Britain and America Battle for Technological Prowess in the Eighteenth Century

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Britain and America Battle for Technological Prowess in the Eighteenth Century


America was founded to serve British commercial interests. British mercantilism (an economic system based on colonialism and a favorable balance of trade) aimed at orchestrating economic development in the colonies in the name of nation building. But by the late 1700s, America was agitating for a change from the old order. The debate over whether Americans should manufacture their own goods, and if so how they would do it, went to the heart of the colonies' desire for independence from Britain and their fear of succumbing to the excesses of a society based on manufacturing. While the debate went on, an unskilled America eagerly sought the technological know-how of a home country less than eager to give up its advantage.


The Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain in the 1760s, and brought fundamental changes in the way people worked and where they lived. The core achievement of the revolution was to apply new sources of power to producing work and goods. Where sources of power had been humans and animals, the revolution substituted motors powered by fossil fuels. Manual tools such as sickles and foot-pedaled looms were replaced by power tools that needed less human guidance.

Already in the 1730s, marketing opportunities for manufacturing production rose, owing to a number of factors. One of these factors was population growth, which doubled in Britain between 1750 and 1800. Increased demand for cloth for garments stimulated the development of mechanical yarn-spinning devices to replace inefficient yarn workers. In 1764, James Hargreaves (d. 1778) created the spinning jenny, a simple, inexpensive, hand-operated spinning machine that manufacturers were quick to adopt. In 1768, Richard Arkwright (1732-1792) built a water-frame and carding machine whose advantages over the spinning jenny were that it could spin several threads at once to make a strong, uniform yarn, and was powered by horses or water rather than by hand. Thus the British textile machine shop was a key site of industrial development, turning out such inventions as carding devices, power looms, and cloth printing machines. Short of adults to staff factories, factory masters turned to employing children. The abusive conditions under which both adults and children labored in industrial England were widely described.

In America, by contrast, the textile industry of the late 1700s was still primarily home-based. Although there was a market for mass-produced piece goods, sufficient amounts of quality yarn were in short supply. A similar problem had been solved in Britain with the institution of spinning factories. But transferring this technology to the United States proved problematic.

Before the 1840s, obstacles to the transfer of technologies between Britain and America included government prohibitions aimed at keeping the colonies agrarian, cultural barriers, and obstacles created by manufacturers themselves. In 1719, for example, Britain passed an act prohibiting metalworking in the colonies, although other handicraft operations such as breweries, glassworks, and printing continued. The Iron Act of 1750 was intended to reduce competition in manufacturing between the colonies and the home country by allowing America to export to Britain only basic iron and pig iron, not finished iron goods. In addition, Americans were forbidden, among other things, to establish furnaces to produce steel for tools, and to export colonial iron beyond the empire. The act was successful in suppressing the manufacture of finished iron goods, but it backfired in the sense that colonial production of basic iron thrived.

By the 1780s, responding to pressure from the woolen and cotton manufacturers, skilled British artisans were prohibited from emigrating for the purpose of carrying on their trade in America. Anyone attempting to export tools and machines related to the textile business and other trades risked being fined, having their equipment confiscated, and being subjected to 12 months' imprisonment.

In practice, these prohibitions proved difficult to enforce. For one thing, policing the coastline of the British Isles was difficult to do. Unskilled customs officers did not know how to recognize technology. And technologies were simple enough that artisans could simply memorize them. Moreover, machines could be disassembled into parts and carried on board. Restraints on emigration were lifted in the early 1800s, and on equipment somewhat later. Meanwhile, the illegal export trade business thrived.

Another obstacle to technology transfer was the disorganization of the British patent system, although the number of inventions being patented in England was so high that determined foreign investors could always find something of interest. This disorganization extended to conditions of work. Foreigners in search of new knowledge would get conflicting information from Britons in different textile districts. And manufacturers were protective of their technical secrets to greater or lesser degrees.

