Book Review — The Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy

What a book by Prof Joel Mokyr of Northwestern Univ. It is a pity that this book is highly recommended for reading even to economics students.

This book says industrial revolution basically happened as there was certain knowledge creation which allowed the revolution to happen. The book is around this process of knowledge creation. How small things added up over a period of time which led to the so called revolution. These small things were added to a super set called Omega (Ω) and how they were applied becomes lambda (λ). The entire book explains how this Omega expanded overtime and then with easier access became part of lambda. Easier access to these technologies made a huge change from the previous episodes where the activity started but could not become a revolution. There was far more investment and application towards sharing and making the knowledge of Omega and Lambda to others.


The growth of technological and scientific knowledge in the past two centuries has been the overriding dynamic element in the economic and social history of the world. Its result is now often called the knowledge economy. But what are the historical origins of this revolution and what have been its mechanisms? In “The Gifts of Athena”, Joel Mokyr constructs an original framework to analyze the concept of “useful” knowledge. He argues that the growth explosion in the modern West in the past two centuries was driven not just by the appearance of new technological ideas but also by the improved access to these ideas in society at large – as made possible by social networks comprising universities, publishers, professional sciences, and kindred institutions.Th

rough a wealth of historical evidence set in clear and lively prose, he shows that changes in the intellectual and social environment and the institutional background in which knowledge was generated and disseminated brought about the Industrial Revolution, followed by sustained economic growth and continuing technological change. Mokyr draws a link between intellectual forces such as the European enlightenment and subsequent economic changes of the nineteenth century, and follows their development into the twentieth century. He further explores some of the key implications of the knowledge revolution. Among these is the rise and fall of the “factory system” as an organizing principle of modern economic organization. He analyzes the impact of this revolution on information technology and communications as well as on the public’s state of health and the structure of households. By examining the social and political roots of resistance to new knowledge, Mokyr also links growth in knowledge to political economy and connects the economic history of technology to the New Institutional Economics. “The Gifts of Athena” provides crucial insights into a matter of fundamental concern to a range of disciplines including economics, economic history, political economy, the history of technology, and the history of science.

Highly recommended. It is not one of those books which takes the revolution for granted as most econs do. Goes really deep into the core ideas which led to the revolution. And each time he points it was not something new but existed before. Has some really great insights on how things like steam engines etc came up.

A really unique book which combines many insights from a historical perspective. It is history of economic development, science and knowledge, all into one..


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