Some time ago I read a claim that an early discovery can lead to a great scientific stagnation. The example given was the Chinese porcelain, that resolved all the known problems, and stopped the research, but not the problems that a more advanced metallurgy could resolve. I can remember neither the author nor the name of the theory. Can anyone help?

  • 6
    I don't know the name of the theory, but Bertrand Russell made a similar claim about Aristotle in "History of Western Philosophy," viz. that his writings on the natural sciences were considered so complete and definitive that no one sane thought they could push knowledge any further. So for the next 1,000 years you get intellectuals focusing on cataloguing/categorizing (e.g. Alexandria) or doing parsings and close readings rather than new theory development. Perhaps a tendentious reading of Western philosophy, but that's what Russell said.
    – two sheds
    Jun 8, 2015 at 15:16
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    Also possibly relevant: the sci-fi short story "The Road Not Taken" by Harry Turtledove.
    – David
    Jun 8, 2015 at 22:22
  • Googling "chinese porcelain metallurgy technological stagnation" (without the quotation marks) produces many relevant results, but not the name of the theory you mention, as far as I can tell. The general concept is akin to "resting on your laurels", but I doubt that this is what you had in mind.
    – Wad Cheber
    Jun 9, 2015 at 2:43
  • Other similar ideas: "Path dependence", "the Ratchet Effect".
    – Wad Cheber
    Jun 9, 2015 at 2:49
  • And it might help to google "the great divergence" (without the quotation marks). This is the name given to the phenomenon you mentioned regarding China's technological stagnation. The name of the theory you are asking about will come up sooner or later.
    – Wad Cheber
    Jun 9, 2015 at 2:54

2 Answers 2


In Dutch this is known as wet van de remmende voorsprong, which has been translated to Law of the handicap of a head start on Wikipedia. The page has a few examples similar to yours.

That a page with such an awful name exists plus the number of discussions I find about how to translate the Dutch phrase makes me think that there is no exact name for this phenomenon in English.

Although the linked Convergence (economics) seems to come close.

  • Yes, a awful name, but is what I was searching for. I was not aware of how wide was this theory. Thaks.
    – Cochise
    Jun 11, 2015 at 20:27

One possible term for the situation you described is technological lock in. This is more commonly associated with the development of sustainable energy (vs cheap oil), so it is probably not the specific name you were looking for. It does however refer to a similar situation where non-optimal (for a given definition thereof) technology becomes dominant, and retards progress on alternative technologies due to macro factors acting as barriers.

This is theorised to happen under a number of situations. Alternatives with better potentials in the future may be unable to match the matured technology in performance now. Moreover, the dominant method has institutional, infrastructural advantages, which with economies of scale disincentive alternative methods that could not offer competitive returns.

A summary I found is:

Technological lock-in results from a confluence of economic and political factors including network externalities, economies of scale, path dependency, vested interests and regulatory frameworks. Thus, technologies become locked-in through wide diffusion and usage and not necessarily as a result of absolute technical or economic superiority, underscoring the influence of behaviour.

- Theiss, D.S. "Changing Behaviour: individual energy use, strategic behavioural niche management and decentralised energy generation in the UK". Proceedings of the International Conference on Micro Perspectives for Decentralized Energy Supply. Technische Universität Berlin. 2011.


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