The Evolution of Useful Knowledge: Great Inventors, Science and Technology in British Economic Development, 1750-1930

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"The Evolution of Useful Knowledge: Great Inventors, Science and Technology

in British Economic Development, 1750-1930"

B. Zorina Khan

Bowdoin College and NBER


Kenneth Sokoloff


“If for four centuries there had been a very widely extended franchise ... the threshing machine, the power loom, the spinning jenny, and possibly the steam-engine, would have been prohibited” --Sir Henry Sumner Maine (1885)


Endogenous growth models are based on the premise that knowledge and ideas comprise a significant source of economic development. These models raise fundamental questions about the nature of human capital, what knowledge, skills, and other personal characteristics are conducive to extraordinary creativity, and how those factors vary over time and with the field of endeavor. They imply that our understanding of early economic progress requires an assessment of the types of knowledge inputs which were in elastic supply, and were responsive to economic incentives. Walt Rostow, for instance, contended that one of the preconditions for economic and social progress is an advance in scientific knowledge and applications, inputs which typically are scarce in many developing countries.1 Nathan Rosenberg similarly highlights the determining role of science and the growth of specialized knowledge.2 Others regard scientists as disinterested individuals who are motivated by intangible rewards such as enhanced reputations and honour, the desire to benefit mankind, or the pursuit of timeless truths, rather than material benefits. If highly specialized skills and scientific knowledge are prerequisites for generating productivity gains, but such inputs are in scarce or inelastic supply, this has important implications for development policy measures.

These issues have been widely debated, especially in the context of industrialization in Britain and explanations for its subsequent loss of competitiveness. Still, little consensus has emerged from the plethora of contributions to this topic. A number of scholars support the Rostovian argument. According to some, the theoretical elitist biases of the European scientific establishment help to explain why Britain and not (say) France, was the first industrial nation. They point to examples of formal and informal links between scientific discoveries and technological change, and conclude that Britain's industrial lead depended on its scientific standing.3 A classic but contested example of such ties is the influence of scientist Joseph Black on James Watt's improvement on the steam engine.4 Similarly, John Roebuck and Charles Tennant applied chemical knowledge to produce sulphuric acid through a lead-chamber process that increased output and reduced prices, and improved inputs into textile bleaching.5 The eighteenth-century Lunar Society is consistently cited as proof by association of the relationship between natural philosophy and practical discoveries that increased industrial productivity.6 Related institutions in the nineteenth century included the Surrey and London Institutions, as well as the "X-Club," a small number of influential scientists who attended social and professional monthly dinners.7 More general enthusiasm for scientific studies was manifested in the rapid growth of less-eminent scientific and natural philosophy societies, whose number increased from fewer than fifty at the end of the eighteenth century, to over 1000 by the 1880s.8 Extreme versions of the "science matters" thesis go so far as to propose that "virtually all" inventors in Britain during the industrial revolution were influenced by scientific advances.9

David Landes produced a prominent exposition of the opposing thesis that science did not influence early British advances in technology, and researchers in this tradition concur that the industrial revolution "owed virtually nothing to science."10 British innovations toward the end of the eighteenth century and at the start of the nineteenth century were largely produced by artisans who had little formal education, and who benefited from apprenticeships and on-the-job learning. Significant problems such as measurement of longitude at sea were solved by relatively uneducated artisans rather than through the application of abstract or formal scientific observation. A number of other studies highlight the reciprocal nature of interactions between industry and academic science.11 For instance, Neil McKendrick's guarded conclusion was that science "played a necessary but not sufficient role."12 Many such researchers emphasize that until the middle of the nineteenth century science and engineering were closer to "organized common sense." More formal scientific endeavours of the day owed to skittish dons or aristocratic amateurs, whose efforts were directed to impractical pursuits and general principles in astronomy, magnetism, mathematics, botany and chemistry, rather than to useful knowledge.13 Joel Mokyr's recent book highlights the impact of the rational scientific revolution in the seventeenth century, but his emphasis is on the general influence of the intellectual and methodological developments of Bacon, Hooke and Newton, rather than on specific applications of their scientific results to industry.14 According to this perspective, those who focus simply on pure scientific discoveries miss much of the point, since valuable knowledge was drawn from a combination of tatonnement and conscious insight. However, Mokyr would likely agree that ultimately developments in science and engineering on the European continent led to advances in chemicals, steel, electricity, whereas the scientific and technical backwardness of British institutions and education contributed to its relative decline.

