Sander Leeuw, José Lobo, Deborah Strumsky

Paper #: 11-02-003

Much work on technological change agrees that the recombination of new and existing technological capabilities is one of the principal sources of technological novelty. But there have been instances in the history of technology of new technologies appearing with few antecedents and which originate technological pathways rather than extend existing ones. The many discussions about the relative roles of recombination and origination as sources of technological novelty have not provided much by way of quantification, which is not surprising given the difficulties in discretizing technologies and classifying technological novelty. In the present discussion we use the patent technology codes employed by the U.S. patent office to classify patents to identify four sources of technological novelty. The resulting taxonomy is based on the newness of the technological capabilities constituting an invention. We then use this taxonomy to quantify the relative importance of recombining or reusing existing technological capabilities, and of originating new capabilities, as a source of technological novelty. Our results clearly show that the process of invention, as recorded by patents granted by the U.S. Patent Office, as been primarily a combinatorial process with a very limited role for the development of original technologies. The importance of reusing existing technological capabilities to generate inventions has been steadily rising and recently overtook recombination as the source of most new patents.