Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The rise and fall of "innovator"

In a positive review of Jill Lepore's recent article on the myth and reality of creative destruction, Paul Krugman wonders if Lepore underestimates just how long 'innovation' has been a buzzword.
Lepore tells us that innovation became a popular buzzword in the 1990s. I guess I thought it came much earlier — I wrote about product-cycle models of trade back in the 1970s, and even then I was formalizing a much older literature.
That sort of question is why god invented Google so I decided to check out what the n-gram viewer had to say. Based on a search of the books in Google's digital collection, it appears that both 'innovation' and 'innovator' took off in the early Forties and continued shooting up through the Post-War era. Nothing surprising there. The Forties, Fifties and Sixties were a period of rapid economic and technological growth and the topics of progress and innovation were very much on people's minds.

What seems strange though is the decline of 'innovator' starting around 1970. My first thought was Apollo but the peak here appears to be 1971 rather than 1972. 'Innovation' also flatlined briefly in the mid-70s but it quickly picked back up. I have a feeling I'm missing something obvious here but I'm not familiar enough with the data to know where to dig.


  1. Perhaps because "inventor" is the more common term?

  2. The golden age of American invention was Edison, Westinghouse et al (including Otis, Ford and going back to McCormick and Whitney).

    The key words in that era and going forward were "inventor" and "ingenuity", the latter commonly expressed as "American ingenuity". It was also related to ingenuity as an expression of American common or practical sense.