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How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom

Author(s):Ridley, Matt
Reviewer(s):Coelho, Philip

Published by EH.Net (August 2020)

Matt Ridley, How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom. New York: Harper Collins, 2020. 406 pp. $30 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-06-291659-4.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Philip Coelho, Department of Economics, Ball State University.



Matt Ridley, the author of The Rational Optimist, has written another excellent book; he is an imaginative thinker and a writer of clarity. This book is very worthwhile reading; still (like any project) it is not perfect. In this review, I will try to convey what he has done and point out where I have difficulties. The book’s 12 chapters explain the histories of innovation in various economic sectors. Chapter one is devoted to energy, Two to public health, et cetera. In the Introduction, Ridley explains why and what he is doing, and what he expects to accomplish; he defines innovation as: “like evolution … a process of … discovering ways of rearranging the world … that happen to be useful. The resulting entities are the opposite of entropy: they are more ordered, less random, than their ingredients were before” (p. 2). This is a very useful, non-didactic definition; it avoids semantic arguments (whether a person was or was not an entrepreneur, and what do entrepreneurs do) that bedevil business histories. The author is borrowing from his training as an evolutionary biologist by incorporating its analytics into a history of innovation. Ridley forthrightly states that he is not attempting to explain why, when or where innovation occurred, but “telling stories” about people turning inventions into “useful innovations [that] teach us, by the examples of their successes and failures, how it happened” (p. 7).

Chapter 1, “Energy” is illustrative of his methodology. Starting in the eighteenth century Ridley examines innovations in the production of energy from non-animal sources. The basic theme, reiterated throughout the book, is that innovation is an evolutionary process; it is accretive, not the product of lonely geniuses huddled and isolated in workshops. He puts forth three candidates (Denis Papin, Thomas Savery and Thomas Newcomen) as putative innovators (“Notice I do not call him an inventor; the difference is crucial” (p.15)) of the first successful steam engine. Ridley’s distinction is crucial; it identifies an inventor as a person who first conceptualizes a process and defines innovators as the people who make the invention economically useful. In the case of steam power, Hero of Alexandria employed rudimentary steam powered devices in the first century AD; still there were people using steam power centuries before Hero, so the case for identifying the person who first conceptualized steam power is, at best, quixotic. Still steam power was not economically useful before the developments that occurred in the eighteenth century. Then a series of innovators made steam power economic; it could be employed to produce goods and services in less costly ways than had been available previously. In 1698 Thomas Savery was granted a patent for an invention for the “raising of water by the impellent force of fire” (p. 18). This introduces another theme that Ridley returns to throughout his book: that patents are more than somewhat arbitrarily rewarded and they, more often than not, impede innovation. People who used the Newcomen engine had to pay royalties to the holders of the Savery patent no matter how much they had modified it. Similarly, Ridley argues that the Watt patents were obstacles in the way of improving the efficiency of the Watt steam engine.

There is a tension between the effects that patent protection laws have in stimulating innovation and the rent-seeking obstacles to innovations that patents provide. Ridley is firmly in the camp that argues that current patent laws discourage more innovations than they promote. If you throw in copyright laws — which in theory and in practice, (e.g. the film Bambi) can be almost perpetually protected — then I am in complete agreement with Ridley. This is an economic issue: as they are currently structured, do patent protection and copyright laws promote or impede innovation? The economic basis for granting “intellectual property” a favored place in the law and in public debate should be reconsidered.

In the “Energy” chapter, Ridley reprints a plea from an 1819 edition of the magazine The Chemist asking for funds to build a monument to Watt: “He is distinguished from other public benefactors, by never having made, or pretended to make it his object to benefit the public . . . This unpretending man in reality conferred more benefit on the world than all those who for centuries have made it their especial business to look after the public welfare” (p. 26). This is a great quote and it echoes the famous “invisible hand” passage from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, yet I have not been able to track down Ridley’s source. This is typical; he is rather cavalier about sourcing. There are no footnotes, nor page citations. Each chapter has its own section in “Sources and further reading section” (pp. 375-388). But if you are trying to find a particular reference be prepared to spend some time and be frustrated. After spending 40 minutes with various search engines, I failed to find either Ridley’s source for the quotation from The Chemist or the original. In another great passage in chapter 3 (“Transport”) — where he questions the wisdom of the (self-anointed?) scientific establishment — Ridley quotes an article in the Scientific American from 1906 doubting the veracity of the Wright brothers’ claim to heavier than air flight: “If such sensational and tremendously important experiments are being conducted … is it possible to believe that the enterprising American reporter … would not have ascertained all about them … long ago?” (pp. 100-01). Well the answer to that question is yes, it is possible to believe the high Pooh-bahs of the American scientific establishment were ignorant of what the Wright brothers were doing in 1906, let alone in 1903 at Kitty Hawk. I was successful in tracking down that quotation (Scientific American 1906, vol. 94: 40), it only took 20 minutes and access to a major university’s library and search engines.

