MARKETS FOR INNOVATION IN THE EARLY TWENTIETH CENTURY: Evidence from Torino’s 1911 International Exhibition

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29 Mar 2016

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Only a few months ago, the 2015 Expo brought to the Northern Italian city of Milan more than 20 million visitors from all over the world. The media talked extensively about the event, dedicating a particular attention to the long lines that visitors had to stand to access the exhibition’s pavilions, especially the most ‘exotic’ – and therefore requested – ones, like the Japanese.

But this is actually no news: international exhibitions have mobilised giant masses of human beings for more than 160 years, since their inception with London’s 1851 Great Exhibition. The record of 50 million visitors, reached by Paris 1900 Exposition Universelle, was overtaken 70 years later, in populous Asia, by Osaka’s Expo.

Research by Giacomo Domini, to be presented at the Economic History Society’s 2016 annual conference, draws attention to these events, which were among the most distinctive of the second half of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth.

They were celebrations of ‘the splendours of progress’, of peaceful economic competition between countries and of free trade (hence of rising capitalism). They left significant social and cultural traces, as they fostered the development of what Marx defined ‘commodity fetishism’. They also entailed a celebration of the power and prestige of their respective organisers. Finally, and most importantly, they played an important function in the diffusion of new technologies.

Based on this function, and following an intuition by the economic historian Petra Moser, Domini explores the possibility to consider the manufactured products, displayed at the exhibitions, as a measure of innovation in those years. The latter could so far be measured only by means of patent data, a source that is widely employed but features some well-known shortcomings.

Domini focuses on the case of Torino 1911 International Exhibition – one of the last, before the First World War brought about a decline of this kind of events. He makes joint use of exhibition data and patent data, and observes that these two sources only have a very small intersection, around 10% of the larger ‘universe of innovation’ obtained by merging them.

This small overlap is due, he argues, to the different reasons why economic agents chose to use the patent system and to exhibit. On the one hand, in the ‘age of the independent inventor’, most patents were taken out by individuals. On the other hand, world’s fairs were primarily important for (especially export-oriented) firms to present their products at a worldwide-renowned event.

Considering the expos just as markets for products would be limiting, though. In fact, Domini observes the presence of a niche of independent inventors, who were both patenting and exhibiting as individuals: as these were not producers, the reason why they participated in the exhibition was not to promote a product, but an idea: among the visitors to the Expo, particularly keen on the latest advances of science and technology, independent inventors were looking for potential buyers or licensees for their patents, or for investors, allowing them to set up innovative firms – what we would today define as start-ups.

With the historical appraisal, methodological suggestions, and empirical analysis contained in this work, Domini contributes to valorising exhibition data, which can significantly extend our knowledge of innovation before the First World War, and challenge historians’ opinions about the role of firms in this field at that time. 


Patents, exhibitions and markets for innovation in the early 20th century: Evidence from Torino’s 1911 International Exhibition

Giacomo Domini, University of Siena (Italy)

Phone: +31616484098 (preferred); +393396867386 (I)

E-mail: (preferred);;

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