Newspapers are still steam powered

Yesterday, the BBC podcast “50 Things That Made The Modern Economy” covered the invention of the electric dynamo. The episode was partly based on a 1990 academic paper by economist Paul A. David who studies “scientific progress and technical change.

His thesis is that the initial lack of productivity gains related to the introduction of the electricity in factories was the common practice of simply replacing the one centralized steam engine with an electric motor. That approach maintained the disadvantages of steam while bringing none of the value of electricity.

The paper is here but read the excerpt below and mentally find and replace steam/electric with print/digital.

The proximate source of delay in the exploitation of the productivity improvement potential incipient in the dynamo revolution was, in large part, the slow pace of factory electrification.

The latter, in turn, was attributable to the unprofitability of replacing still serviceable manufacturing plants embodying production technologies adapted to the old regime of mechanical power derived from water and steam.

Thus it was the American industries that were enjoying the most rapid expansion in the early twentieth century (tobacco, fabricated metals, transportation equipment and electrical machinery itself) that afforded greatest immediate scope for the construction of new, electrified plants…