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The Pivot of Global History: The Handoff from the First to the Second Industrial Revolution

Bob Allen of Oxford writes the smartest thing I have read in at least a year. The conclusion of Robert Allen (2009), The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 9780521687850), p. 272 ff.:

I have argued that the famous inventions of the British Industrial Revolution were responses to Britain's unique economic environment and would not have been developed anywhere else.... Buy why did those inventions matter?.... Weren't there alternative paths to the twentieth century? These questions are closely related to another... asked by Mokyr: why didn't the Industrial Revolution peter out after 1815?... [O]ne-shot rise[s] in productivity [before] did not translate into sustained economic growth. The nineteenth century was different--the First Industrial Revolution turned into Modern Economic Growth. Why? Mokyr's answer... that scientific knowledge increased enough to allow continuous invention [is incomplete]....

Britain's pre-1815 inventions were particularly transformative.... Cotton was the wonder industry.... [T]he great achievement of the British Industrial Revolution was... the creation of the first large engineering industry that could mass-produce productivity-raising machinery. Machinery production was the basis of three developments that were the immeiate explanations of the continuation of economic growth until the First World War... (1) the general mechanization of industry; (2) the railroad; and (3) steam-powered iron ships. The first raised productivity... the second and third created the global economy and the international division of labor... (O'Rourke and Williamson, 1999). Steam... accounted for close to half of the growth in labor productivity in Britain in the second half of the nineteenth century (Crafts 2004). The nineteenth-century engineering industry was a spin-off from the coal industry. All three of the developments... depended on two things: the steam engine and cheap iron....

Cotton played a supporting role in the growth of the engineering industry.... The first is that it grew to immense size.... Mechanization in other activities did not have the same potential... global industry with.. price-responsive demand... cotton... sustained the engineering industry by providing it with a large and growing market for equipment....

There was a great paradox... the macro-inventions of the eighteenth century... increased the demand for capital and energy relative to labour. Since capital and energy were relatively cheap in Britain, it was worth developing the macro-inventions there and worth using them in their early, primitave forms. These forms were not cost-effective elsewhere.... However, British engineers improved this technology.... This local learning often saved the input that was used excessively in the early years of the invention's life and which restricted its use to Britain. As the coal consumption of rotary steam power declined from 35 pounds per horsepower-hour to 5 pounds, it paid to apply steam power to more and more uses.... Old fashioned, thermally inefficient steam engines were not "appropriate" technology for countries where coal was expensive. These countries did not have to invent an "appropriate" technology for their conditions, however. The irony is that the British did it for them....

[T]he British inventions of the eighteenth century--cheap iron and the steam engine, in particular--were so transformative... the technologies invented in France--in paper production, glass, and knitting--were not, The French innovations did not lead to general mechanization or globalization.... The British were not more rational or prescient than the French... simply luckier in their geology. the knock-on effect was large, however: there is no reason to believe that French technology would have led to the engineering industry, the general mechanization of industrial processes, the railway, the steamship, or the global economy.... [T]here was only one route to the twentieth century--and it traversed northern Britain.

What Bob Allen said.


N.F.R. Crafts (2004), "Steam as a General Purpose Technology: A Growth Accounting Perspective," Economic Journal 114:495, pp. 338-51.

Kevin O'Rourke and Jeffrey Williamson (1999), Globalization and History: The Evolution of a Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Economy (Cambridge: MIT Press).

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