August 26, 2015

Nathan Rosenberg, 1927-2015

Economic historian Nathan Rosenberg died Monday. Although I never met him, his pioneering work and students shaped the field of innovation studies that I joined more than 20 years ago.

Although his festschrift issue of Research Policy was published in September 2014 — a few weeks before I started graduate school, I saw his shadow across the work that I studied, particularly through his ongoing collaborations with former student David Mowery. The influence on people like Mowery, Dick Nelson and Ed Steinmueller — people I did meet — was palpable.

These three wrote in their introduction to the special issue:
Rosenberg’s work has influenced economists and social scientists in a number of disciplines, as well as engineers, managers and policymakers. As participants in the November 1992 conference pointed out, Rosenberg numbers among his ‘students’ a much larger and more diverse scholarly population than is true of many of his contemporaries.

Rosenberg’s research in the economics of technological innovation has sought to ‘unpack’ this important economic process and peer inside the ‘black box’ of technology. He has emphasized the need to separate scientific from technological advances, recognizing the complex interaction be- tween these intertwined processes. Much of his historical research has addressed the changing relationship between scientific and technological advance in the industrial economies of the 19th and 20th centuries in such industries as machine tools, bridge design and construction, telecommunications, chemicals, and forest products.
Even though I never met him, it was clear that Rosenberg had legitimated economic history for people who came later — both in general, and in particular for those seeking to study innovation and technological change.

As Richard (Dick) Langlois wrote in his blog posting Tuesday at Organizations and Markets:
Nate was unarguably one of the most important economic historians and students of technological change of our era. He was also a one of the most important influences on my work.

I still regret that, out of ignorance, I didn’t take full advantage of all the resources available to me when I was a graduate student at Stanford. But Nate was a partial exception. I sat in on his course on history of economic thought; and when it came time to choose a thesis committee, he was kind enough to agree to be a member. I remember having a number of long conversations with him in his office in Encina Hall, although his greatest influence on me was through his writings. Nate had an eye for looking into — and theorizing about in a non-formal way — the micro structure of technology and innovation.

I think Nate’s influence shows through on the range of my own work, including that with Paul Robertson. … I was also fortunate to become part of the invisible college of technology economics of which Nate (along with Dick Nelson and others) was a dean, and I was fortunate to collaborate with other fellow Rosenberg students like David Mowery and Ed Steinmueller on policy-focused industry histories, another Rosenberg specialty.
Josh Gans offered his own obituary on Digitopoly.

I made a list of his most-cited works according to Google Scholar, each with over 1,000 cites (despite Google’s bias towards publications since 1994):
Interestingly, after his oft-cited book chapter, everything on this list is either a book or a Research Policy article. His next-most cited work [965] was How the West Grew Rich, a 1987 book with LE Birdzell that argues “ it is the political pluralism and the flexibility of the West's institutions — not corporate organization and mass production technology—that explain its unparalleled wealth.”

I looked at how I cited Rosenberg in my own work. The first citation (of Mowery & Nelson, 1979) came in the 2000 book chapter comparing the launch of cell phone service in Japan, Europe and the US. (This is what I salvaged from a dissertation topic that I had defended, then had to abandon when the data proved lacking for a proper economic history). The article would have been central in my dissertation: it laid out the tension of technology push vs. demand pull, which was crucial both to the U.S. cellphone story (a rare case where technology push succeeded beyond expectations) and the international comparison (trying to prove my proposition that expectations of demand were partly self-fulfilling.)

One thing that informed his first book was his early research on how technological change in machine tools impacted U.S. industrialization in the last half of the 19th century and first half 20th century. What’s old is new again: in the 21st century, additive manufacturing technologies (particularly 3D printing) will be transforming the production of tangible goods in the U.S. and other developed countries. I am studying this, as are OI scholars such as George Kuk, Tim Minshall, Letitizia Mortara and Frank Piller. His work will be instructive as to the importance of context and technological change in understanding the economic impacts of a new technology.

Rosenberg’s worked showed the subtle interplay between the technical and the economic, and set the standard for the economic historians studying technological change. While he is no longer with us, his work lives on and will continue to shape how we approach such problems.

Photo: from Rosenberg’s official SIEPR web page.

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