University of Cambridge > > Core Seminar in Economic and Social History >  Railroads and inventive activities: new evidence from Italy, 1855-1914

Railroads and inventive activities: new evidence from Italy, 1855-1914

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Transport infrastructures are a driving force of the diffusion of knowledge and inventive activities. Since the pioneering study of Sokoloff (1988), which established a link between inventive activities and the proximity to navigable waterways in the United States, there has been a stream of research studying the impact of transport infrastructures on the rate and direction of inventive activity in different historical contexts (e.g., Andersson, Berger, and Prawitz 2021; Tsiachtsiras 2023). In Italy, the railroad expansion coincided with the first steps of the industrialization process. This makes Italy a relevant case-study to historically assess the role of the development of transport systems in latecomer industrializing countries.

This paper analyses the impact of railroad expansion on municipal-level measures of innovation in Italy by using two new geo-localized datasets. The first comprises all patents registered in Italy by Italian residents from 1855 to 1914, while the second provides a GIS database indicating the year of construction of all Italian railroad stops. In our main exercise, we use a staggered difference-in-differences empirical approach (Callaway and Sant’Anna 2021).

We find that railroads impacted on the intensity and diffusion of innovation mostly during the first wave of railway construction (“Destra Storica”) which was mostly shaped by political and military goals and nation-building concerns (about 1861-1880). In contrast, the second wave (“Sinistra Storica”) of railway construction (1879-1896) which was supposedly driven by more genuine economic factors, seems to have a more limited impact.

This talk is part of the Core Seminar in Economic and Social History series.

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