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Industrial Revolution, First


recent histories of the industrial revolution
economic indicators and comparative economic growth
divergence between east and west
early global connections
early modern global trade and the industrious revolution
technology and useful knowledge
wars, colonies, and markets

British and European identities are historically based in the modernization and industrialization of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which brought western dominion over the world for the nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries. Was this achievement contingent on a prior superiority in environment, economy, mind, or culture, or was it mere accident? These questions demand comparative history and research into the connections between parts of the globe that before this were previously studied separately. A new history of Europe's—and especially Britain's—Industrial Revolution must be a history of comparisons, encounters, and connections between and among parts of Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. This is a new approach to European industrialization, focusing on comparative environmental histories, on consumer cultures, on wider-world connections in trade and colonization, and investigating useful knowledge and institutional reform.

recent histories of the industrial revolution

Conceived of by historians writing between the 1950s and 1970s—the era of the Cold War—as the kick start to modern economic growth, the Industrial Revolution was about rapid economic change and social transformation. It was marked by the growth of factories and large-scale capital investment; it was caused by technology and capital formation led by industrialists and private investors. It was a British event, based on the underlying institutions of private property and liberal values, and its model provided a blueprint to post–World War II reconstruction and the development missions and plans made for third-world economies emerging from colonialism. Historians of that period saw the Industrial Revolution as a story of modernization, marked by key indicators in an economy and society. They looked for and debated their estimates on the growth of national output, capital formation, demographic growth, and changes in industrial structures.

A new story of the Industrial Revolution appeared in the 1970s and 1980s, however, matching the industrial restructuring and decline of that period. Historians began to call the industrial past to account, questioning the centrality to the Industrial Revolution of the sacred cows of the postwar boom—heavy capital investment, large-scale industry, regional concentration, and large, heavily capitalized factories. Britain's industrial decline during this period was reflected in its historians' challenges to the growth rates and industrial transformation claimed by earlier historians, including Phyllis Deane and William A. Cole, David Landes and Eric Hobsbawm. Estimates of economic growth and of the growth in real wages over the classic period of the Industrial Revolution, from 1760 to 1830, were successively scaled down. The Industrial Revolution as a concept seemed to have been rendered obsolete and it became clear that the kinds of economic change associated with the Industrial Revolution did not necessarily entail rapid increases in economic growth. The costs of warfare and population growth absorbed much of the improved productivity. Invention and its diffusion, furthermore, have very delayed effects on income per capita and standards of living. It should thus be no surprise that an intensive phase of mechanical invention in the 1760s and 1770s would not start to show results in macroeconomic indicators until the period after the Napoleonic Wars.

economic indicators and comparative economic growth

The way most economic historians perceived the Industrial Revolution both in the 1950s and 1960s and from the 1970s to the late 1990s was still relatively insular. The collection and analysis of new evidence on birth and death rates by the Cambridge Population Group and other evidence on grain yields endorsed theories of endogenous change in Britain, specifically economic growth caused by a combination of population growth and rising agricultural productivity. Macroeconomic indicators discounted a significant contribution from international trade, including colonial markets and the slave trade. One historiography of this period, investigating macroeconomic indicators, flattened the growth trends, confined what growth there was to a small though dynamic sector, the cotton industry, and turned the search for the sources of growth inward to national, regional, and even local factors. Others, however, turned to the productivity gains of small-scale farming and industry, to broad-based technological change based in skills and intermediate technologies, and to entrepreneurship and capital formation based in regional and community networks.

Some saw this scaled-down Industrial Revolution as a largely British affair; economic indicators showed a yawning gap between the British rates of population growth, agricultural productivity, urbanization, and real wages and those of the rest of Europe—especially those of Britain's great rival, France. Population growth was gradual in France, whereas in England it rose throughout the eighteenth century, and especially in its latter half. And although British real wages were relatively static through most of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, they were still well above real wages in the rest of Europe. The proportion of British labor occupied in agriculture shrank continuously, while high proportions of the French labor force remained on the land; output per agricultural worker in France as late as 1840 was only 60 percent that of England. As late as the mid-nineteenth century, half the population of the United Kingdom lived in towns, whereas in France and Germany only one-quarter did. Britain achieved early ascendancy in cotton spinning to such a degree that France could not compete; French output per worker in cotton spinning was only 40 percent that of Britain in the 1830s and 1840s. And the British took over international markets in manufactured goods. By the mid-nineteenth century, 60 percent of British cotton output was exported, compared to only 10 percent in France, and Britain exported 25 percent of its total industrial output, compared to 10 to 12 percent in France.


