Brief introduction to the Industrial Revolution

I am increasingly interested in economic history. We are now in a place of prosperity and health that would have been unimaginable 300 years ago and barely comprehensible two generations ago. How did we get to a place of such wealth?

If we can figure out an answer to that question it will be easy to figure out how to sustain what we now enjoy. More importantly, if we figure out how those of us who enjoy prosperity got here, we have a better chance of sharing it with other people living in countries more reminiscent of life 500 years ago.

I’ve been reading a lot of economics lately. You can tell from the blog posts. I want to write more on the topic.

This is cross-posted from my other blog, Outrun Change.

Here is a great article on how we got here:

3/27 – A Fine Theorem – “Editor’s Introduction to The New Economic History and the Industrial Revolution,” J. Mokyr (1998) – The post describes a lengthy description of the Industrial Revolution. More on the underlying document in a moment.

The linked article gives a great summary. Here are the five major points in the article with a few aha! ideas that registered in my simple brain:

1) The world was absurdly poor from the dawn of mankind until the late 1800s, everywhere.

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.

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.

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

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

Prof. Kevin Bryan paints a good comparison. If you want to see how practically every person, in every place, in every time until the early 1800s lived, take a look at modern Chad. Compare the statistics of England in the early 1800s, at which point it was one of the wealthiest countries in the world, to the country of Chad today:

  • Eng.     Chad   metric
  • 30        50        life expectancy
  • 150      90        infant mortality per 1000 live births
  • Min.     35%     literacy (min. meaning minimal literacy)
  • 3-4x     3-4x     median wages compared to subsistence (that is the level of only having enough wealth to keep yourself alive)

Amazing. Today Chad has the 192nd largest GDP per capita out of 226 countries on the list. Not at the bottom of the list, but close.

That puts the people in Chad ($1,900 PPP, a way of comparing per capita income) slightly below Lesotho (2,000) and Yemen (2,300) and slightly better off than Bangladesh (1,700) and Senegal (1,900). People living in England in the late 1700s weren’t that well off.

As horrid as the mills and mines may have been in England, everyone everywhere on the planet today is better than the so-called rich country of England back then. People in rural areas back then were worse off than those living in the horrid industrial towns of the time.

Why did the Industrial Revolution happen? Why England? Why at that time?

The extremely short answer is that it was not economic rewards from colonialism, economic rewards from slavery, or a few critical inventions.

Many factors were involved. Check out the article.

Incremental innovations and experimentation are major factors. Left out of the immediate discussion is any mention of property rights and a political system that won’t steal your wealth the moment you have a bit of accumulated capital.

Oh, about the source document from Mr. Mokyr. You can find it here. All 84 pages. That’s the introduction to his textbook.

I believe the article is what called academic instead of popular. To give you a sense of what it looks like, the first two or three pages discuss whether the term Industrial Revolution is even appropriate and how that phrase came into play (three pages!). Here’s a sample:

How revolutionary was the Industrial Revolution? Compared to political revolutions, like the American and French revolutions that were contemporaneous with it, it was rather drawn-out, its dates usually set between 1760 and 1830 following Ashton (1948). To be sure, it was punctuated by some periods of feverish activity such as the year 1769, the annus mirabilis as Donald Cardwell (1972) called it, in which both James Watt’s separate condenser and Richard Arkwright’s water frame were patented. But, on the whole, economic changes, even economic revolutions, do not have their Bastille Days or their Lenins. Economic change is rarely dramatic, sudden, or heroic. Consequently, some scholars have found the revolutionary aspects difficult to stomach. John Clapham and Herbert Heaton, the doyens of economic history in the 1930s and 1940s, shunned the term Industrial Revolution altogether. In contrast, historians in the 1960s wrote of “Great Discontinuities” (Hartwell, 1971b) and “take-offs” (Rostow, 1960).

I get the main point: massive economic change doesn’t have a specific day in history to mark its start and end.

However, I have no idea who Ashton, Cardwell, Clapham, Heaton, Hartwell, or Rostow are.

As you can imagine, I won’t be reading the 84 pages of the intro anytime soon, let alone the full book (couldn’t find it at Amazon anyway). But I do have a long list of popular books on my reading list.

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