Connecting the periphery: three papers on the developments caused by spreading transportation and information networks in the nineteenth century United States
Perlman, Elisabeth Ruth
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This dissertation focuses on how transportation and information networks change the geographic distribution of economic activity. The first and second chapters examine the geographic distribution of patenting in the nineteenth century United States. The third explores the impact of the rollout of Rural Free Delivery (RFD) in the early twentieth century on voting behavior. In Chapter One, I examine the relationship between patenting activity and transportation access, using a newly collected panel dataset at the county level spanning the nineteenth century United State. I find a robust, statistically significant, positive effect of increases in local transportation access on patents per capita. The effect is large --- patents per capita double over the twenty years following introduction of the railroad. I ask if this increase is due to inventors responding to larger markets afforded by transportation improvements. I find modest evidence that market access explains the increase in patent activity, but most of the relationship seems to be explained by other variables correlated with transportation access. The second chapter proposes a novel way to study technology diffusion, investigating how transportation changes information absorption. Using digitized patent texts, I measure whether any given patent mentions previous, novel technologies within a particular window of time. The arrival speed of these new ideas is only weakly related transportation improvements; expansions of the transportation network disproportionately benefit the most develop places. Together, these two chapters suggest that the positive effect of transportation access on patenting is due to transportation forming a nexus that encourages local agglomerations, but leave the question of the overall impact of lager transportation networks on innovation unclear. Chapter Three focuses on the how mail delivery spread new information, studying the rollout of Rural Free Delivery (RFD) in the early twentieth century. Using a newly constructed panel data set, the analysis shows that voters in communities receiving more RFD routes distributed their votes to more parties; however, there is no evidence of an effect on turnout. RFD shifted positions taken by Representatives in line with their rural constituents, including increased support for pro-temperance and anti-immigration policies. The results only occur in counties with local newspapers, suggesting that the main channel is a lowered cost to voters of acquiring information relevant to political choices.
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