The traditions of comparative history that prevailed in the 1950s and 1960s posed the British Industrial Revolution as the yardstick by which to measure the performance of the rest of Europe. In contrast, the new economic history identified the sectoral and macroeconomic divide between Britain and Europe. In a comparative history of protoindustrialization, Franklin Mendels in an keynote article, and Peter Kriedte, Hans Medick, and Jörgen Schlumbohm in a jointly authored book, sought the seeds of change that generated industrial expansion and Europe's subsequently divergent paths.

Protoindustrialization is a theory connecting the spread of rural industry, population growth, and social and institutional change. Its first proponents set out to explain socioeconomic change in Flanders and the German states. During the seventeenth century, agricultural, industrial, mercantile, and demographic change combined together to induce an unprecedented growth in decentralized manufacturing, most of which was located not in towns but in rural villages and drew on the labor of entire families, who organized their industrial work around the requirements of their agricultural holdings; much of the industrial work was, in fact, done by underemployed women. In the textile industry, this meant spinning and weaving, and entrepreneurs and artisans in the towns acquired and prepared the raw materials and carried out the final finishing processes under the supervision of merchants

Protoindustrialization was not just a descriptive category, it was a theory about why this kind of manufacturing arose and where it led. For Mendels, protoindustrialization was the first phase of industrialization. The rural labor force took up domestic industries, using their homes as workplaces, and produced for supra-regional markets. The population was thus liberated from the agrarian resource base; the labor force, which had previously been underutilized because of the seasonal nature of agrarian production, found employment, and eventually industry and agriculture specialized into specific regions.

The large numbers of regional case studies that followed this pioneering work, however, found no obvious link between protoindustrialization and later industrialization. In some regions, especially in Britain, a transition to the factory system ultimately took place. Examples include the Lancashire cotton industry, the west Yorkshire worsted woolen industry, the Belgian heavy metal and engineering industry, the woolen and cotton industries of northern France, the cotton industry of Saxony, and the Catalan and Swiss cotton and calico-printing industries. But in other regions, these protoindustries went into decline, notably in the south of Britain, which gradually converted back to agriculture over the course of the eighteenth century, or in the many parts of Europe that went into decline during and after the Napoleonic Wars.

The regional studies, however, underlined the ways that social, institutional, and political factors encouraged or inhibited regional industrial transformation. More significantly, the theory of protoindustrialization addressed the question of how work was organized and who did it. It also challenged those who argued that the rise of the factory system was the key signal of the Industrial Revolution. Historians discovered significant economic gains in the household and industrial division of labor as well as regional specialization arising from the spread of rural domestic industry during the protoindustrial phase, which led into and accompanied the factory system. Perhaps the alternative, smaller-scale units that coexisted with those factories were not as primitive as earlier historians believed. As historians often do, these historians were writing in tune with their times. New types of work organization were emerging in the 1970s and 1980s: network capitalism, just-in-time production systems, subcontracting, and franchises. There was a new skepticism over advantages offered by hierarchically organized management systems. The smokestack capitalism that was identified with the Victorians had had its day—its assembly lines and ramshackle sheds were abandoned for the airport and motorway flows of designer capitalism. In keeping with these new priorities, historians set about recovering the history and advantages of parallel forms of industrial organization in the Industrial Revolution itself.

