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Published August 2, 2017 | Submitted
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Why Was It Europeans Who Conquered the World?


By the eighteenth century, Europeans dominated the military technology of gunpowder weapons, which had enormous advantages for fighting war at a distance and conquering other parts of the world. Their dominance, however, was surprising, because the technology had originated in China and been used with expertise in Asia and the Middle East. To account for their prowess with gunpowder weapons, historians have often invoked competition, but it cannot explain why they pushed this technology further than anyone else. The answer lies in the peculiar form that military competition took in western Europe: it was a winner take all tournament, and a simple model of the tournament shows why it led European rulers to spend heavily on improving the gunpowder technology, and why political incentives and military conditions kept such a tournament from developing elsewhere in the world. As a result, rulers elsewhere in Eurasia had much less reason to advance the gunpowder technology or to catch up with the Europeans. The consequences were huge, from colonialism to the slave trade and even the Industrial Revolution.

Additional Information

Research for this paper was supported by NSF Grants 0433358 and SES-0649062 as part of the Global Prices and Incomes Project. Numerous people have helped me by generously offering advice, criticisms, and expertise: Mary Elizabeth Berry, Dan Bogart, Philip C. Brown, John C. Brown, Warren Brown, Margaret Chen, Greg Clark, Stan Engerman, Claudia Goldin, Dave Grether, Dan Klerman, James Kung, Peter Lindert, Bozhong Li, Naomi Lamoreaux, James Lee, Guanglin Liu, Debin Ma, R. Preston McAfee, Kate Norberg, Patrick O'Brien, Sevket Pamuk, Peter Perdue, Gilles Postel-Vinay, Gary Richardson, Jean-Laurent Rosenthal, Stergios Skaperdas, Peter Temin, Harriet Zurndorfer, and the late Ken Sokoloff.

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