenberg made the invention in about 1450.) It’s taken me a lot of years to realize the importance of whether you think of great inventions as being a stroke of genius by one person or as the result of a process of small improvements. Some fifty years ago, A HISTORY OF MECHANICAL INVENTION by Abbott Payson Usher was on the reading list for my course in economic history. Usher painstakingly worked though a number of important inventions and showed how they grew out of many improvements by craftsmen over a period of centuries. This excellent review essay by George Grantham summarizes Usher’s history of a number of early inventions. Grantham begins with the example of the printing press, which required developments with respect to paper, suitable (oil-based) ink, a press and moveable type. The final problem was fashioning movable type in large numbers, which involved creating molds and finding materials. Grantham says that: “…the synthesis of the various elements that solved this problem was a drawn-out affair lasting from the early 1440s to the 1470s… The invention of printing was not the product of a single mind or even a single firm, but can be seen as a collective effort stretching over a whole generation.”

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