Boston University School of Law

Was Mechanization De-Skilling?
The Origins of Task-Biased Technical Change

James E. Bessen
Boston University School of Law

Boston University School of Law Working Paper 11-13


Did nineteenth century technology reduce demand for skilled workers in contrast to modern technology? I obtain direct evidence on human capital investments and the returns to skill by using micro-data on individual weavers and an engineering production function. Weavers learned substantially on the job. While mechanization eliminated some tasks and the associated skills, it increased returns to skill on the remaining tasks. Technical change was task-biased, much as with computer technology. As more tasks were automated, weavers’ human capital increased substantially. Although technology increased the demand for skill like today, weavers’ wages eventually increased and inequality decreased, contrary to current trends.

JEL Codes: J31, N31, O33

Keywords: skill-biased technical change, technology, engineering production function, mechanization, human capital, wage inequality, learning-by-doing

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James E. Bessen
Lecturer, Boston University School of Law
Fellow, Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Harvard

James E. Bessen Contact Information

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