In Greek mythology Athena is the goddess of both wisdom and
war, and of the application of reason and intelligent activity to
domestic and artisanal activity. Ancient Greeks also believed
that Athena invented the horse bridle, enabling men to tame
horses and to put them to useful application and work. Athena
is thus a good metaphor for the relationship between
knowledge and economic growth that Joel Mokyr explores in his
book, The Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge
In a Nutshell
The Lever of Riches was a reference book and focused on
economic history of technology.
The Gifts of Athena focused on the importance of knowledge in
generating economic growth.
This book tells the story of the economic growth of the Western
world from the perspective of the contemporary revolution in
information and communications technology (ICT).
To understand economic growth, we need to understand how
knowledge has been created, disseminated, and applied.
Chapter 1: Technology and the Problem of Human Knowledge
Useful knowledge: related to natural phenomena that can be manipulated to
enhance economic welfare:
• propositional knowledge about natural regularities (symbol Omega)
refers to generalized principles such as natural laws and empirical
observations obtained through measurement and classification
• prescriptive knowledge or techniques
consists of techniques, prescriptions, and instructions, which reside in human
memory, artifacts or storage devices
Mokyr describes the Omega set as a prior constraint, which limits the set of
feasible techniques: "The obvious notion that economies are limited in what
they can do by their useful knowledge bears some emphasizing simply
because so many scholars believe that if incentives and demand are right,
somehow technology will follow automatically" (p. 16)
Chapter 2: The Industrial Enlightment: The Taproot of Economic Progress
• The advances in welfare that we enjoy today are the
legacy of a revolution in knowledge that occurred some
three hundred years ago in Western Europe.
• We observe growth taking place before the first Industrial
Revolution but were subject to negative feedback mechanisms
which caused the the efforts short-lived.
• the most important obstacle to self-sustaining growth was the
narrow base of propositional knowledge in such areas as
agriculture, transportation, power, and medicine
• So when the Industrial Revolution did occur, it was due to what
Mokyr calls an "Industrial Enlightenment.
• "The Industrial Enlightenment's debt to the scientific revolution
consisted of three closely interrelated phenomena: scientific
method, scientific mentality, and scientific culture." (p.36 )
Chapter 3: The Industrial Revolution and Beyond
• Although economies are more likely to grow if
inventors and innovators have ready access to sound
propositional knowledge, such knowledge is hardly
• “The driving force behind progress was not just that
more was known, but also that institutions and
culture collaborated to create better and cheaper
access to the knowledge base” (p. 103).
• Knowledge that is bottled up by binding contracts or
by politics will never be used to its potential.
Chapter 4: Technology and the Factory System
Knowledge and technology also caused changes in the organization and
location of production from the household to the factory
Complementary factors: role of economies of scale, transactions costs, and
increases in the intensity of work
The factory system itself functioned as a conduit through which knowledge
was created, recorded, and transmitted
Chapter 5: Knowledge,Health and the Household
• Economic growth is too often discussed as something
that happens exclusively in the commercial or industrial
sector, with households being mere passive beneficiaries.
• Mokyr describes households as active decision makers—
agents that “choose many recipes, from toothbrushing to
jogging to the consumption of broccoli” (p. 166).
• “In the past two centuries household behavior has been
affected by formal and informal [propositional]
knowledge far more than has been realized by social
historians” (p. 180).
Chapter 6: The Political Economy of Knowledge: Innovation
and Resistance in Economic History
• the progress of useful knowledge is far more influenced
by political economic forces than we realize
• technological inertia does not indicate that individuals
are irrational, but may be the outcome of rational choice
• Entrenched elites may manipulate cultural standards and
religious principles to avoid innovations that threaten
• The existence of democratic free market processes is no
safeguard, and indeed under some circumstances may
serve to help inefficient technologies to a greater degree
than other less desirable political systems.
Chapter 7: Institutions, Knowledge and Economic Growth
• Expansions in the set of useful knowledge can be induced to some
extent by social agenda, appropriate institutions and relative prices.
• England's unique politics and social structure in the 18th and 19th
century seemed to have inadvertently broadened both discovery
and diffusion to new amibitious social classes
• England created its own technocratic middle class out of regular folk
• ‘One type of such institution is the one that protects a
• technological status quo from would-be innovators’ (p. 283)
• Salvation lies in the generation of new prepositional knowledge, ‘the
fuel that keeps the engine of growth running’ (p. 283). The
continuing expansion of useful knowledge is not guaranteed and so
‘the political economy of technological progress must occupy its
rightful place at center stage’ (p. 283).
• There is no recipe for economic growth.
• We have a fairly good catalog of conditions that will prevent
growth, but we know very little about the minimum
conditions necessary for sustained growth to occur.
• Useful knowledge and access to it explain a great deal about
economic performance, how performance has changed over
time, and why performance varies across societies. However,
"technology, now as in the past, opens doors; it does not force
society to walk through them." It remains for us to use the
lessons of Athena to ensure that the gifts of Athena are not
bestowed upon ungrateful recipients and squandered.