As these diverse propositions suggest, significant aspects of the relationship between knowledge, science and technology in the industrial revolution still remain unresolved, in part because the discussion tends to be framed in terms that are not subject to falsification. We wish to address these issues by defining scientific inputs as individuals with demonstrable scientific credentials. Clearly this approach has its drawbacks, but it also allows us to present results that are explicitly measurable, which can be compared to the more detailed historical accounts. The analysis is based on a sample of "great inventors" who were included in biographical dictionaries because of their contributions to technological progress. We traced the inventors who received formal training in science and engineering, as well as wider dimensions of achievement such as membership in the Royal Society, scientific eminence, publications, and the receipt of prizes and nonmonetary rewards. The variables from the biographical entries were supplemented with information from patent records on the numbers of patents filed over the individual's lifetime, the length of the inventor's patenting career, the industry in which he was active, and the degree of specialization at invention.15 Thus, we are able to examine the backgrounds, education and inventive activity of the major contributors to technological advances in Britain during the crucial period between 1750 and 1930.

The analysis focuses on the role of different types of knowledge in British industrialization. More generally, the results have the potential to enhance our understanding of the determinants of shifts in the frontiers of technology during early economic growth. The plan of the paper is as follows. Section 1 describes how the "great inventors" sample was compiled, and the birthplace and science backgrounds of the inventors. Section 2 examines the characteristics of the great inventors in terms of their social and educational backgrounds. We then present the patterns of patenting of the great inventors, and compare the productivity of scientists and nonscientists, and their responsiveness to material incentives. Finally, we discuss the results from multivariate analysis and offer a conclusion.


The set of "great inventors" was compiled from biographical dictionaries, including the 2004 Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (DNB), and the Biographical Dictionary of the History of Technology (BD), among others.16 Our objective was to compile a sample of individuals who had made significant contributions to technological products and productivity. This accorded more with the intent of the BD, whose contributing authors were specialists in the particular technological field that they examined. The DNB's objective was somewhat different, for its editors intended to incorporate "not just the great and good, but people who have left a mark for any reason, good, bad, or bizarre."  The volume employed inconsistent terminology in the occupational titles of its biographies, and the mention of inventors or inventions either in the title or text did not necessarily imply that the person in question had made a significant contribution to the course of technical change. For instance, their listings included Walter Wingfield ("inventor of lawn tennis"); Rowland Emett (cartoonist and "inventor of whimsical creations"); as well as the inventors of Plasticine, Pimm's cocktail, self-rising flour and Meccano play sets. At the same time, Henry Bessemer is described as a steel manufacturer, Henry Fourdrinier as a paper manufacturer, and Lord Kelvin as a mathematician and physicist. A large fraction of the technological inventors are featured in the DNB as engineers even though the majority had no formal training. Other inventors are variously described as pioneers, developers, promoters or designers. Edward Sonsadt is omitted altogether although elsewhere he is regarded as an "inventive genius."17 We therefore supplemented these two volumes with other biographical compilations, and numerous books that were based on the life of a specific inventor.18 Although a few of the entries in any such sample would undoubtedly be debatable, this triangulation of sources minimizes the possibility of egregious error.19

The resulting British great inventors data set is comparable to other compilations of important inventors and their patenting activity in the United States during the same period.20 Our current British sample is based on 434 men and one woman who made significant contributions to technological products and productivity, and who produced at least one invention between 1790 and 1930. These British inventors include well-known icons as Sir Humphry Davy, Sherard Osborn Cowper-Coles, John Dunlop, Charles Macintosh, Charles Babbage, Edmund Cartwright, Lord Kelvin, Guglielmo Marconi and George Stephenson. The lone woman inventor, Henrietta Vansittart (1833-1883), is referenced in the DNB as an engineer whose educational background is unknown.21 She improved upon her father's screw propeller invention, for which she obtained two British patents and awards from a number of countries.

