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12/04/2006 08:00:00

Watson Lecture: European Conquest

PASADENA, Calif.--How did the West conquer the world? The secret, says California Institute of Technology economic historian Philip T. Hoffman: technological innovation.

Between 1500 and 1914, European states conquered 84 percent of the globe, although the weapons they employed--gunpowder and firearms--were invented in China and were long used in other parts of Eurasia. Why didn't the Chinese, the Japanese, or the Ottomans perfect this technology?

Using economic calculations, Hoffman measured the European advantage and concluded that European political institutions drove military innovation with incentives much like those at work today in Silicon Valley. "The rates of technological innovation were far higher than you'd expect before the industrial revolution, and similar to what you see today in the computer industry," he says. Military adventures had potentially great rewards for decision makers, with very little penalty for failure. As a result, "you had excessive investment in this sector of the economy."

On Wednesday, December 6, Hoffman, the Richard and Barbara Rosenberg Professor of History and Social Science at Caltech, will discuss his findings in "Why Did Europe Conquer the World?" The lecture will be presented at 8 p.m. in Beckman Auditorium, 332 South Michigan Avenue, south of Del Mar Boulevard, on the Caltech campus in Pasadena. It is the third program of the fall/winter 2006-07 Earnest C. Watson Lecture Series. Seating is available on a free, no-ticket-required, first-come, first-served basis.

Caltech has offered the Watson Lecture Series since 1922, when it was conceived by the late Caltech physicist Earnest Watson as a way to explain science to the local community.

For more information, call (626) 395-4652. Outside the greater Pasadena area, call toll-free, 1(888) 2CALTECH (1-888-222-5832).


Contact: Kathy Svitil (626) 395-8022

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Written by John Avery