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

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The Geography of Innovation: Patents in Early America
Elisabeth Ruth Perlman

Last modified: 2014-05-19


This paper explores the relationship between urbanization and innovation in nineteenth-century America, as measured through number of patents issued. The shape of this relationship is not well understood. It is clear that large, dense cities are more innovative than other places, but it is also clear that such a population is not enough to induce technological improvements (Kowloon Walled City was not reputed for its great innovations). This paper maps the relationship between patents and population for all counties in the United States, 1790-1900, not just populous or innovative locations. While all low density locations do not patent, many medium density places patent and many do not. Only the largest cities, with the highest densities, seem to always patent. This paper also revisits the Sokoloff (1988) hypothesis that increasing market access through the spread of transportation infrastructure leads to an acceleration of innovation and makes use of a full-text searchable database of all patents to explore the generation and spread of interrelated ideas across time and space.