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Energy and the English Industrial Revolution Paperback – August 19, 2010

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Editorial Reviews


"This book has changed the way I see the world. Smart, engaging and beautifully-written, Wrigley's study of the Industrial Revolution casts a fascinating light on current energy questions. If you want to understand how our dependency on fossil fuels began and what we might do to escape it, you must read this book." -George Monbiot

"Here, Tony Wrigley develops the central themes that have characterized his distinctive contribution to the economic transformation of England. There is no better account of the role that the energy revolution played in the escape from the constraints of the Malthusian pre-industrial economy". -Nicholas Crafts, University of Warwick.

"Tony Wrigley is one of the true Grand Men of the economic history profession. In this book he analyzes in depth the role of energy supplies in the emergence of modern economic growth and thus strikes a fascinating and most timely link between economic history and contemporary issues of energy and environment. Energy economics are of central importance to any study of economic change, especially when supported by the breadth of the learning underlying this book." -Joel Mokyr, Northwestern University

"Whether wind or solar power can ever provide the energy needed in an increasingly energy-conscious and insecure world is debatable but this excellent book provides a historical perspective that is either ignored or given little credence in contemporary debates of considerable subtlety and relevance.  This is a book not to be ignored." -The Historical Association

"an accessible and comprehensive guide to his interpretation of the industrial revolution. It offers at once a clear and compelling argument for the centrality of energy in the historical rise of industrial societies and an opportunity to meditate on the future sustainability of an economic order founded on fossil fuels." -Jan de Vries, Economic History Review

"an often brilliant and always perceptive presentation of some of the key conclusions from every decade of his half-century of academic research to date." - Michael Anderson, Population Studies

Book Description

By accessing new sources of energy, the productivity of the average worker was increased and industry transformed. Anthony Wrigley explains how economic growth in England accelerated, providing a unique insight into understanding the industrial revolution. This book makes essential reading for students and scholars of British economic history.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press (September 27, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0521131855
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521131858
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #174,213 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By R. Albin TOP 1000 REVIEWER on November 17, 2011
Format: Paperback
Apparently written to bring his work and thought before a broad public, this book is a concise and interesting summary of a large body of work and thought from this distinguished economic and demographic historian. The use of coal in industrializing Britain is core of this book. The importance of coal use in the Industrial Revolution is known well and has been commented upon by virtually every historian or economist who has dealt with this topic. Wrigley has a novel and interesting view of this crucial phenomenon. Wrigley contrasts the limited growth potential of an "organic" economy where productivity will be eventually constrained by negative feedbacks due to the limited resource of wood as an energy source with an "inorganic" economy where this energy bottleneck is absent.

In contrast to many other scholars who have focused on how the Industrial Revolution started, Wrigley examines why it didn't sputter out. Wrigley covers a number of interesting aspects of this concept. He points out the significant growth potential of pre-industrial, "Smithian", capitalist growth and discusses interesting ways in which this occurred in England. There are nice dicussions of improvements in agricultural productivity, urbanization, the velocity and volume of trade, and rising consumer demand. All of these interacted in interesting ways to enhance economic growth. But, negative feedbacks due to limited land and limited wood production would eventually have curtailed many of the processes. The employment of coal, both for domestic heating and industrial production, prevented these negative feedbacks from operating. His counter-example is the 17th century Netherlands, where considerable economic modernization occurred but ultimately stagnated.
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Format: Kindle Edition
When people use the term "magisterial", this is the kind of book they mean. It is an education in how to use data and statistical analysis to evaluate a variety of simultaneously shifting social dynamics. But what makes this book important is not the rethinking of the Industrial Revolution it provokes, but the profound question it forces on the reader about whether it is possible for a society like ours to live "organically" again in the aftermath of the fossil fuel explosion this book narrates. I came away from reading this book more pessimistic about our prospects than from 50 books I have read on climate change, etc.
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This is an incredibly eloquent and well organized view of the demographic changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution in the United Kingdom. In many ways it is the "missing link" that economists - who hand-wave shamelessly about the demographic transition - need to read. As do environmental and climate scientists who are concerned about energy and climate change.

A masterly piece of scholarship that needs to be read by a broader scientific audience.
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Mr. Wrigley has written a very impressive book on the English industrial revolution. Actually this book is a trailblazer for economic history and the importance of energy and energy development in economic growth. Mr. Wrigley begins with the concept of an organic economy. In the organic economy land is the source of all food, natural resources, and energy. Quoting Mr. Wrigley "All industrial production depended vegetable or animal raw materials. This is self-evidently true of industries such as woollen textile production or shoemaking but is also true of iron smelting or pottery manufacturing, although their raw materials were mineral, since production was possible by making use of a source of heat and this came from burning wood or charcoal. Thus the production horizon for all organic economies was set by the annual cycle of plant growth." The amount of energy absorbed by plants from the sun from photosynthesis set the ceiling for productive capacity. Thus economic production was limited. Most people lived in squalor and poverty without luxuries or much medical care. When populations grew living standards fell due to the production constraint. Then malnutrition and disease reduced population to a supportable level.

The English industrial revolution, by developing the coal industry, and obtaining greater and greater quantities of energy from coal broke free from the constraint of plant growth and escaped the organic economy. From greater quantities of energy it was possible to build better transportation, develop new industries, and provide better lives for the populace. Low cost and available coal energy made possible the steam engine, the railroad, and many other labor saving innovations.
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