This kind of protoindustry was infinitely flexible and complex. It was not just a stage on the way to the development of the factory system; it has lasted up to the early-twenty-first century, and indeed decentralized manufacture has reasserted itself in the subcontracting, franchises, science parks, silicon valleys, and especially third-world centers of child labor producing western luxury goods. The bulk of the labor force for the decentralized manufacture of the early industrial period was female; it was the mothers and teenage girls who carried forward the industrial expansion of the period, not male artisans. The new work opportunities for women and girls entailed profound gender divisions in the household economy, and were in many cases followed by increasing dependency on male earnings as these industries waned or gave way to the factory system's economies of scale. The work opportunities that might have brought earlier marriage, greater independence, and new consumer practices were frequently short-lived or episodic. They had the reverse effect of fixing people on the land and retaining family members to the household. They furthermore clustered women in low-wage, low-skill work that also so gendered the jobs they moved on to in workshops and factories.

Macroeconomic indicators and protoindustrialization pushed historians to look outward, not just to comparisons between their country or region and other parts of Europe, but to wider-world comparisons. This coincided with the profound economic, social, and cultural shift of the 1990s, globalization, and a renewed interest in the historical roots of worldwide connections.

divergence between east and west

The Industrial Revolution is at the center of any investigation into the divergence between Europe and Asia. For a long time, studies of this divergence tended to ask why Europe was so rich and Asia so poor. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the question shifted to why the Asian economies were growing so fast and whether Asian countries would become rich. Historians reopened debates on economic transition in Europe, but

from the perspective of developments in Asia, setting aside earlier arguments for European exceptionalism in favor of conjunctural features, which in the course of the eighteenth century set in motion a divergence in development between Europe and Asia. Kenneth Pomeranz has made a strong case that before the late eighteenth century more economic similarities than differences existed across Eurasia, and that divergence came afterward. Europe's lead over China, he argues, cannot be attributed to consumption and protoindustrialization, or to agricultural and labor productivity or market institutions. Instead, key imbalances emerged in the late eighteenth century, the period of the Industrial Revolution, and those imbalances were founded in natural resources. Europe's, and especially Britain's, access to coal and its development of technologies using coal, along with its access to the resources and land of New World colonies, gave it a crucial lead over Asia. Coal and colonies provided Europe with an advantageous "ghost acreage" not available to the Chinese.

This case for global divergence, so centered on developments in the eighteenth century, provides historians with ample opportunity to compare other elements of change in the same period. A comparison of European and Asian agricultural productivity, land organization, property relations, demography, and social institutions raises new questions about the Industrial Revolution. Was coal crucial? In its absence, would alternative low-energy, intensive industries not have developed, and water power, wind power, and peat burning provided for energy needs as they did in the Low Countries, Switzerland, parts of France, and New England? Perhaps the resulting Industrial Revolution would not have been so early or so revolutionary, but as Joel Mokyr argues, self-sustaining advances in Europe, which were in place by the eighteenth century, were enough to sustain the growing gap between Europe and the rest of the world.

A global history seeking the sources of divergence is still fundamentally a comparative history, and one of a very traditional kind. The questions it asks are set by older frameworks of debate, which sought to explain Britain's ascendancy over the rest of Europe. But a history of global encounters and connections over this period leads to explanations based in trade and cultural assimilation, in the transmission of knowledge, and in competitive responses to technology. Europe's Industrial Revolution grew from a conjuncture of wider-world discoveries, industrial expansion, new consumption practices, and new knowledge bases. But the core change that pushed this conjuncture into an Industrial Revolution was a capacity for self-sustaining technical progress. An account of the technological revolution led by Britain in the eighteenth century should not, however, be another account of British exceptionalism. Instead, it must be a European and a global story.

early global connections

How distinctive is globalization from earlier wider-world trade? Some historians (Kevin O'Rourke and Jeffrey Williamson) define the beginnings of globalization as the full integration of international commodity markets, with commodity price convergence as a key indicator, and date this from the late nineteenth century, although such an open world economy had not come into existence even in the early twenty-first century. Others (Dennis Flynn and Arturo Giraldez) define it as a condition whereby all important areas of the world exchange products continuously and on a scale large enough to have an effect on trading partners.

