University of Sussex
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The evolution of new combinations: drivers of British maritime engineering competitiveness during the nineteenth century

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posted on 2023-06-08, 11:52 authored by Sandro Mendonca
This work is an attempt to explore early British steamship innovation during the 19th century from the point of view of innovation studies. The proposed analytical framework draws on neo-Schumpeterian and evolutionary economics for understanding the patterns and factors behind the phenomenon of technical change in the capital good under analysis. The thesis aims at filling a gap in the maritime economic and technological history literature, namely the issues connected to the process through which modern (mechanically-propelled, iron-hulled, screw-driven) ocean transportation emerged. Two inter-related research questions are addressed: how and why did steamships evolve in the course of the 19th century? In other words, the present research focuses on describing the dynamics of technological evolution and on identifying the key drivers of those developments. While the thesis includes a review of the relevant literature (Part I), the main work consists of original empirical research (Parts II and III). The bulk of this work primarily rests on the compilation of two new main bodies of quantitative and qualitative evidence. First, a previously unpublished dataset on the population and characteristics of steamers is used to measure the rate and direction of technical change in steamers. Second, previously unpublished archival material is used to reconstruct the innovation processes of marine engineers and naval architects and the civil society arrangements around them. The results suggest a number of stylised facts and institutional variables that have been subject to little discussion in the extant literature. On one hand, time-series and other statistical analyses suggest a technological “take-off” of steamship performance by the mid-19th century. This turning point, which was the outcome of a complex but rapid process of structural reconfiguration (the transition from wood-paddle to iron-screw as the new “dominant design”), occurred between the late 1830s and the late 1840s particularly among cargo traders and unsubsidised packets. On the other hand, documentary evidence shows that such technological breakthroughs were preceded and supported by a specific set of institutional innovations. These included the emergence of voluntary engineering associations, technical mass media and a not-for-profit ship classification society within the British national system of innovation. The thesis argues that the process of revolutionary technological innovation leading to the economically efficient long-haul merchant steamer cannot be separated from the rise of a vibrant interactive environment promoting learning, knowledge integration and technological accumulation, which may be called a “technological public sphere”.


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  • SPRU - Science Policy Research Unit Theses

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  • doctoral

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  • eng


University of Sussex

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