This article reviews the interplay of major inventions and changes to innovation systems during three historical industrial revolutions as the basis for understanding whether a new revolutionary era is underway at present. The periods start with widespread use of steam power and manufacturing
using interchangeable parts from the 1850s onwards; electrification, synthetic materials, and mass production beginning in 1900; digital computing and electronic communications starting in the 1960s; and a potentially emerging fourth revolution of artificial intelligence and distributed small-scale
manufacturing. Specific inventions, changes to national innovation systems, shifts in workplaces and the organization of labor, and evolving styles of consumption are considered for each of the discrete industrial eras. The article concludes with lessons about spillovers from innovation that
underpin industrial revolutions and offers perspective on contemporary debates concerning the rate of technology change. It also suggests that organizational and institutional structures that support inventors and ensure returns to corporate innovation in the United States will need to adjust
if a fourth industrial revolution has begun.
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Document Type: Research Article
March 1, 2017
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Technology and Innovation, edited and published by the National Academy of Inventors, is a forum for presenting information encompassing the entire field of applied sciences, with a focus on transformative technology and academic innovation. Regular features of T&I include commentaries contributed by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and in-depth profiles of Fellows of the National Academy of Inventors in every issue.