Was a global trading system one of the key factors contributing to industrialization? Christopher Bayly distinguishes globalization proper from an "archaic globalization" that focused on collecting charismatic goods and substances, on luxuries and honorific commodities from distant lands; examples include Kashmiri shawls, Chinese silks, Arabian horses, and precious stones. This, he argues, was very different from the market-driven uniformity of the early-twenty-first-century world. Too often historians look no further back than the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for evidence of the wider-world trade that would sustain many of the features that they associate with industrialized communities: large scale production, standardized products, long-distance trade. But all of these conditions were present in Bronze Age societies, going back to the fourth millennium b.c.e.; they were significant and fully affected the wider society of the Roman Empire, then retreated for several hundred years. Such large-scale standardized production for long-distance trade marked China's Sung Dynasty, where ceramics were exported to Korea, Japan, Southeast Asia, India, Iraq, and Africa. A long prehistory of empires and societies engaged in advanced technologies, concentrated production processes, and standardized production serving large cities and long-distance trade was followed by periods of collapse or at least decline. But the period of early modern trade following the voyages of discovery from the sixteenth century set in motion the roots of an industrialization in Europe in which technological change and economic growth became a permanent condition.

early modern global trade and the industrious revolution

In 1500 Asia held three-fifths of the world's population; China and India both had larger populations than Europe. Europe had only seven of the world's twenty-five largest cities in 1600, and only six in 1700. Before 1500 parts of the world other than Europe had wealth and knowledge far in advance of Europe's. This changed after the voyages of discovery. From this time on, Europe made an intense investment in trade and the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French, and British invested in colonies and maritime bases. Ships and peoples moved in large numbers from Europe to other continents, and slaves were moved involuntarily from Africa. Europe's economies, and especially its Atlantic economies, became more trade intensive, and long-distance trade grew relative to per capita national income. Trade with Asia between 1500 and 1750 grew over 1 percent annually, and that with the Americas grew at over 2 percent annually. The reasons for this trade intensification lie in the rise of incomes of certain social classes and the part played by non-European and luxury goods in European consumer aspirations. The particular luxury goods brought back on the early voyages changed European diet, dress, and the social customs involved in eating and drinking, making a wide impact on all social classes. Addictive substances, stimulants, and sources of rapid energy—tea, coffee, sugar, and tobacco—changed diets. Chinese porcelain and its imitations provided the material culture underpinning new consumption rituals and the sociability associated with the new dietary supplements. Indian calicoes, followed by European imitations, underpinned a new fashion market. Plantation complexes and intensified trade drove down prices; imitations and technological innovation in ceramic, glass, and metal tableware, as well as textiles, changed material culture first for the middling classes and then for the laboring poor.

Jan de Vries explains how trade and consumption so changed the household behavior of ordinary people that they worked harder and shifted their labor from the household to the market economy. The attraction of commodities made outside the household, and especially those from distant places, induced many to buy commodities that were different from those they formerly made at home. They bought in packages—not just tea and coffee, but sugar, then easily replaceable and attractive plates, cups and saucers, and cutlery. Although fashion had long driven the markets for clothing, the varieties and price ranges made possible by Indian cottons created an altogether new level of textile consumption. Was northwestern Europe's consumption and industrious revolution bigger and more socially pervasive than those in China, Japan, and India? Certainly Europe learned this consumption from Asia. It responded to and absorbed some Asian consumer practices, such as drinking hot beverages in private and public social gatherings. It also adapted specific Asian goods, such as Chinese porcelain, to its own consumer practices. Although something is known about the expanding markets for luxury and fine consumer wares among merchants and urban middling groups in Ming China, Tokugawa Japan, and Mughal India, little is known yet about their connections to the wider dynamics of economic change. As Bayly argues, "It was European ships and commercial companies, not Asian and African producers of slaves, spices, calicoes or porcelains which were able to capture the greatest 'value added' as world trade expanded in the eighteenth century. … Europe connected, subjugated and made tributary other peoples' industrious revolutions" (p. 64).

