The little miracle spurring inequality

This sort of social transformation has happened many times before. Whenever a new technology comes along that greatly reduces the cost of a fundamental input to the economy, or makes possible what had previously been impossible, there has always been a flowering of great new fortunes—often far larger than those that came before. The technology opens up many new economic niches, and entrepreneurs rush to take advantage of the new opportunities.

The full-rigged ship that Europeans developed in the 15th century, for instance, was capable of reaching the far corners of the globe. Soon gold and silver were pouring into Europe from the New World, and a brisk trade with India and the East Indies sprang up. The Dutch exploited the new trade so successfully that the historian Simon Schama entitled his 1987 book on this period of Dutch history “The Embarrassment of Riches.”

Or consider work-doing energy. Before James Watt’s rotary steam engine, patented in 1781, only human and animal muscles, water mills and windmills could supply power. But with Watt’s engine it was suddenly possible to input vast amounts of very-low-cost energy into the economy. Combined with the factory system of production, the steam engine sparked the Industrial Revolution, causing growth—and thus wealth as well as job creation—to sharply accelerate.