Where Good Technologies Come From: Case Studies in American Innovation

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Where do good technologies come from? The history of American innovation shows that an active partnership between the public and private sectors has been key to developing breakthrough technologies, which have driven generations of economic prosperity. In an updated report, the Breakthrough Institute explores this partnership through a set of case studies in American innovation.

December 10, 2010 | Jesse Jenkins, Devon Swezey, Yael Borofsky,

The following is the introduction to a new Breakthrough report, "Where Good Technologies Come From: Case Studies in American Innovation." Download the full report here.

Driving directions from your iPhone. The cancer treatments that save countless lives. The seed hybrids that have slashed global hunger. A Skype conversation while flying on a Virgin Airlines jet across the continent in just five hours.

Where did these everyday miracles come from?

As soon as the question is asked we know to suspect that the answer is not as simple as Apple, Amgen, or General Electric. We might recall something about microchips and the Space Race, or know that the National Institutes of Health funds research into new drugs and treatments.

But most of us remain unaware of the depth and breadth of American government support for technology and innovation. Our gratitude at being able to video chat with our children from halfway around the world (if we feel gratitude at all) is directed at Apple, not the Defense Department. When our mother's Neupogen works to fight her cancer, we thank Amgen, not NIH or NSF.

Where do good technologies come from?

One answer is visionary presidents. From George Washington to George W. Bush, under presidents both Republican and Democrat, the unbroken history of American innovation is one of active partnership between public and private sectors. Washington helped deliver interchangeable parts, which revolutionized manufacturing. Lincoln, the railroads and agricultural centers at land grant colleges. Eisenhower, interstate highways and nuclear power; Kennedy, microchips. But some of America's most important technologies came out of programs that spanned multiple presidents, as in the case of medical and biotechnology research; President Richard Nixon launched the quest to cure cancer in 1971, while funding for the National Institutes of Health tripled under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

Another answer is war. Interchangeable parts were developed at public armories, originally for rifles. One hundred and fifty years later, microchips, computing, and the Internet were created to guide rockets and communicate during nuclear war; today those technologies power our laptops and smartphones.

But outside of war, the United States has made decades-long investments in medicine, transportation, energy, and agriculture that resulted in blockbuster drugs, railroads and aviation, new energy technologies, and food surpluses.

America's brilliant inventors and firms played a critical role, but it is the partnerships between the state and private firms that delivered the world-changing technologies that we take for granted today.

The Origins of the iPhone

There may be no better example of the invisible hand of government than the iPhone.

Launched in 2007, the iPhone brought many of the now familiar capabilities of the iPod together with other communications and information technologies made possible by federal funding:

  • The microchips powering the iPhone owe their emergence to the U.S. military and space programs, which constituted almost the entire early market for the breakthrough technology in the 1960s, buying enough of the initially costly chips to drive down their price by a factor of 50 in a few short years.
  • The early foundation of cellular communication lies in radiotelephony capabilities progressively advanced throughout the 20th century with support from the U.S. military.
  • The technologies underpinning the Internet were developed and funded by the Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency in the 1960s and 70s.
  • GPS was originally created and deployed by the military's NAVSTAR satellite program in the 1980s and 90s.
  • Even the revolutionary multitouch screen that provides the iPhone's intuitive interface was first developed by University of Delaware researchers supported by grants and fellowships provided by the National Science Foundation and the CIA.

The History of American Innovation

The iPhone is emblematic of the public-private partnerships that have driven America's technological leadership. Historically, this partnership has taken two general forms. First, the government has long acted as an early funder of key basic science and applied research and development. So it was in agriculture, when the government created new land-grant colleges and expanded funding for agricultural science, leading to the development of new and better crops. In medicine, many of today's blockbuster drugs can trace their existence to funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

In addition to providing robust funding for new scientific discovery and technological advancement, the government has also routinely helped develop new industries by acting as an early and demanding customer for innovative, high-risk technologies that the private sector was unable or unwilling to fund. Military procurement during and after World War I helped America catch up to its European rivals in aerospace technology and was key to the emergence of the modern aviation industry. Decades later, the modern semiconductor and computer industries were created with the help of government procurement for military and space applications.

The case studies herein also demonstrate that when this vital partnership between the public and private sector is severed, so too is American economic leadership. Once a global leader in wind and solar energy technology, the United States faltered and never fully recovered as public support ceased and other governments - Denmark, Germany, and Japan - increased their investments and stepped in to assume the mantle of leadership in the emerging sectors. U.S. leadership in semiconductors was also imperiled for a time, only to be restored through renewed public-private collaboration sponsored by President Ronald Reagan's Department of Defense and a consortium
of the industry's leading figures.

From hybrid crops to blockbuster drugs, nuclear power to wind power, and microchips to the Internet, this report compiles a series of Case Studies in American Innovation that detail the role this key public-private partnership has played throughout more than two centuries of successful American innovation.


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