[TABLE 1 BIRTHPLACE] The majority of great inventors were born in the South of England, and London stands out especially as the birthplace of a fairly constant share of the scientist inventors who were born in the nineteenth century. The birth cohort before 1780 contributed to the onset of industrialization, and it is striking that almost a quarter of the great inventors during this critical period originated from Scotland and other locations outside of England. For instance, Sir Isaac Holden, who is regarded as a prominent contributor to wool-combing technology, was born in 1807 near Glasgow, Scotland. Other noted inventors who were born in other regions of Britain include Lord Kelvin (Ireland), Richard Roberts (Wales), and Warren de la Rue (Guernsey). The famous Marc Isambard Brunel was born in Normandy, France, and such foreign-born inventors increased among the birth cohorts after 1820, including Gugliemo Marconi, Gisbert Johann Kapp, and Sir John Gustav Jarmay. It is noticeable that inventors who were born outside of England tended to be disproportionately trained in science, as indicated by the fraction of scientists (approximately 37 percent) relative to nonscientists (26 percent.)

Table 2 (Science background) presents the distribution of inventors in terms of their science background and changes over the course of industrialization. There is some ambiguity about what a "scientist" connotes, so we examine three alternative measures of scientific orientation: formal education; eminence as gauged by listing in biographical dictionaries of scientists; and membership in the Royal Society. Approximately 20 percent of the great inventors were educated at the post-secondary level in the sciences, mathematics or medicine. Similarly, 16.6 percent could be considered as eminent scientists. A significant number (20.7 percent of all inventors) were Fellows of the Royal Society. The data suggest that a change in the nature of important technological innovations occurred after 1870, since scientists accounted for a significantly higher proportion of inventors after this period. For instance, the percent of inventors with formal scientific training increased from 20 percent in 1852-1870 to 33.3 percent between 1871-1890. These patterns are even more marked for great inventors with formal education in engineering, who comprised 11.1 percent of all inventors. Inventors with formal engineering qualifications increased from a mere 1 percent before 1820, to 25.4 percent of all great inventors by 1871-1890. Since part of our concern is with the contribution of this sort of specialized knowledge to innovation, the following section further explores the extent of formal training among the great inventors, and the role of education in science and engineering over the course of industrialization.


Economic studies have shown the importance of appropriate institutions in promoting self-sustaining growth, and imply that the rate and direction of useful knowledge could be hampered, if not retarded, by flaws and inefficiencies in key institutions. The epigraph by Sir Henry Sumner Maine suggests that Britain long remained an oligarchic society that was convinced that merit was causally related to inherited class. The United States arguably was able to assume economic leadership in part because institutions such as its educational and political systems offered inducements to all classes of society to contribute to the growth process, and allocated rewards that were commensurate with an individual's productivity rather than his social provenance. The British educational system, in particular, failed to match up to institutes of higher learning in Germany and the United States and has been portrayed as a hindrance to economic advancement.22 However, the costs of such policies are a function of the degree to which productive economic activities depended on the acquisition of these sorts of human capital.

[Figure1 Education and Invention]

Figure 1 examines the distributions of great inventors by birth cohort in terms of their educational background. The great inventors were more educated than the general population, but it is clear that formal training was not a prerequisite for important invention in the early period of industrialization. The majority of great inventors had no formal education beyond the primary or secondary school levels, even as late as the 1821-1845 cohort. Thus, these patterns refute the claim that "virtually all of the inventors" had exposure to scientific training, and is more consistent with the notion that the industrial revolution drew on traditional institutions that enhanced individual abilities such as apprenticeships and on the job training.23 The route of apprenticeship was taken by an impressive roster of great inventors, including some who came from quite privileged backgrounds. Apprenticeship was a flexible source of human capital acquisition, which did not preclude social mobility or further education. The skills that the inventor obtained could be combined with night-school or attendance at lectures offered by mechanics' institutes, or even a university degree later in life. Sir Joseph Wilson Swan was apprenticed at 14 to a pharmacy store, but attended lectures at the Athenaeum in Sunderland that helped him to become a prominent chemist and electrical inventor. Both the Fairbairn brothers (Sir Peter Fairbairn (1799-1861) and Sir William Fairbairn (1789-1874)) were apprenticed as millwrights in a colliery at an early age, but were able to achieve distinction in a number of arenas. William Fairbairn, in particular, although he was self-taught, was appointed a member of the Academy of Science in France, a Fellow of the Royal Society, and President of the British Association. The military academies also allowed inventors to combine apprenticeships with more formal training.

