Annual EBHS Conference, 39th Annual Economic and Business History Society Conference

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Innovation and entrepreneurship in Britain, 19th and 20th centuries
José M. Ortiz-Villajos

Last modified: 2014-05-19


Today is generally accepted that innovation is one of the key driving forces of economic development. Nevertheless, many aspects regarding innovation, its determining factors and its historical process remain uncertain or not well understood. Empirical studies using new and more detailed data or different perspectives of specific historical events are needed to improve our knowledge of the innovation process. An example of a well-known historical event in which the role of innovation may still be better understood is the British economic relative decline since the last decades of the 19th century. One of the traditional explanations attributed the decline to entrepreneurial failure, particularly to the diminishing innovativeness of the British entrepreneurs (Aldcroft, 1964; Landes, 1969). This argument received a number of supports (e.g. Allen, 1970; Elbaun and Lazonick, 1986; Chandler, 1990) and criticisms (e.g. McCloskey and Sandberg, 1971) generating a great amount of research. On the whole, the original thesis of entrepreneurial failure has been rejected or, at least, very much qualified (e.g. Casson and Godley, 2010; Foreman-Peck and Hannah, 2012). Nevertheless, the arguments on both sides have mainly been based on a limited number of cases or on qualitative information rather than on quantitative data, particularly relative to innovation. The problem is the lack of broad and systematic information on the innovations actually implemented by British entrepreneurs or firms. This paper tries to contribute to fill this gap by collecting and classifying the significant innovations driven by more than two hundred renowned British entrepreneurs of the 19th and 20th centuries. Our main source has been the Dictionary of Business Biography edited by David J. Jeremy (1984-86). This source has already been used to analyse some debated questions such as the origins, wealth or performance of the British business leaders (e.g. Nicholas, 1999), but not their innovativeness. Thus, this study provides new evidences of the innovation activity of the British business elite from circa 1820 to 1960, which will be helpful not only to clarify some aspects of the aforementioned debate, but also to learn more about the trends and features of the innovation process in Britain and in general.