Technology, Growth and Printing Press

We know that new technology and information technology in particular can spark enormous long-run economic growth. Today we’re in the middle of an explosion of new info technologies based on computers, networks, and the Internet.  The last time the world experienced a similar phenomenon was probably the invention of printing via moveable type by Gutenberg in Mainz, Germany around 1450.

A new study of the diffusion, spread, and growth triggered by printing at the city level is summarized at voxeu.orgInformation technology and economic change: The impact of the printing press.

Part of what’s new here is the study of growth at the city-level.  A few interesting observations:

I find that cities in which printing presses were established 1450-1500 had no prior growth advantage, but subsequently grew far faster than similar cities without printing presses. …The estimates suggest early adoption of the printing press was associated with a population growth advantage of 21 percentage points 1500-1600,

…Printing presses were not set down at random across European cities. Cities that adopted the printing press 1450-1500 subsequently enjoyed unusual dynamism.

…Cities that adopted print media benefitted from positive spillovers in human capital accumulation and technological change broadly defined. These spillovers exerted an upward pressure on the returns to labour, made cities culturally dynamic, and attracted migrants.

The paper includes some nice maps showing the spread of printing through Europe 1450-1500.

Overall, I think one lesson we can take away is that it does make sense for cities/small states to invest in creating conditions and early adoption of new technology.  This is another role for government. Leaving adoption to the random effects of a totally private market risks letting the growth go to other cities/states.