Yet Ridley does not fare so well in chapter 6 (“Communication and Computing”) where he quotes Thomas Watson of IBM in 1943 as saying that “there is a world market for maybe five computers” (p. 203). It is a nice story, but it is either totally or heavily fabricated. The only quote from Watson in the public record (appropriately from Geek History: that mentions five computers is from an IBM’s stockholders meeting, which says: “We believe the statement that you attribute to Thomas Watson is a misunderstanding of remarks made at IBM’s annual stockholders meeting on April 28, 1953. In referring specifically and only to the IBM 701 Electronic Data Processing Machine — which had been introduced the year before as the company’s first production computer designed for scientific calculations — Thomas Watson, Jr., told stockholders that ‘IBM had developed a paper plan for such a machine and took this paper plan across the country to some 20 concerns that we thought could use such a machine. I would like to tell you that the machine rents for between $12,000 and $18,000 a month, so it was not the type of thing that could be sold from place to place. But, as a result of our trip, on which we expected to get orders for five machines, we came home with orders for 18.’” The problem is that Ridley’s work is replete with wonderful anecdotes. I have no doubt that the vast majority are accurate, but detailed citations are valuable in both verifying and falsifying historical interpretations.

Another deficiency is that Ridley’s knowledge of the literature in economic history is incomplete; he attributes the growth of the American automobile industry to Henry Ford who “revolutionized the industry after 1908” (p. 92). This statement is both incorrect and contradictory to his hypothesis that innovations and economic changes are evolutionary, not revolutionary. Robert Thomas (1969) explains just what Ford did in the era of the Model T Ford. In 1908 both: “Buick and Ford introduced into the $1,000 price class for the first time automobiles of standard design [engines in the front, French type body work, steering wheel, etc.]. These designs, the Buick Model 10 and the Ford Model T, were similar to cars being sold in the $1,500-$2,000 price class” (Thomas p. 150). What Henry Ford did that made him different from competing producers is to make virtually identical cars year after year while simultaneously lowering prices. The automobile was changing rapidly during those years (selective transmissions replacing planetary transmissions, self-starters, increased horsepower, etc.) yet the Model T remained unchanged. By 1914 the Model T was selling approximately 45% of new cars sold in the U.S., yet it was receiving only 25% of the revenue from new car sales (Thomas, p. 153). What Ford did was to produce outdated cars whose primary competitors were used cars, not new cars. Essentially Henry Ford made a fortune by producing technologically obsolete vehicles at attractive prices. As the technology of the automobile advanced, Ford could not maintain his price/marketing strategy because many (most?) of the used cars for sale in 1920 had more desirable features than the 1920 Model T. At prices that Ford could profitably sell cars, consumers preferred the typical used vehicle to the 1920 Model T. The growth of the used car market forced Ford to change strategies; subsequently the Ford company followed the industry practice of annual model changes and improvements with constant or increasing prices.

Ridley’s deficiencies aside, the insights he provides in the various chapters ((2) Public Health, (3) Transport, (4) Food, (5) Low-Technology Innovation, (6) Communications and Computing, (7) Prehistoric Innovation, (8) Innovation’s Essentials, (9) The Economics of Innovation, (10) Fakes, Frauds, Fads, and Failures, (11) Resistance to Innovation, and (12) An Innovation Famine) are very perceptive and an educational delight. Ridley frustrates any who wish to replicate his analysis without undo effort, still every chapter has multiple non-obvious insights. Focusing on a few insights does not do justice to the book, yet it must be done otherwise the review would be too burdensome to read.

