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September 04, 2007



One quibble--Was the steam engine really necessary to spark the Industrial Revolution? The first cotton factories were run by water power [viz. Arkwright's "water frame"], and while steam may have quickly become dominant in Britain, water power remained important in the United States until late in the nineteenth century. Steam definitely was essential to sustaining the Industrial Revolution--I'm just not so sure it was the spark.


My guess is that steam was critical. Wind mills and water wheels had been around for centuries, but they do not scale well, and power cannot be stored as it can with coal. When the wind blows or water runs, power is available, otherwise it is not. Steam power uses stable, portable fuels. The engine can be installed where it is needed and run when it is desired.

Bruce Wilder

I think David is correct. Steam, per se, was not critical to the 18th century industrial revolution. The 18th century industrial revolution was a triumph of the ability of "toymakers" and other craftsman to use science to design machinery and to use machinery to make machinery. Watt's steam engine was "a" exemplar of that revolution, because it was the outcome of a long process of tinkering and mechanical innovation, inspired in part by the application of scientific physics to an analysis of hte problems posed. Another exemplar was Harrison's marine clock -- a mechanism that could keep precise time at sea! -- also the product of over forty years of tinkering. "The" exemplars of the 18th industrial revolution were the textile machinery assembled by Arkwright into a factory system.

But, Watt's steam engine was not particularly important as a source of power in the 18th century industrial revolution. I don't have the reference, but I think there were only about 1200 Watt engines in the world, when Watt and Boulton retired and their patents expired at the end of the 18th century.

Most power in the 18th century was still muscle power, from humans or horses. The big textile mills were mostly water mills. Although Arkwright early on had a steam-powered mill, I don't think it was initially a financial success.

The application of steam to steamships and railroads after about 1820, however, was stupendously important, and led to a retrospective celebration of Watt's role.

And, the development of electric motors would revolutionize manufacturing in the early 20th century, precisely because of the increased flexibility to distribute power.

Bruce Wilder

"Agriculture was still more than . . ."

I think I should demur against this opposition of the industrial to the agricultural as a measuring stick of progress.

Agriculture was not necessarily some other realm untouched by the industrial revolution. Before there was, and before there could be, an industrial revolution, there was an agricultural revolution. Jethro Tull preceded James Watt by more half a century.

And, in much of the settler world of North America, Australia, Argentina, agriculture was an integral part of the industrial-market system, where machinery mattered.

It was the rise in agricultural productivity, driven by the same combination of science and machinery that was affecting manufacturing, which would eventually drive people out of agriculture.

In England, enclosure had already driven a large part of the population out of agriculture, before the industrial revolution has gained much purchase. That's one reason why its statistics show differently.

Robert Monk

I'm trying to get a picture of the effects of carbon-based fuels (plants and fossil fuels) on total factor productivity. Or are these considered to be already accounted for in your figures for rates of growth in this measure, aka "A".

I haven't studied economics in detail, but I imagine there must be a lot of debate about how to calculate 'A'. For example, how much innovation could there have been, if fossil fuels were never developed? This source of portable, reliable and intensely concentrated energy must have had a huge impact on engineers' ability to conceive and test machines. The mere presence of abundant energy also created conditions for long-term investment in engineering technology, such as academies and, less formally, simple free time and surplus capital to invest.

Anyway, I find it very difficult to believe that, absent carbon fuel (including felled trees and other vegetation from 1600-1800), any society could double its 'A' every 70 -- or even every 500 years -- on a consistent basis.

This is pretty important today, as we contemplate global climate upheavals that threaten the ecologies our economies rely upon, and as it becomes more and more likely from the evidence that extraction of carbon-based energy has 'peaked', such that the ratio of energy input to energy extraction will get ever-worse from here on out. Oil fields and prospective discoveries are pretty clearly at their turning point, natural gas I don't know about but with consumer prices rising steadily I expect the situation is similar, and coal and living carbon sources all have environmental impacts that make them particularly expensive to the global economy in aggregate, and increasingly so as unchecked growth in greenhouse gas and particulate emissions continues to put the squeeze on climate systems that may simply break down under the pressure, loosing chaos even beyond a simple (but still catastrophic) global warming trend.

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