Still, most of these obstacles could be overcome. Until the 1780s, transfer of technology was one-way from Britain to the United States. Americans borrowed heavily from British skills, tools, and ideas, and because the American economy was hospitable to invention, many skilled British migrated there. Skilled emigrants to America included workers with textile and machine-making skills. In 1787 Tench Coxe (1755-1824) sent a secret agent to Britain to obtain the models for Arkwright's water frame. The agent was to send the models to France, where the then ambassador to France, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), would forward them to the United States. The scheme failed when customs officials, tipped off by British authorities, seized the models, and the agent was caught and fined. Still, within a year's time, Coxe had managed to obtain the models by other means. (Power loom weaving and mechanized calico printing were additional examples of technologies transferred illegally from Britain by British immigrants to the United States.)

Coxe had a robust zeal for the manufacturing cause. He and an influential group of like-minded Americans published pamphlets on the subject, picked the brains of new emigrants from Britain on the details of the latest technologies, and tried to import new mechanical inventions, prohibitions notwithstanding. In early 1791 Coxe created the Society to Establish Useful Manufacture. The society was accorded privileges by the New Jersey state legislature, and a great industrial works was planned to manufacture paper, shoes, pottery, and textiles. Although the enterprise collapsed before it could really get off the ground, its greater importance was in stimulating a dialogue that was ostensibly about the implications of industrial development but more broadly about the nature of American society.

Skilled as they were, British immigrants still needed the backing of American capitalists. In 1789, the Englishman Samuel Slater (1768-1835) arrived in New York City disguised as a farm laborer. Slater, who had trained in a cotton mill in Derbyshire, offered to help a Rhode Island merchant establish a textile works. In return for a good percentage of the profits, Slater would build and manage a spinning mill. Backed by the support of a group of American capitalists, Slater built dozens of cotton mills throughout Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts. He transferred his experience in the Derbyshire family system of production to solve the problem of staffing his mill buildings and machines. The result was called the mill village, and into the 1820s it proved to be a stable, harmonious community.

Not only did immigrants bring new technology with them as individuals, but they were instrumental in diffusing the technology internally in America. In 1793, a family of woolen clothiers from Yorkshire named Scholfield emigrated to Boston. With the support of a wealthy merchant, they built a woolen factory, and later the extended family had established carding and spinning mills across New England. They introduced the British woolen carding machine to the United States.


The struggle between Britain and America for technological prowess brought to the fore the question of what kind of a nation America should be. In 1775, the American philosopher and thinker Benjamin Rush (1745-1813) argued publicly that manufacture would save Americans money, provide employment for the poor and indigent, encourage immigration to solve the problem of underpopulation, and make the colonies less dependent on England. Moreover, science and industry would improve agriculture. Rush was supported by people like Tench Coxe and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton (1755?-1804), who, in the aftermath of the American War for Independence (1775-1778), argued that industry would help to stabilize the economy of the new nation and it would make women and children more useful.

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), who was himself no Luddite, feared all the same that manufacture would create in America the same disparities between rich and poor as existed in England. He was seconded by Thomas Jefferson, who argued that the happiness and permanence of government would outweigh the costs of having to import commodities from Europe.

Arguments aside, immigrants from Britain were instrumental in diffusing new technologies within the United States, although the technologies did not always fit American circumstances. For example, Americans were less interested in machines designed to produce high-quality products; they also relied more on wood than metal, which meant their machines were less durable than British models but could be improved at more frequent intervals; British equipment was labor-intensive, which meant it had to be modified, considering the scarcity of American labor. Finally, technology did not only flow westward. Some American improvements to technology were quickly transferred back to Britain.

Despite the War for Independence, the United States was not fully free of its mercantile past until the War of 1812, which ended its entanglements in British affairs. The debate over manufacturing continued, although the country moved inexorably into the industrial age.


Further Reading


Jeremy, David J., ed. Technology Transfer: Europe, Japan and the USA, 1700-1914. International Aldershot, UK: Edward Elgar, 1991.

Licht, Walter. Industrializing America: The Nineteenth Century. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

Tucker, Barbara M. Samuel Slater and the Origins of theAmerican Textile Industry, 1790-1860. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984.

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Britain and America Battle for Technological Prowess in the Eighteenth Century

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