A fairly constant fraction of the great inventors obtained college degrees in general subjects such as divinity or the arts. Over time, the importance of further education in science steadily increased. Engineering proficiency was more discontinuous, and was responsible for a jump in the technical orientation of 1821-1845 birth cohort; and 60 percent of all 27 inventors who received further education in engineering first produced inventions between 1871 and 1890. This is consistent with the earlier finding that scientific and technical invention became more prevalent after 1870. By the beginning of the twentieth century, a science or technical educational background was typical of the majority of great inventors and many even received advanced doctoral degrees in science. However, it is not clear whether university attendance or degrees in science and engineering prevailed among inventors because such qualifications enhanced their productivity at invention, or because a college degree was correlated with other arbitrary factors that gave these individuals preferment.

Donald Cardwell claimed that there were few institutional obstacles to innovation in England, for it was "a remarkably open society," and many of the inventive "heroes" in both science and technology were from humble origins.24 Our data suggest otherwise. Table 3 shows that the common perception that the heroes of the industrial revolution were primarily from modest backgrounds is somewhat overstated. Instead, an examination of the family backgrounds of the great inventors is more consistent with the notion that in the area of technological achievement elites were over-represented relative to the population. A third of the inventors did indeed come from farming, low-skilled or undistinguished (likely most of the unknown category) backgrounds. However, the majority of the great inventors were born to families headed by skilled artisans, manufacturers, white collar workers, or well-off families in the elite and professional classes. A striking feature of the table is that the inventors with science training were twice as likely to belong to these elite and professional families, and this pattern is invariant over the entire period.25

Another perspective on this finding is provided in Figure 2, which compares the social backgrounds of great inventors who attended college, across the two leading industrial nations of Britain and America. If it were true that elites prevailed because their privileged background and subsequent advantages in obtaining a college degree gave them an objective edge in technological creativity, we might expect little difference across countries. In the period before 1820 college attendees in both countries predominantly belonged to elite families. However, after 1820 the share of elites shrinks noticeably in the United States, and the vast majority of graduates come from nonelite backgrounds, whereas the pattern in Britain remains for the most part unchanged. The United States had sent in place policies that facilitated human capital acquisition among the working class and led to social mobility through educational institutions, such as the Land Grant Act that subsidized universities. In Britain, and in England in particular, until the middle of the nineteenth century access to higher education was primarily available to the wealthy and those who adhered to the religious standards of the Establishment.26

An increasing fraction of inventors were educated at elite schools such as Oxford or Cambridge (Table 4), institutions which were unlikely to offer much in the way of knowledge or skills that would add to either scientific or technological prowess. Advancement at these institutions primarily depended on excellence in liberal classical subjects, and the engineer John Perry even declared that "Oxford fears and hates natural science."27 Cambridge had offered the Natural Science Tripos since 1848, but for much of the nineteenth century the impact was nominal.28 The anti-pragmatism of Oxbridge was reflected even in the "red-brick" institutions that were established toward the end of the nineteenth century to remedy the lapses in the scientific and technical curricula of the older schools.29 It is not surprising that serious British students of science and technology chose to pursue graduate studies in the German academies which were acknowledged as the world leaders in higher education in such fields as chemistry, physics and engineering. However, it might be expected that opportunities for a foreign education were also correlated with a secure social and financial background.

Table 4 shows that the rather privileged background of many of the British great inventors is reflected in other dimensions of elite standing. Twenty nine percent of the inventors who were active before 1820 had families who were connected to those in power or who were otherwise distinguished. An interesting facet of the relationship between privilege, science, and technological achievement in Britain is reflected in the ninety great inventors who were also appointed as Fellows the Royal Society. The Royal Society was founded in 1660 as an "invisible college" of natural philosophers who included Isaac Newton, Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke and Robert Boyle. Fellows of the Society were elected and many of the members consisted of individuals who were not professional scientists but who were wealthy or well-connected.30 Although the Royal Society was associated with the foremost advances in science, many of its projects were absurd and impractical.31 The Royal Society was widely criticized for its elitist and unmeritocratic policies.32 Great inventors Charles Babbage, William Sturgeon and William Robert Grove were representative of those who publicly assailed the nepotism and corruption of scientific institutions in the nineteenth century, and Babbage attributed a large part of the failure of British science to the Royal Society.33 The Society long retained the character of a gentleman's club and, despite a series of reforms, did not become a genuine professional scientific organization until after the 1870s. Even in 1860 more than 66 percent of its membership consisted of nonscientists and medical practitioners, whose inclusion was not altogether merited on the basis of their scientific contributions.34


