REPORT: Case Studies in American Innovation

April 7, 2009 | Jesse Jenkins,

December 12, 2010: Note that this report has been updated and released as "Where Good Technologies Come From, Case Studies in American Innovation."

In a report released in 2009, the Breakthrough Institute illuminates the stories behind the invention and diffusion of ten technologies that are everyday facets of our modern lives and offers a new look at government involvement in technological development.

The conventional wisdom on climate change -- from Thomas Friedman to the country's largest environmental organizations -- is that cap and trade regulation and carbon pricing is the best way to promote clean energy innovation. However, a growing number of experts, including Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria, are challenging this assumption, recognizing the importance of direct, large-scale public investment to achieve developments in clean energy technology. The outcome of this debate and the correct emphasis on public investment and regulation may determine the course of U.S. and global climate policy.

Case Studies in American Innovation presents ten case studies showing that public investment and active government support has been one of the greatest forces behind the nation's technology development and economic growth. Indeed, public investment in the U.S. was largely responsible for railroads, airplanes, microchips, personal computers, and the birth of the Internet -- all of which drove long-term economic development. This evidence not only challenges conventional wisdom on climate policy, but also on national economic policy, which has been dominated for three decades by neoclassical economists.

Full Report: Download Here (PDF)

Excerpts from the report on our blog:

Media Coverage:

Newsweek: Is American Losing It's Mojo?

Table of Contents

  • Introduction - pg 1

  • Summary - pg 1

  • Myths, Facts, and Today's Energy Innovation Challenge - pg 2

  • Case Studies in American Innovation - pg 4

  • Uniting a Nation: Railroads - pg 4

  • From Kitty Hawk to Boeing Field: The Aviation Industry - pg 6

  • The Semiconductor Revolution: Microchips - pg 8

  • Silicon Valley Garage or Government Lab: Personal Computing - pg 10

  • From ARPANET to the World Wide Web: the Internet - pg 12

  • Spotlight: A Breakthrough Gas Turbine - pg 14

  • Atoms for Peace: Nuclear Power - pg 15

  • Spotlight: Printable Solar Cells - pg 17

  • Myth and Reality: Synthetic Fuels - pg 18

  • International Examples - pg 21

  • Inheriting the Wind: Danish Wind Power - pg 21

  • Soaking Up the Sun: Solar Power in Germany and Japan - pg 23

  • Spotlight: New Efficient Appliances - pg 25

This report is a product of the 2008 Breakthrough Generation Summer Fellowship Program.


The world needs a new basis innovation for a 6th Kondratieff cycle. Nefiodow tells us that the long-waves are becoming more powerful and closer together. Just think of where the world would be without the informatics boom.

Thank you for this timely report. I learned about your think tank through your twitter account (thank you IT).

The next innovation must be in clean and cheap energy production. Oh yea, and we need it NOW.

By Jim on 2009 04 08