Why is Switzerland so rich? The role of early electricity adoption (NR Online Session 2)

by Björn Brey (University of Nottingham)

This research is due to be presented in the second New Researcher Online Session: ‘Industry, Trade & Technology’


 

After its first commercial usage in 1879, Switzerland experienced a drastic increase in electricity production reflected in it having the highest per capita production in the world by 1900. During the same time period, Swiss GDP growth accelerated considerably compared with other industrialising countries (see Figure 1).

 

Figure 1: Real GDP per capita in 1990US$ across leading industrial countries from 1850-1970. 1879 reflects the first commercial usage of electricity in Switzerland.

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Source: Maddison Project Database, version 2018

 

In line with this observation, the diffusion of general-purpose technologies (such as the steam engine, electricity and information technologies) is seen as a main driver of economic growth at the global level. But much less is known about the local effect of adopting these technologies. This raises the question to which extend the early adoption of electricity contributed to industrialisation and economic development in the short and long run?

My research, to be presented at the annual conference of the Economic History Society in Oxford in April 2020, answers these questions by analysing the impact of the early adoption of electricity across Switzerland on economic development through exploiting the quasi-random potential to generate electricity from waterpower.

My study finds that the adoption of electricity between 1880 and 1900 considerably increased the contemporaneous manufacturing employment share. This initial effect persists up to today with the average district observing a 1.5% higher manufacturing employment share in 2011 due to the adoption of electricity up to 1900.

This effect of early electricity adoption on employment shares in agriculture, manufacturing and services in the long run is depicted in Figure 2. Notably, the growth in manufacturing employment observed can be attributed in particular to chemical industries, which relied on access to electricity for newly developed production processes.

This effect on economic development is also observable in incomes across districts with a one standard deviation higher exposure to electricity between 1880 and 1900 leading to a 1949 Swiss Francs ($2004) higher yearly median income in 2010.

 

Figure 2: Estimated IV-coefficients on the effect of a one horsepower increase in electricity production 1880-1900 on the change in the employment share across sectors from 1880 to the respective year as well as the pre-trend period 1860-1880.

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For the analysis, I newly digitised historic information on electricity production by waterpower plants across the whole of Switzerland and construct geocoded data on all potential waterpower plants that could be built as estimated by a plan of Swiss government engineers at the time.

These data are illustrated in Figure 3. Combining this information allows me to use the potential to produce electricity across districts to infer the causal impact of electricity adoption on economic development across Switzerland.

 

Figure 3: The map shows the exploited and potential waterpower in Switzerland in 1914. Blue-dots represent exploited waterpower, red-dots represent potential waterpower, both of existing natural sources and grey-dots represent existing and potential water-power plants that requires the building of an embankment dam. The sites are coded into 5 categories: 20-99HP, 100-999HP, 1000-4999HP, 5000-9999HP and above 10000HP.

Bjoern3

 

These results provide new insight into how early access to electricity at the end of the nineteenth century helps to explain differences in economic development today. Interestingly, the long-run effect of electricity appears not to be explained by persistent differences in electricity consumption across Switzerland after the roll-out of the electricity grid in the 1920s, but rather due to increased investment into education that was complementary to the newly industries that had newly developed.

 


 

 

 

 

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