Rostow had proposed the hypothesis that prospects for growth depended on the types of specialized knowledge that were inelastic and in scarce supply. Our discussion of science and technology in early industrialization highlights the role that an elite background might have played in promoting distinction among scientist-inventors in British society, with the possibility that such training did not necessarily increase productivity at invention relative to other great inventors. Some researchers further suggest that, especially during the early stages of industrialization, scientists were not sensitive to market conditions. This section therefore uses patent records through 1890 to compare productivity at invention among scientists and nonscientists, and the extent to which scientist inventors were responsive to market incentives.

Patent records have well-known flaws as a gauge of invention, but they have still proved to be valuable in identifying the sources of variation over time and place in the rate, organization, and direction of inventive activity.35 Table 5 shows that approximately 87 percent of the British sample were patentees. Charles Wheatstone reported that "some thought it not quite consistent with the habits of a scientific man to be concerned in a patent," but it is noticeable that the proportion of patentees is similar across all science classes, whether proxied by educational background, scientific eminence, or membership in the premier Royal Society.36 In the case of the United States, where patent institutions were extremely favourable to inventors of all classes, almost all (97 percent) great inventors chose to obtain patent protection for their inventions. The British great inventors overall exhibit a somewhat lower propensity to patent, but this seems more related to institutional factors that affected all inventors, rather than to scientific disdain for material returns. In particular, there is a marked increase in the propensity to patent after 1851.

This period stands out because in 1852 the British patent system was reformed toward the American system in ways that increased access to patent institutions, and strengthened the security of property rights in patents. Significant aspects of the institutional overhaul included lower patent fees, the administration was rationalized, and measures were undertaken to enhance the provision and dissemination of information. In 1883, further improvements in the rules and standards were introduced and the fees fell again. The reforms provide a natural experiment to determine the extent of supply elasticity of great inventions and their variation across knowledge inputs. If great inventors in general, and scientists in particular, differed from ordinary patentees in terms of their responsiveness or commercial orientation, then we would expect their patterns of patenting to be largely unaffected by these institutional changes. Instead, figures 3 and 4 support that view that great inventors -- scientists and nonscientists alike -- responded to the decrease in monetary and transactions costs (and potential rise in net expected returns) by increasing their investments in patented invention.
The patent records also enable us to examine whether a science background increased productivity at invention. Again, the patterns are consistent with the notion that at least until 1870 a background in science did not add a great deal to inventive productivity. If scientific knowledge gave inventors a marked advantage, it might be expected that they would demonstrate greater creativity at an earlier age than those without such human capital. Inventor scientists are marginally younger than nonscientists, but both classes of inventors were primarily close to middle age by the time they obtained their first invention (and note that this variable tracks inventions rather than patents). Productivity in terms of average patents filed and career length are also similar among all great inventors irrespective of their scientific orientation. Thus, the kind of knowledge and ideas that produced significant technological contributions during British industrialization seem to have been rather general and available to all creative individuals, regardless of their scientific training.

The multivariate regressions reported in Table 7 (estimated over patents) supports these general conclusions. Table 6 and the regressions of industrial specialization together suggest that, by focusing their efforts in a particular industry, relatively uneducated inventors were able to acquire sufficient knowledge that allowed them to make valuable additions to the available technology set. After 1820, as the market expanded and created incentives to move out of traditional industries such as textiles and engines, both scientists and nonscientists responded by decreasing their specialization. The patent reforms in 1852 encouraged the nonscience-oriented inventors to increase their investments in sectoral specialization, but industrial specialization among the scientists lagged significantly. This supports the arguments of scholars such as Joel Mokyr, who argued that any comparative advantage from familiarity with science was based on broad unfocused capabilities such as rational methods of analysis that likely applied across all industries. The time path of specialization is especially informative in terms of electrical and telecommunications technology, which required more technical knowledge inputs than traditional areas such as textiles. Electrical innovation was also heavily specialized across region, and two thirds of all related patented inventions were filed by residents of London. The expansion in this industry after the 1870s was associated with a greater marginal return for those with formal education, and this likely induced the substantive specialization in this industry among scientist-inventors, as well as college-educated engineers.37

