«by Robert C. Allen Professor of Economic History Department of Economics and Nuffield College Oxford University Email: ...»
As British technology evolved, capital and energy intensities declined. Chapman (1970, p. 253) observed that “the mechanical genius of Lancashire was directed towards a reduction of plant costs, which fell from £2 per spindle at the height of the Arkwright era to less than £1 a spindle by 1836.” It was the same story with steam power: The first Newcomen engines were profligate in their use of fuel. Smeaton improved them in the mideighteenth century cutting the use of coal. Watt’s separate condenser saved more fuel. The high pressure steam engine, and the Cornish engine reduced energy use much further (Nuvolari 2004a). By the mid-nineteenth century, steam engines could be used in France even though coal was expensive since they did not use much of it. The culmination of this process was compound condensing marine engines that finally made steam ships cheaper than clipper ships on the very long routes from the Pacific to Britain (Harley 1971).
Three idealist explanations
The theory advanced here explains the technological breakthroughs of the industrial revolution in terms of the economic base of society–natural resources, international trade, profit opportunities. Through their impact on wages and prices, these prime movers affected both the demand for technology and its supply. An alternative approach traces the inventions of the industrial background back to the realm of ideas and culture. This view is advanced by cultural historians like Margaret Jacob (1988, 1997) and Larry Stewart (2004) and by economists like Joe Mokyr (2002). His writings have been highly influential in putting technological history at the centre of debate and in emphasizing the importance of networks and communication channels for understanding invention. However, the history of wages and prices as well as the detailed investigation of famous inventions (to be considered shortly) both suggest that economic evolution exerted a stronger influence on invention than autonomous changes in culture or ideas.
There are three distinct idealist explanations of the industrial revolution that need to
1. The technological breakthroughs were ‘macro-inventions,’ i.e. acts of genius or serendipity rather than responses to economic incentives.
2. The technological breakthroughs were applications of scientific discoveries that were made for scientific rather than economic reasons.
3. The industrial revolution was the result of the spread of scientific culture that made people more experimental, more numerate, and more systematic in their study of technology. This cultural change was due to the success and example of Newtonian science.
These possibilities affected the supply of technology rather than its demand. The first two increased the supply of technology by providing engineers with Big Ideas to develop. The third improved the ability of engineers to turn ideas into commercial applications.
Consider macro-inventions first. These differ from micro-inventions, which are “the small incremental steps that improve, adapt, and streamline existing techniques already in use, reducing costs, improving form and function, increasing durability, and reducing energy and raw material requirements.” Microinventions are “more or less understandable with the help of standard economic concepts. They result from search and inventive effort, and respond to prices and incentives.” In contrast, macroinventions embody “a radical new idea, without clear precedent” and emerge “more or less ab nihilo.” They “do not seem to obey obvious laws, do not necessarily respond to incentives, and defy most attempts to relate them to exogenous economic variables. Many of them resulted from strokes of genius, luck or serendipity” (Mokyr 1990, p. 13.) Mechanical spinning is a pre-eminent example. (Mokyr 1993, p. 20).
Stress on pure genius is hard to square with my discussion of wages, prices, and the incentives they created for inventing technology, for that analysis treats all of the inventions of the industrial revolution as micro-inventions. Which were they: micro or macro? The tests are: (a) to see whether mechanical spinning, for instance, emerged ‘ab nihilo’ or whether it was a development of existing ideas and (2) to see whether its ‘invention’ involved a development program that made sense in terms of economic opportunities. When we perform these tests, we see that the famous inventions of the industrial revolution look more like micro-inventions than macro-inventions.
How about scientific discovery as a source of eighteenth century technology? This is a favourite theme of university presidents and vice chancellors, and, indeed, has been argued by proponents of scientific research since the seventeenth century. In 1671, Robert Boyle developed the argument. “Inventions of ingenious heads doe, when once grown into request, set many Mechanical hands a worke, and supply Tradesmen with new meanes of getting a liveleyhood or even inriching themselves.” There were three ways by which “naturalists” could improve technology. “The first [was] by increasing the number of Trades, by the addition of new ones.” The pendulum clock and scientific instruments were Boyle’s examples. “The second [was] by uniteing the Observations and Practices of differing Trades into one Body of Collections,” so that techniques used in one trade could be transferred to another. “And the third [was] by suggesting improvements in some kind or other of the Particular Trades.” Cornelius Drebbel’s invention of turkey red dye was an example, but what particularly excited Boyle were the possibilities of inventing “engines” to mechanize production. “When we see that Timber is sawd by Wind-mills and Files cut by slight Instruments; and even Silk-stockings woven by an Engine...we may be tempted to ask, what handy work it is, that Mechanicall contrivances may not enable men to performe by Engines.” Boyle thought that there were more possiblities here “than either Shopmen or Book men seem to have imagined” and experimental scientists would discover them. (Boyle 1671, Essay 4, pp. 10, 20.) Was Boyle right? The impact of scientific discovery on technology was explored thoroughly in the 1960s (Musson and Robinson 1969, Mathias 1972). The search turned up only one important application of scientific knowledge to industry–the steam engine, which was based on the discovery that the atmosphere has weight. It is a big leap, however, from that connection to the conclusion that the discovery of the weight of the atmosphere caused the invention of the steam engine. I will examine its history and argue that it was only in Britain that the economic benefits were great enough to justify the expense of perfecting the steam engine. No one would have found it worthwhile anywhere else in the world. Its invention was as much a response to economic opportunities as to scientific advance. And apart from the steam engine, there’s not many applications that can be linked to science.
