The Economic History Review

Standards, learning, and growth in Britain, 1901–2009

Volume 69 Issue 2
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Pages: 627-652Authors: Christopher Spencer, Paul Temple
Published online: October 7, 2015DOI: 10.1111/ehr.12129

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This article considers the model of voluntary, consensus based standardization as developed through the British Standards Institution (BSI) and its contribution to learning and productivity growth. It discusses the significant role played by professional engineers in the model’s introduction, its extension at home, and its imitation overseas. It is argued that by 1931 the BSI catalogue of standards represented a considerable stock of codified knowledge whose growth reflected underlying aggregate technological opportunities, assisting in their transformation into technological advance. To help validate this claim, a measure of the size of the BSI catalogue of standards is incorporated into an econometric model of aggregate productivity growth in Britain. Findings show that the growth of the standards catalogue is associated with a substantial proportion of labour productivity growth over the period 1931-2009. Estimates relating to the short-run dynamics involved are consistent with the idea that there are causal linkages running from standards to growth. When interpreting these findings, it is argued that the overall weight of historical evidence points to standardization–coordinated through the BSI–as providing an important path of learning for the British economy over the period considered.