Earlier this week the Stanford Daily reported some sad news:

Nathan Rosenberg, Stanford’s Fairleigh S. Dickinson, Jr. Professor of Public Policy, emeritus, died at the age of 87 on Aug. 24. He was best known for his work on the economic history of technology, and his ideas explored the source of technological advancement as well as the role of uncertainty in innovation….

One of Rosenberg’s most influential books was titled “Inside the Black Box” and examined the roots of technological progress. When addressing the role of uncertainty in innovation, he spoke about how creators themselves cannot predict how their inventions will be used.

Rosenberg received several awards for his work and was an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences.

In 1996, Rosenberg received the Leonardo da Vinci Medal from the Society for the History of Technology for having “almost single-handedly changed the way economists and economic historians think about technology and the nature of technological change.”

Here is a link to the official Stanford University press release.  Distinguished economic historian Joel Mokyr provides a lovely eulogy for Rosenberg’s intellectual contributions to economic history and the history of economic thought.

Rosenberg has a lower profile than Mokyr or Nobel Prize-winner Douglass North or his Stanford colleague Paul David. As Mokyr explains, Rosenberg’s intellectual legacy is quite powerful:

As department chair at Stanford between 1983 and 1986 he helped build the department and maintain its position as one of the top economics departments in the country. Moreover, his leadership guaranteed that economic history remained an integral part of the undergraduate and Ph.D. programs and includes some of its most distinguished practitioners such as Gavin Wright and Avner Greif, as well as younger and promising scholars….

[One of Rosenberg’s greatest contributions was his] emphasis on the subtle and complex interplay between science and technology stressed in his magnificent essay “How Exogenous is Science?”. In it he points out the many feedback effects that run from technology to science, and debunked the “linear model” that draws the main arrow of causality from Science to Applied Science to Technology. Since Rosenberg’s work, historians of technology have heaped scorn on the linear model.

As a graduate student at Stanford, I was fortunate enough to take Rosenberg’s classes in economic history, as well as be one of his research assistants. Much of what I wrote in this article had its origins in my RA work for Nate.

I will remember two things from that experience. The first was his extraordinary essay “Economic Experiments,” which first appeared in Industrial and Corporate Change and then later in his collection of essays Exploring the Black Box. In essence, Rosenberg applied his knowledge of technological innovation to think about the best set of political and economic institutions to facilitate such innovation. His argument for why “industrialization has been, uniquely, a historical product of capitalist societies” is based on the simple but powerful notion that capitalism’s genius is that it allows failures to actually fail. Authoritarian societies cannot necessarily afford that option for a welter of political reasons. As a result, authoritarian societies often pour more scarce resources into innovations that do not pan out than would otherwise be the case.

Rosenberg’s thesis bolsters more recent arguments by, say, Pritchett and Summers’ pessimism on the future of Chinese economic growth.  That essay affected my own work in a number of small but significant ways. It might be the most provocative-but-not-read article in the field of economic history.

The second thing was that Nate Rosenberg might have been the gentlest economist I ever met (admittedly, a low bar). Gentle does not mean uncritical — I saw Rosenberg vivisect a student’s nascent ideas numerous times. But he always managed to do so in a way that gave the student hope that the paper was fixable.  He was a kind but firm mentor. He cared as much about my prose as he did my modelling, because he knew that both mattered when a paper was delivered. I watched him closely as a teacher and a seminar participant. He was always on topic, and always interested in the idea that someone else proposed. It was a treat to participate in his science, technology and economics workshop.

In many ways, graduate school is a series of bubble-bursting episodes in which one’s illusions of scholarship are shattered by the grubbiness of the modern academy. The reality isn’t awful, mind you, but one has to acknowledge it before being able to pass Go and earn a doctorate. Rosenberg (and another scholar I worked for, Alexander George) helped preserve one corner of my preconceived notions — the notion of the kindly mentor. I eventually switched over to political science, but Nate was never bitter about me leaving the church.

Rest in peace, Nate.