This book is about military R&D and procurement and technology development (forget the first title chosen by the publisher’s marketing department; rather use the author’s subtitle that tells you exactly what to expect).
It is an important, thorough, dispassionate, and easy to read book all in one.
Vernon Ruttan, distinguished economist of technological change has struck again and addressed a topic that is as explored little by scholars as it is ideologically and politically laden. Proponents try to justify any military expenditures with the (uncertain) promise of civilian “spin-offs” (in addition to ex ante declared military requirements –remember “star wars”?), and critics always highlight failures (remember nuclear powered aircrafts?) as well as excessive costs of military technologies ignoring their early life cycle nature of almost one-of-a-kind technology and the indeed substantial (even if often unplanned or unintended) civilian application potentials.
Vernon Ruttan reviews through seven careful case studies of socalled general purpose technologies the history and the economic implications of a number of military technologies that have yielded far reaching civilian applications with enormous economic and social significance: interchangeable parts in rifle manufacturing that give birth to the socalled American “system of manufacturing” (and invented in Army armories rather than in Eli Whitney’s “lab”), military aircraft and propulsion systems (jet engines in particular), nuclear power (reactors), computers and semiconductors, the internet (in case you did not know, it all started with military R&D money), and finally the space industries (satellites).
What makes this book so eminently readable is its succinct and dispassionate review of all what we know about these technologies: their origins, the role of the military R&D and procurement in its development as well as how they spread out to civilian applications and the economic significance of their applications. Few succeed as formidably as Vernon Ruttan in condensing voluminous literature into a clear and understandable summary within less than 200 pages (a formidable achievement in itself in our present times of 600 plus pages monographs). Throughout his analysis he remains objective, clear headed and with analytical rigor, at times even with candor. There is no better book than this one to dispel any one-sided claim about the importance/usefulness of military R&D and procurement.
My personal principal take-away from Ruttan’s analysis (from his highly original counterfactual history for computers, semiconductors and the internet) is that despite the enormous importance and significance of the military in the development of all the technologies reviewed, we would have gotten them anyway even without the military – even if substantially later and perhaps less highly developed. The only exception seems to be nuclear power, which in all likelihood would not be around without the military (and which many would agree is a mixed blessing at best). But judge for yourself. The reading is easy and fun, and the analysis worth every of your minutes!
Arnulf Gruebler, IIASA and Yale University