This was much aided by the invention of the printing press, of course, the growing mobility of people and goods, the existence of a lingua franca, and the creation of an international community of knowledge that corresponded with one another, read each others’ books, and began to share standards for what was to be believed and what was to be rejected.
The real culprit for the lack of technologically-induced growth was that not enough was known. This seems to be a tautology, and requires some elaboration. Basically, the argument in a nutshell is that technology consists of techniques or routines which in the final analysis are sets of instructions – tacit or codified – that tell people how to produce. Yet these routines rest on some underlying body of “useful knowledge” about the natural phenomena and regularities that make them possible.1 All techniques rest on some epistemic base that contains the knowledge of nature and the environment that makes it possible. Early farming still exploited knowledge of the seasons and the regularity that the offspring of two animals with some salient characteristic was more likely to display this characteristic. The popular distinction between “science-based” techniques and empirical techniques refers to the degree of formalization and generality of the knowledge, but this seems less than useful for the economic historian. Natural regularities may be as “unscientific” as the cataloguing of trade winds and the realization of the movements of the tides, which were harnessed for the techniques of transportation and shipping. Especially in the second half of the eighteenth century natural philosophers became less obsessed with “truth” and more with the cataloguing of measurable relations between variables, preferring to learn what could be computed and what worked (Heilbron, 1990). The modern notions of “science” may look as primitive to some future person as pre-Copernican astronomy and pre- Lavoisier chemistry do to us.
An epistemic base can be narrow or it can be wider. In the extreme case, all that is known is that a technique works. The measure of the epistemic base can just be bound between zero and infinity, since it is inconceivable that everything will be known. What we can say is that epistemic bases can become wider as more is known. To some extent, this is associated with the rise of modern science. But epistemic bases can also increase with engineering and artisanal knowledge, better understanding of the characteristics of animals and materials, improved knowledge of geography and topography and many other areas in which useful knowledge expanded but which are not necessarily part of the formal and
1The term “useful knowledge” is defined in some detail in Joel Mokyr, The Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy, 2002. The term has been used by economists asking similar questions such as Machlup and Kuznets. See Fritz Machlup, Knowledge: Its Creation, Distribution and Economic Significance. 3 Volumes, 1980-84., Simon Kuznets, Economic Growth and Structure ,1965. For this paper it will be limited to knowledge pertaining to natural phenomena and regularities that can be harnessed for physical production.