Examining The Most Innovative Eras in U.S. History

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Today it might seem like a given that power lines in your neighborhood and electrical sockets in your house provide the same current to anyone who plugs in.

But the idea of standardized service for electricity and for railroads, along with the notion of "a common carrier," was once something new—and rare. In the case of railroads, establishing train lines as "common carriers" set the stage for massive transformations of the economy.

It's something Edmund Phelps, economics professor at Columbia University and winner of the 2006 Nobel prize in economics, thinks brought in one of the most innovative eras of American history—a time we stand to learn a few lessons from as we try to keep our workplaces from stagnating today.

Phelps's most recent book is “Mass Flourishing.” He argues that in order to grasp innovation we must look back in time—not forward.

"Suddenly in the 19th century you have people coming together in cities and working together in factories, offices and companies," says Phelps. "The whole character of work was completely transformed—this was the birth of innovation in the world."

Phelps says that while there are still pockets of considerable innovation in the American economy, the U.S. is now a pale shadow of what it once was. 

"The aggregate rate of innovation as measured by its impact on productivity is much, much smaller than the country had between the 1820s and 1940, or even 1960," he says. "We have to explain to young people that business is not just some sort of getting through the day by solving the problems of the day. Its an opportunity to exercise creativity and imagination."

How can the innovation mentality of yesteryear be fully realized today? Listen to the full interview to find out.


Edmund Phelps

Produced by:

Mythili Rao


T.J. Raphael

Comments [3]


Professor Phelps, wasn't part of the reason that the U.S. was first in innovation for over 200 years, our unique and superior patent system, that allowed any American to file for patent protection on their new idea and profit from it, regardless of their original economic standing? Don't the exorbitant (extortionate?) costs of our current patent system, together with the recent drastic changes to patent law, made by Congress (including replacing our proven, 200+ year old, 'first-to-invent' system, with a European style 'first-to-file' system) make it almost impossible for the average start-up, or individual inventor to afford to seek patent protection? What is going to happen to the next generation of American innovators if they can't afford to get good IP protection on their inventions? How can anyone under the age of 30 afford to get (and protect) a patent on an invention they may have? How can they get investor money if they don't have an actual ISSUED patent of high quality (a preliminary filing won't do)?

Shouldn't you explore what the affects of the AIA (the 'America Invents Act') could be on the future of American innovation and who will benefit the most from the changes that Congress made to our longstanding patent laws?

Jan. 16 2014 09:50 PM
Michael Marciel from Orlando, FL

The reason that we have moved away from a county of 'tinkerers' is because corporate America needs interchangeable components for it's workforce, and don't want dreamers. Also corporate America is risk adverse.Only certain people are allowed to have good ideas because a bad idea can potentially cost the company money. So a small group of people are encourage to take risks and if they fail the damaged is contained. They also do not want innovation from it's workers, because innovation is for the 'boss' class, and if an idea is successful, they (being upper management)need to mare sure they get part of the credit (normally this is expressed via more money). They can't have any lone inventors looking better than them.

Jan. 15 2014 02:20 PM
Bill Planey from Dallas, TX

We will never return to a country of widespread innovation until schools return to requiring some of the old standard courses that gave us a sense of how to handle materials in the physical world. Courses like shop, home economics and auto repair taught much more than what was on the syllabus. Budgeting, specifying, anticipating the effects of materials falling or touching or rubbing together; the vast majority of us have NO SENSE of the physics of life and very few can do simple maintenance on our homes or automobiles. The lack of childhood jobs like delivering newspapers and mowing lawns is also giving us a set of future leaders who have little ability to reason mechanically, a skill that is not just important for designing consumer products, but I contend, for simply anticipating the general dangers of life.

Jan. 15 2014 01:14 PM

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