The regression results also shed light on the reward systems that are frequently recommended as substitutes for patents. Prizes and medals, in particular, might be more effective inducements than patents if scientists were motivated by the desire simply for the recognition of their peers and not by financial incentives. Between 1826 to 1914 the Royal Society, for example, awarded 173 medals, 67 of which were given for work in mathematics, astronomy and experimental physics, and only two to engineers.38 However, many were disillusioned with this award system, attributing outcomes to arbitrary factors such as personal influence, the persistence of one's recommenders, or the self-interest of the institution making the award. The timing also seemed ineffective, since the majority of premia were made later in life to those who had already attained eminence. The likelihood that an inventor had received prizes and medals was higher for scientific men, moreso for those who had gained recognition as famous scientists or Fellows of the Royal Society. The regressions further indicate that prizes and medals tended to be awarded to the same individuals who had already received patents and, indeed, prizes were associated with higher numbers of patents. The incremental value of these awards was therefore likely to be somewhat low – not because scientists were unresponsive to incentives, but because their response was higher for financial motivations. It is not surprising that by 1900 the Council of the Royal Society decided to change its emphasis from the allocation of medals to the financing of research.39


The generation of new technological knowledge is one of the most crucial processes of economic growth. In previous work, we took advantage of biographical information to examine the characteristics of individuals and inventions credited with significantly expanding the frontiers of technology. We showed that the “great inventors” active during the early stages of U.S. industrialization were drawn from a very broad spectrum of socioeconomic backgrounds. They generally lacked experience at institutions of higher learning, and acquired human capital through trial and error experimentation. The majority obtained property rights in patents, were extremely responsive to economic incentives, and employed entrepreneurial methods to benefit from their inventions. The current paper brings the same methodology to bear on fundamental questions in the economic history of British industrialization.
What was the role of science, specialized knowledge and institutions in the creation of important technologies during British industrialization? We found support for the notion that the course of British industrialization was significantly shaped by the nature of its elitist institutions that funneled rewards toward rent-seekers and the already advantaged, rather than on the basis of potential abilities and productivity. Institutional bias notably characterized the patent system, which favoured the wealthy and influential, and openly rejected the notion that useful knowledge could originate among the working class. Such bias was also evident in scientific institutions. As a result, British science entered its golden age long after the advent of industrialization and, even as late as 1884, Francis Galton concluded that "an exhaustive list" of scientists in the British Isles "would amount to 300, but not to more."40 The lack of scientific inputs owe in large part to the failure of the British educational system which restricted access to higher education to the privileged.41
The evidence on educational institutions is particularly striking when one contrasts the British experience to the United States. College graduates from elite universities, especially those in science and technical fields, were generally better represented among great inventors in Britain than in the U.S. There were stark differences in the distribution of education attainments, as well as in the class backgrounds of those who were able to go to college. College educations were not so prevalent among the US inventors until quite late in the 19th century, but graduates were drawn from a much broader range of social classes (judging from the occupations of the fathers). Thus, it is likely that the proportion of great inventors who were scientists in the UK actually overstated the importance of a science education for making a significant contribution to technological knowledge. Despite the advantages that people from their class backgrounds had at invention, it must be noted that scientists were not all that well represented among the great British inventors until very late in the 19th century.

Instead, the evidence regarding technical knowledge of all kinds comported more with James Nasmyth's definition of engineering as "common sense applied to the use of materials."42

Economic historians of Britain have pointed out that its early economic growth was unbalanced and productivity advances were evident in only a few key sectors. Moreover, significant increases in total factor productivity growth were not experienced until the middle of the nineteenth century. The reasons for these patterns have not been fully elaborated on. Here we highlighted the generation of knowledge inputs, and the elitist institutions that hampered their full attainment during the critical period of industrialization. The oligarchic nature of British society limited the size of the market, suppressed the acquisition of human capital through educational institutions, and encouraged rules and standards that discriminated against the efforts of disadvantaged members of society. Technological inventiveness, we have argued, were responsive to these disincentives during the period of early industrialization. The changes that made science and technical backgrounds so crucial to the creation of important inventions did not arrive until the Second Industrial Revolution.


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