But consumption and trade can only provide openings to increased productivity, not the means. Protoindustrialization created more industry and more goods; the industrious revolution created among ordinary people the desire and the capacity to consume these goods. Protoindustrialization and the Industrious Revolution did not offer alternatives to the Industrial Revolution but were, rather, preconditions. They underscored the broad base of economic and social change in the hundred years before the mid- to late eighteenth century. That change might have continued on its course—a framework, as set out by Adam Smith, of market expansion, specialization, and division of labor—had technology not provided the means to break through to an industrial revolution. Consuming is not as important as making and inventing; consuming, however, provides the incentives for both.

technology and useful knowledge

The foundations of a new economy, in which change became the normal condition, were laid down during the Industrial Revolution—1760 to 1830. They were made in production systems—in technology and the organization of work—and Britain led the transformation of both. For its manufacturers, entrepreneurs, and workforces, the key questions were "Does it work?" and "Can it make money?" In Mokyr's view, eighteenth-century Britain was a "technologically competent society." It had the engineers, mechanics, mill-wrights, and tinkerers. It had the fascination, projects, and knowledge that made up an "industrial Enlightenment." It developed "useful knowledge" as an engine of social progress. Such knowledge was not just about scientific theory; it was about practice, about bringing "the full force of human knowledge to bear on technology." It included artisanal knowledge as well as science, the knowledge of geography, plants, and animals as well as "knacks" and tacit knowledge passed on by practice, by doing, by transmission within families and work communities.

How can historians explain the technological momentum that seized Europe, and most notably Britain, in the years after 1750? There were the years of miracles, with their lead technologies and heroic inventors: Crompton's spinning mule, which was invented in 1769 and was soon connected first to the Newcomen then to the Watt steam engine to make possible the modern factory. Chlorine bleaching was introduced in 1774, Henry Cort's iron puddling in 1785, and Benjamin Huntsman's steel soon afterward. Some historians have seen these as macro inventions that shocked an economy into growth, the lucky breaks in small industries with elastic markets in an otherwise somnolent economy. Others have attributed the force of change to new energy sources: steam power released the environmental limits to growth. But these inventions were not exceptions to the rule. They were, as Mokyr argues, embedded in a pervasive inventiveness, T. S. Ashton's "wave of gadgets," Deirdre McCloskey's "age of improvement." It was not just cotton technology, steam power, and iron bridges that changed this world, but hot air balloons, smallpox inoculation, and gas lighting. Birmingham and the west Midlands, south Lancashire and southwest Scotland became technology hubs, centers for invention, attracting venture capital, if not yet significantly in the form of banks, then of projectors and speculators, merchants and other manufacturers.

The lead inventions are usually attributed to Britain, but close contacts in scientific and technological enquiry were forged across Europe, and especially between Britain and France. Inventors like John Kay immigrated to Paris; the French Jacquard loom was adopted in Britain. Matthew Boulton, James Watt, and Josiah Wedgwood all sent their sons to France for a period of study and work. France led in chemical innovation; Antoine Lavoisier's theory was complemented by Claude Berthollet's practice on chlorine bleaching, soaps, and dyes. Scientific investigators, inventors, projectors, and artisans traveled back and forth, establishing European-wide networks of knowledge. Other parts of Europe also had their high-technology regions. The Nord region of France had its cotton, linen, wool, and coal; Rouen on a much smaller scale was the Manchester of France. The Belgian-German region reaching down into the Rhine Valley produced textiles, minerals, metal wares, and engineering. Saxony rapidly expanded its production of minerals and textiles. And in southern Europe, Lyons, Lombardy, and Catalonia led the production of high-quality silks and printed cottons. Interaction among European producers, complementary production, and niche markets were not enough, however, to make the Industrial Revolution, in its classic years at least, a Europe-wide phenomenon. Technology, markets, and global power made this Britain's revolution.

Whatever factors fed into technological transition, the achievements—greatest in Britain—were such as to make economic growth a continuous and not just episodic condition. Those achievements were best summed up by David Landes in his seminal Unbound Prometheus: first, the substitution of machines—rapid, regular, precise, and tireless—for human skill and effort (Kay's flying shuttle, James Hargreave's jenny, Richard Arkwright's water frame, and Samuel Crompton's mule); second, the substitution of mechanically produced sources of power, notably steam power, for natural sources such as animal, wind, and water power; and third the use of new and far more abundant raw materials, marked especially by the substitution of mineral for vegetable or animal substances and the shift from a wood-fueled to a coal-fueled economy.

