“Editor’s Introduction to The New Economic History and the Industrial Revolution,” J. Mokyr (1998)

I taught a fun three hours on the Industrial Revolution in my innovation PhD course this week. The absolutely incredible change in the condition of mankind that began in a tiny corner of Europe in an otherwise unremarkable 70-or-so years is totally fascinating. Indeed, the Industrial Revolution and its aftermath are so important to human history that I find it strange that we give people PhDs in social science without requiring at least some study of what happened.

My post today draws heavily on Joel Mokyr’s lovely, if lengthy, summary of what we know about the period. You really should read the whole thing, but if you know nothing about the IR, there are really five facts of great importance which you should be aware of.

1) The world was absurdly poor from the dawn of mankind until the late 1800s, everywhere.
Somewhere like Chad or Nepal today fares better on essentially any indicator of development than England, the wealthiest place in the world, in the early 1800s. This is hard to believe, I know. Life expectancy was in the 30s in England, infant mortality was about 150 per 1000 live births, literacy was minimal, and median wages were perhaps 3 to 4 times subsistence. Chad today has a life expectancy of 50, infant mortality of 90 per 1000, a literacy of 35%, and urban median wages of roughly 3 to 4 times subsistence. Nepal fares even better on all counts. The air from the “dark, Satanic mills” of William Blake would have made Beijing blush, “night soil” was generally just thrown on to the street, children as young as six regularly worked in mines, and 60 to 80 hours a week was a standard industrial schedule.


The richest places in the world were never more than 5x subsistence before the mid 1800s

Despite all of this, there was incredible voluntary urbanization: those dark, Satanic mills were preferable to the countryside. My own ancestors were among the Irish that fled the Potato famine. Mokyr’s earlier work on the famine, which happened in the British Isles after the Industrial Revolution, suggest 1.1 to 1.5 million people died from a population of about 7 million. This is similar to the lower end of the range for percentage killed during the Cambodian genocide, and similar to the median estimates of the death percentage during the Rwandan genocide. That is, even in the British Isles, famines that would shock the world today were not unheard of. And even if you wanted to leave the countryside, it may have been difficult to do so. After Napoleon, serfdom remained widespread east of the Elbe river in Europe, passes like the “Wanderbucher” were required if one wanted to travel, and coercive labor institutions that tied workers to specific employers were common. This is all to say that the material state of mankind before and during the Industrial Revolution, essentially anywhere in the world, would be seen as outrageous deprivation to us today; palaces like Versailles are not representative, as should be obvious, of how most people lived. Remember also that we are talking about Europe in the early 1800s; estimates of wages in other “rich” societies of the past are even closer to subsistence.

2) The average person did not become richer, nor was overall economic growth particularly spectacular, during the Industrial Revolution; indeed, wages may have fallen between 1760 and 1830.

The standard dating of the Industrial Revolution is 1760 to 1830. You might think: factories! The railroad! The steam engine! High Britannia! How on Earth could people have become poorer? And yet it is true. Brad DeLong has an old post showing Bob Allen’s wage reconstructions: Allen found British wages lower than their 1720 level in 1860! John Stuart Mill, in his 1870 textbook, still is unsure whether all of the great technological achievements of the Industrial Revolution would ever meaningfully improve the state of the mass of mankind. And Mill wasn’t the only one who noticed, there were a couple of German friends, who you may know, writing about the wretched state of the Working Class in Britain in the 1840s as well.

3) Major macro inventions, and growth, of the type seen in England in the late 1700s and early 1800s happened many times in human history.


The Iron Bridge in Shropshire, 1781, proving strength of British iron

The Industrial Revolution must surely be “industrial”, right? The dating of the IR’s beginning to 1760 is at least partially due to the three great inventions of that decade: the Watt engine, Arkwright’s water frame, and the spinning jenny. Two decades later came Cort’s famous puddling process for making strong iron. The industries affected by those inventions, cotton and iron, are the prototypical industries of England’s industrial height.

But if big macro-inventions, and a period of urbanization, are “all” that defines the Industrial Revolution, then there is nothing unique about the British experience. The Song Dynasty in China saw the gun, movable type, a primitive Bessemer process, a modern canal lock system, the steel curved moldboard plow, and a huge increase in arable land following public works projects. Netherlands in the late 16th and early 17th century grew faster, and eventually became richer, than Britain ever did during the Industrial Revolution. We have many other examples of short-lived periods of growth and urbanization: ancient Rome, Muslim Spain, the peak of the Caliphate following Harun ar-Rashid, etc.

We care about England’s growth and invention because of what followed 1830, not what happened between 1760 and 1830. England was able to take their inventions and set on a path to break the Malthusian bounds – I find Galor and Weil’s model the best for understanding what is necessary to move from a Malthusian world of limited long-run growth to a modern world of ever-increasing human capital and economic bounty. Mokyr puts it this way: “Examining British economic history in the period 1760-1830 is a bit like studying the history of Jewish dissenters between 50 B.C. and 50 A.D. At first provincial, localized, even bizarre, it was destined to change the life of every man and women…beyond recognition.”

4) It is hard for us today to understand how revolutionary ideas like “experimentation” or “probability” were.

In his two most famous books, The Gifts of Athena and The Lever of Riches, Mokyr has provided exhausting evidence about the importance of “tinkerers” in Britain. That is, there were probably something on the order of tens of thousands of folks in industry, many not terribly well educated, who avidly followed new scientific breakthroughs, who were aware of the scientific method, who believed in the existence of regularities which could be taken advantage of by man, and who used systematic processes of experimentation to learn what works and what doesn’t (the development of English porter is a great case study). It is impossible to overstate how unusual this was. In Germany and France, science was devoted mainly to the state, or to thought for thought’s sake, rather than to industry. The idea of everyday, uneducated people using scientific methods somewhere like ar-Rashid’s Baghdad is inconceivable. Indeed, as Ian Hacking has shown, it wasn’t just that fundamental concepts like “probabilistic regularities” were difficult to understand: the whole concept of discovering something based on probabilistic output would not have made sense to all but the very most clever person before the Enlightenment.

The existence of tinkerers with access to a scientific mentality was critical because it allowed big inventions or ideas to be refined until they proved useful. England did not just invent the Newcomen engine, put it to work in mines, and then give up. Rather, England developed that Newcomen engine, a boisterous monstrosity, until it could profitably be used to drive trains and ships. In Gifts of Athena, Mokyr writes that fortune may sometimes favor the unprepared mind with a great idea; however, it is the development of that idea which really matters, and to develop macroinventions you need a small but not tiny cohort of clever, mechanically gifted, curious citizens. Some have given credit to a political system, or to the patent system, for the widespread tinkering, but the qualitative historical evidence I am aware of appears to lean toward cultural explanations most strongly. One great piece of evidence is that contemporaries wrote often about the pattern where Frenchmen invented something of scientific importance, yet the idea diffused and was refined in Britain. Any explanation of British uniqueness must depend on Britain’s ability to refine inventions.

5) The best explanations for “why England? why in the late 1700s? why did growth continue?” do not involve colonialism, slavery, or famous inventions.

First, we should dispose of colonialism and slavery. Exports to India were not particularly important compared to exports to non-colonial regions, slavery was a tiny portion of British GDP and savings, and many other countries were equally well-disposed to profit from slavery and colonialism as of the mid-1700s, yet the IR was limited to England. Expanding beyond Europe, Dierdre McCloskey notes that “thrifty self-discipline and violent expropriation have been too common in human history to explain a revolution utterly unprecedented in scale and unique to Europe around 1800.” As for famous inventions, we have already noted how common bursts of cleverness were in the historic record, and there is nothing to suggest that England was particularly unique in its macroinventions.

To my mind, this leaves two big, competing explanations: Mokyr’s argument that tinkerers and a scientific mentality allowed Britain to adapt and diffuse its big inventions rapidly enough to push the country over the Malthusian hump and into a period of declining population growth after 1870, and Bob Allen’s argument that British wages were historically unique. Essentially, Allen argues that British wages were high compared to its capital costs from the Black Death forward. This means that labor-saving inventions were worthwhile to adopt in Britain even when they weren’t worthwhile in other countries (e.g., his computations on the spinning jenny). If it worthwhile to adopt certain inventions, then inventors will be able to sell something, hence it is worthwhile to invent certain inventions. Once adopted, Britain refined these inventions as they crawled down the learning curve, and eventually it became worthwhile for other countries to adopt the tools of the Industrial Revolution. There is a great deal of debate about who has the upper hand, or indeed whether the two views are even in conflict. I do, however, buy the argument, made by Mokyr and others, that it is not at all obvious that inventors in the 1700s were targeting their inventions toward labor saving tasks (although at the margin we know there was some directed technical change in the 1860s), nor it is even clear that invention overall during the IR was labor saving (total working hours increased, for instance).

Mokyr’s Editor’s Introduction to “The New Economic History and the Industrial Revolution” (no RePEc IDEAS page). He has a followup in the Journal of Economic History, 2005, examining further the role of an Enlightenment mentality in allowing for the rapid refinement and adoption of inventions in 18th century Britain, and hence the eventual exit from the Malthusian trap.

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4 thoughts on ““Editor’s Introduction to The New Economic History and the Industrial Revolution,” J. Mokyr (1998)

  1. But wasn’t the development of steam technology unique in that it cracked the ceiling of human development by tapping into a virtually limitless source of energy heretofore (theretofore?) limited to human and animal muscle and the vagaries of wind and water?

  2. tsrub88j says:

    Reblogged this on roads to modernity and commented:
    The influence of slavery on the development of the British Empire and the Industrial Revolution goes beyond mere numbers. I enjoyed this overview, but I believe the author overlooks the influences of slavery on modernity. Labor organization, free trade, and other such components of the Industrial Revolution (though I’m hesitant to say free trade was a component of the ID) cannot be measured via cliometrics alone. Books like Justin Roberts’ Slavery and the Enlightenment in the British Atlantic, 1750-1807 and Simon Newman’s a A New World of Labor present, offer perspectives on the organization of labor, which emerged from the slave trade. However, I like the section “Major macro inventions, and growth, of the type seen in England in the late 1700s and early 1800s happened many times in human history”–very important.

  3. Bruce says:

    Interesting observations but it feels just a little bit too ‘gee whiz’ in attitude to reflect the changes on the ground. Although it may have fallen out of favour, the changing situation in human capital as mentioned above and especially the resources made available by the enclosure movement had an unbelievably huge impact on the development of the industrial revolution and is not overestimated. I’m not sure that econometric history can present a complete enough foundation for understanding the wrenching changes of the era and distances us enough to believe it’s worth repeating by disregarding the human costs involved.

  4. phambichha says:

    Reblogged this on Phambichha's Blog and commented:
    The New Economic History and the Industrial Revolution

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