13 April 2016

Public Mechanical Clocks Spurred Economic Growth

We find that an increase of 10 percentage points in the diffusion of mechanical clocks can raise the GDP per capita growth approximately 30 percent in a century.
From here.

The methods were as follows:
To achieve these results, we collected information on the introduction of public mechanical clocks in late medieval European cities. We identified a group of early adopters from 1286-1450 and compared this group with the remaining cities in Europe. We studied the population growth rate (which we used as a proxy for economic growth) of these two groups of cities and found strong significant differences: cities that adopted public mechanical clocks early had higher growth rates (30 percentage points higher) than other cities between 1500 and 1700. We found similar results for countries when we measured the impact of the aggregate adoption/ penetration rate on the estimated GDP of a country. We used various estimation strategies to receive this robust result. To avoid endogeneity problems between the dependent variable of economic growth and the main explanatory variables, the building of mechanical clocks, we introduced several instruments.

In particular, we used the distance from the first adopters and solar eclipses as instruments for the likelihood of the implementation of public mechanical clocks. Our results contribute to a better understanding of the effect of GPTs on long-run economic growth. They support the strand of literature that claims that fundamental technological changes cause strong growth effects. However, we show that it takes time for the new technology to translate into economic growth via spillover effects. The penetration not only takes place in different sectors but also fundamentally changes the organization, structure, and culture of a society. Furthermore, our study contributes to the specific study of clocks as a new key technology in late medieval and early modern Europe. To the best of our knowledge, this study is the first quantitative exercise that investigates economic growth and mechanical clocks. Our results support the strand of literature that attributes strong but delayed effects to clocks.
The study does little to distinguish economic gains from clocks as opposed to other technologies, so the better interpretation is probably to view public clocks at a litmus test for adoption of a whole suite of early modern mechanical technologies in an area.  But, it is still an interesting historical economic development data point.

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