A theme that Ridley repeatedly emphasizes is the conservatism of government and the establishment in reaction to innovation. Patent and copyright law as obstacles to innovation have already been mentioned, but we should not forget our own sacred cows, the intelligentsia and academia. As a graduate student in the 1960s, I remember the future Nobel Prize winner, Douglass C. North, echoing the received wisdom of the time that no more aid or development projects should be directed towards countries (particularly India and Pakistan) because they were “basket cases,” that were too overpopulated and whose only fate was starvation and death for the many. Ridley (p. 134) suggests that this opinion had its genesis in the foreign services and development agencies. If that is the case, Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb (1968) is not entirely his responsibility. Nevertheless, it is risible that so many academics could have been so wrong about the near-term future of food production in the late 1960s through the mid-70s. In the same vein, government agencies in India tried to suppress the introduction of the hybrid wheats that were among the first products of the Green Revolution: “Indian bureaucrats were adamant that Mexican wheats should not even be allowed in the country, let alone encouraged. The biologists warned of devastation and disease if the wheats failed. The social scientists warned of ‘irreversible social tensions’ and riots if the wheats succeeded — and caused some farmers to make more money than others” (p. 133)

Ridley devotes an entire chapter to a history of the suppression of novelty. Things that were suppressed include coffee, margarine, genetically modified organisms, herbicides, and cellular telephony. Methods of suppression include diktats, regulations, patents, copyrights, legislation, commissions, and litigation. Every change affects someone negatively; if a change can be halted or delayed the costs of the change can be eliminated or reduced. Ridley relates how “land-use” (zoning) planning has reduced the population of San Jose during the Silicon Valley boom. Another, more completely examined example is that of the European Commission, which in 2014 mandated that energy efficiency (a “good” thing to the Commissioners, not so good for energy producers) of vacuum cleaners be tested in the absence of dust or debris. It so happens that the Dyson Cyclone vacuum cleaner is much more energy efficient than vacuum cleaners with bags because the bag cleaners operated less efficiently as the bags got filled with dust and debris. The (German) manufacturers of bagged cleaners had lobbied the Commission effectively. Dyson appealed the regulations through the courts and in November of 2018 he was vindicated. Still the delay cost Dyson sales and increased those of the makers of bagged cleaners. We may not have much reason to lament a billionaire’s decreased sales, but we should deplore the erroneous information produced by public agencies that deluded consumers.

There are many cases of innovations that Ridley examines that are worthy of full-scale economic analyses. Two that particularly intrigue me are the examples of corrugated roofing and bed-nets with insecticide embedded in them. We see corrugated roofing throughout in poor, tropical countries; I typically had given them no thought other than this is how the poor live in the tropics until this book. Corrugated roofs were a substantial improvement over other types of roofing for warehouses and industrial spaces in nineteenth century Britain. In poor countries today in the tropics they are symptomatic of improved living conditions; the alternatives to tin roofs are organic (straw, mud, and wood) that are more costly (including upkeep), less effective, a haven for insects and rodents, and not very useful for channeling rain for storage or irrigation. It would be nice to know the cost/benefit analysis comparing corrugated roofing to the alternatives and what something as innocuous as roofing does.

Bed-netting infused with insecticide is an interesting story. The bed nets were treated with insecticides to see how prophylactic they were in preventing malaria carrying mosquitoes from infecting people. Since the bed nets rarely escaped holes and tears, the people conducting the study kept it going even when the bed-nets were severely damaged. The researchers found that torn bed-nets retain a substantial amount of efficacy and are still effective in reducing the mosquito-borne transmission of malaria with bed-nets accounting for approximately “70 per cent of the six million lives saved worldwide [from death by malaria]” (p. 75).

There are other examples galore; if you have an interest in innovation, how it evolves, and how and why it is obstructed, then you should read this book. I recommend it highly. True it has difficulties — the lack of adequate citations and an index that is somewhat haphazard. Still I urge you to read it; I would recommend buying the e-copy for two reasons: 1) on most e-books you can do a word search and that reduces the importance of an index; and 2) the hard-bound (cloth) copy that I purchased is nearly falling apart after one (close) reading. The binding of this book does no credit to its publisher.


Robert Paul Thomas, “The Automobile Industry and Its Tycoon,” Explorations in Entrepreneurial History, ser.2:6:2 (1969: Winter).


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Subject(s):History of Technology, including Technological Change
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative