Research Policy, the premier journal for innovation economists, recently produced a symposium on the work of Nick von Tunzelmann. Tunzelmann is best known for exploring the social value of the invention of steam power. Many historians had previously granted great importance to the steam engine as a driver of the Industrial Revolution. However, as with Fogel’s argument that the railroad was less important to the American economy than previously believed (though see Donaldson and Hornbeck’s amendment claiming that market access changes due to rail were very important), the role of steam in the Industrial Revolution may have been overstated.
This is surprising. To my mind, the four most important facts for economics to explain is why the world economy (in per capita terms) stagnated until the early 1800s, why cumulative per-capita growth began then in a corner of Northwest Europe, why growth at the frontier has continued to the present, and why growth at the frontier has been so consistent over this period. The consistency is really surprising, given that individual non-frontier country growth rates, and World GDP growth, has vacillated pretty wildly on a decade-by-decade basis.
Malthus’ explanation still explains the first puzzle best. But there remain many competing explanations for how exactly the Malthusian trap was broken. The idea that a thrifty culture or expropriation of colonies was critical sees little support from economic historians; as McCloskey writes, “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.” The problem, more generally, of explaining a large economic X on the basis of some invention/program/institution Y is that basically everything in the economic world is a complement. Human capital absent good institutions has little value, modern management techniques absent large markets is ineffective, etc. The problem is tougher when it comes to inventions. Most “inventions” that you know of have very little immediate commercial importance, and a fair ex-post reckoning of the critical parts of the eventual commercial product often leaves little role for the famous inventor.
What Tunzelmann and later writers in his tradition point out is that even though Watt’s improvement to the steam engine was patented in 1769, steam produces less horsepower than water in the UK as late as 1830, and in the US as late as the Civil War. Indeed, even today, hydropower based on the age-old idea of the turbine is still an enormous factor in the siting of electricity-hungry industries. It wasn’t until the invention of high-pressure steam engines like the Lancanshire boiler in the 1840s that textile mills really saw steam power as an economically viable source of energy. Most of the important inventions in the textile industry were designed originally for non-steam power sources.
The economic historian Nicholas Crafts supports Tunzelmann’s original argument against the importance of steam using a modern growth accounting framework. Although the cost of steam power fell rapidly following Watt, and especially after the Corliss engine in the mid 19th century, steam was still a relatively small part of economy until the mid-late 19th century. Therefore, even though productivity growth within steam was quick, only a tiny portion of overall TFP growth in the early Industrial Revolution can be explained by steam. Growth accounting exercises have a nice benefit over partial equilibrium social savings calculations because the problem that “everything is a complement” is taken care of so long as you believe the Cobb-Douglas formulation.
The December 2013 issue of Research Policy (all gated) is the symposium on Tunzelmann. For some reason, Tunzelmann’s “Steam Power and British Industrialization Until 1860” is quite expensive used, but any decent library should have a copy.