Innovation was not just in processes—in the tools, machines, materials, and energy that comprised and drove rapidly expanding industrial sectors. It was also in products, because invention was just as significantly about the invention of new products. Some were imitations of earlier European and Asian luxury goods, now made in hybrid materials and alloys and processed with coal not wood; others were restyled, or completely new. European manufacturers invented varieties and qualities of cotton textiles as rapidly as they adopted new spinning, weaving, and printing techniques. Innovations stretched beyond the range of material goods to gas lighting and smallpox vaccination. Product innovation was just as important to the British as it was to the French; the contrast between the standardized British products for mass markets and the French luxuries for the elites has been overdrawn. With Britain's technological leap forward came the ascendancy of certain goods: textiles, glassware and earthenware, metal goods, and machinery. The British invented and branded their consumer products as avidly as they did their tools and machinery. Cylinder-printed calicoes and Scottish and Irish linen appeared alongside the well-known broadcloth. Sheffield silver-plate and steel cutlery; Stafford-shire and especially Wedgwood earthenware; Birmingham japanned tea trays; cut-steel chatelaines, buttons, and buckles; brass and silver-plate candlesticks and furniture handles; and silver-plated coffee pots and tea urns were the new

European consumer desirables. This British product and technological ascendancy, however, was set in the context of wider world and global developments.

wars, colonies, and markets

Technology and markets became crucially bound up with empire in the late eighteenth century, and the British claimed all three. The late fifteenth- and sixteenth-century voyages of discovery, followed by long-distance trade and the establishment of colonies, provided immense riches and two centuries of economic growth to the Spanish and Portuguese; the Dutch drew even greater advantage from their wider-world encounter. But the Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese engagement in European wars in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries led to their relative decline; even so, Dutch per capita incomes exceeded British levels until the end of the eighteenth century. The Dutch Empire, however, remained limited in extent, if compared to the later French and British Empires—it failed to create large colonies in North America and Brazil, and it too went into relative decline after the French occupation of 1795 to 1815. The French and British competed for colonies and world trade, but the British took the high ground during the crucial years of the French and Haitian revolutions, years that also coincided with the most significant development of technology and new consumer products. Britain's effective fiscal system, based mainly on indirect taxation and the access this allowed to government loans, could provide the state the means to engage in an expansionist and mercantilist policy to extend trade and colonization. And British taxpayers and British and foreign investors funded the armies and navies needed to succeed in the many eighteenth-century wars in Europe and across global sea routes.

Britain's colonies and trading "factories" or merchant outposts, acquired across the east and west over the course of the eighteenth century, and its trade dominance nurtured by Navigation Acts and enormous investment in shipping and military defense, paid off by the last decades of the eighteenth century, and especially after the Napoleonic Wars. Losing its American colonies after the American Revolution did not make much difference after years of exporting British labor, entrepreneurship, and cultural identities to these territories. The United States, even without the political affiliation Britain still claimed of its Caribbean and Canadian colonies, provided a bulwark of food and raw materials, a safety valve for rapidly rising British populations, and the fastest growing markets for manufactured consumer goods to be found anywhere. British products were successful in American as well as home markets and went on from the early nineteenth century to become global products, desired across Europe as well as in Caribbean and Latin American markets and in colonial India, Australia, and Asia.

The European discovery of and trade with the wider world from the sixteenth century onward provided the heady germination for what would become the Industrial Revolution. Europeans sought out and then imitated exotic and luxury consumer goods. They applied technological ingenuity, indigenous resources, and eventually mechanization to produce a whole range of new consumer goods, making them accessible to wide parts of the population, not just to the elites. World trade first brought the inspiration of these products and new resources; later it brought markets, British global power, and empire to sustain a continuous process of industrialization and economic growth. The Industrial Revolution was a global phenomenon both in its inception and in its processes of economic transformation.

See alsoCapitalism; Economic Growth and Industrialism; Industrial Revolution, Second; Science and Technology; Trade and Economic Growth.


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Maxine Berg

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