'From Atoms to Bits': A Visual History of American Ideas

in The Atlantic: “A new paper employs a simple technique—counting words in patent texts—to trace the history of American invention, from chemistry to computers….in a new paper, Mikko Packalen at the University of Waterloo and Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford University, devised a brilliant way to address this question empirically. In short, they counted words in patent texts.

In a series of papers studying the history of American innovation, Packalen and Bhattacharya indexed every one-word, two-word, and three-word phrase that appeared in more than 4 million patent texts in the last 175 years. To focus their search on truly new concepts, they recorded the year those phrases first appeared in a patent. Finally, they ranked each concept’s popularity based on how many times it reappeared in later patents. Essentially, they trawled the billion-word literature of patents to document the birth-year and the lifespan of American concepts, from “plastic” to “world wide web” and “instant messaging.”

Here are the 20 most popular sequences of words in each decade from the 1840s to the 2000s. You can see polymerase chain reactions in the middle of the 1980s stack. Since the timeline, as it appears in the paper, is too wide to be visible on this article page, I’ve chopped it up and inserted the color code both above and below the timeline….

Another theme of Packalen and Bhattacharya’s research is that innovation has become more collaborative. Indeed, computers have not only taken over the world of inventions, but also they have changed the geography of innovation, Bhattacharya said. Larger cities have historically held an innovative advantage, because (the theory goes) their density of smarties speeds up debate on the merits of new ideas, which are often born raw and poorly understood. But the researchers found that in the last few decades, larger cities are no more likely to produce new ideas in patents than smaller cities that can just as easily connect online with their co-authors. “Perhaps due to the Internet, the advantage of larger cities appears to be eroding,” Packalen wrote in an email….(More)”