The third idealist explanation is the most amorphous. The basic idea is that the scientific revolution created a ‘culture of science’ that led to the inventions of the industrial revolution. The explanation is usually developed in two stages. The first stage explains why the industrial revolution happened in Europe at the end of the eighteenth century (rather than in China or in the middle ages); the second explains why it happened in Britain rather than France.
Mokyr (2002, p. 29) gives a succinct statement of the first stage claim.
I submit that the Industrial Revolution’s timing was determined by intellectual developments, and the true key to the timing of the Industrial Revolution has to be sought in the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century and the Enlightenment movement of the eighteenth century. The key to the Industrial Revolution was technology, and technology is knowledge.
Mokyr coined the term Industrial Enlightenment to describe the features of the Enlightenment that linked the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century to the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth. The Industrial Enlightenment emphasized the application of the scientific and experimental methods to the study of technology, the belief in an orderly universe governed by natural laws that could be apprehended by the scientific method, and the expectation that the scientific study of natural world and technology would improve human life. These ideas were popularized until they eventually permeated the culture. The channels through which this was done included professional scientific societies like the Royal Society, and the publication of books like the Encyclopédie that described manufacturing processes (although the tale of pin-making gives us pause). Popular scientific societies and lectures also played a role in disseminating the new approach to technology and nature.
According to Mokyr (2002, p. 29), the industrial enlightenment explains “why the Industrial Revolution took place in western Europe (although not why it took place in Britain and not in France or the Netherlands.)” This must be so when the pre-eminent example of knowledge diffusion is Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie. Britain’s lead over France is attributed to a difference in the engineering cultures of the two countries: The French were supposedly theoretical, while the British were practical. This is the second stage claim.
With a theory so multi-faceted, it is hard to reach a definitive judgement: The theory stimulates, but there are many grounds for reservation. The theory posits European and national cultures that make little allowance for class or social status differences in attitudes.
What exactly were the links between Cambridge dons like Newton and artisan inventors like Abraham Darby or James Hargreaves? This problem was apparent to eighteenth century
writers. In The Fable of the Bees, Mandeville (1724) remarked:
They are very seldom the same Sort of People, those that invent Arts, and Improvements in them, and those that enquire into the Reason of Things: this latter is most commonly practis’d by such, as are idle and indolent, that are fond of Retirement, hate Business, and take delight in Speculation: whereas none succeed oftener in the first, than active, stirring, and laborious Men, such as will put their Hand to the Plough, try Experiments, and give all their Attention to what they are about.
To close the gap between high science and artisan technology, the culturalists propose coffee houses giving popular science lectures. Who attended these events and what they heard are less than clear. The minutes of the Chapter Coffee House society, which met between 1780 and 1787, have been published (Levere and Turner 2002), and they provide a rare peek inside. They warrant attention since the history of the society provides “hard evidence of the interplay between science and technology, and industrial revolution.” But does it? 60% of the 55 members were Fellows of the Royal Society and only five had a connection to manufacturing. Of those five, only one ever attended a meeting. The Chapter Coffee House was not science communicating with industry. It was science talking to itself.
There probably were some occasions when high science addressed the hoi polloi, but the suspicion must be that Mandeville was right: these were separate spheres.
More suspicion that the Industrial Enlightenment was mainly an upper class cultural phenomenon with little relation to production comes from the study of its twin–the Agrarian Enlightenment. This involved many of the same themes as the Industrial Enlightenment–except applied to farming rather than manufacturing–and, indeed, many of the same people, once returned to their country houses at the close of the London season. These were the celebrated improving landlords of England, who enclosed their estates, turned their home farms into experimental stations, patronized Arthur Young (a great collector of farming data), published reports of new crops and cultivation methods, and promoted improved farming among their tenants. This was the enlightenment project applied to agriculture, but, unfortunately for the cultural theory, it had little effect on agricultural productivity (Wilmot 1990). The impact of the Agrarian Enlightenment was inherently limited because it was a movement among the gentry and aristocracy, not among the farmers who actually tilled the land. The books were written by landlords, for landlords. The King could play at being Farmer George, but there was little connection with real production. Was the Industrial Enlightenment as ineffective?
It is important to distinguish between popular culture and elite culture and ask how they were related. Cultural historians see popular culture changing in response to high science, an elite cultural activity. In contrast, I contend that popular culture evolved in response to changes in the economy. The growth of international trade led to much greater urbanization in northwestern Europe. Jobs in trade, manufacturing, and commerce required skills that agriculture had not demanded. Literacy rates in medieval Europe were much higher in cities than in the countryside for this reason, so literacy rose with urbanization. The high wage economy of the commercial centres also aided the accumulation of human capital by making it easier for people to pay for education and knowledge. Beyond that, the invention of printing sharply reduced the price of books leading to much greater effective demand for both useful knowledge and pleasure (van Zanden 2004a, 2004b, Reis 2005). The same factors probably boosted numeracy (Thomas 1987). Knowledge of arithmetic and geometry was important to keep accounts and navigate ships. In his path breaking epidemiological study of London, Graunt (1662, p. 7) attributed his calculations not to science but to trade: “It depends upon the Mathematiques of my Shop-Arithmetic.” The much greater level of human capital in the eighteenth century than in the middle ages is an important reason why the industrial revolution did not happen earlier.