- Series: New Approaches to Economic and Social History
- Paperback: 342 pages
- Publisher: Cambridge University Press; 1 edition (April 27, 2009)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0521687853
- ISBN-13: 978-0521687850
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.7 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 18 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #271,065 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective (New Approaches to Economic and Social History) 1st Edition
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"Robert Allen's analysis will delight many economists, for he deals in measurable factors such as wages and prices ... This is a beautifully written book, the language as clear as a brook and with the same tumbling energy." -The Economist
"the smartest thing I have read in at least a year." -Professor J. Bradford DeLong, Department of Economics, University of California, Berkeley
"...stunningly good study of the Industrial Revolution... The book is well written and is essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the origins of industrial change in the eighteenth century." -Richard Brown, The Historical Association
"This book's lucidity make it a must read for general reader and specialist alike. Highly recommended." -Choice
"This is the book you should use to teach the Industrial Revolution." -Journal of Economic History
This landmark global economic history explains why the Industrial Revolution occurred in Britain by highlighting the ways in which Britain was different from other countries in Europe and Asia. Combining economic, social, technological and business history, Allen shows the importance of globalisation in explaining the divergence of East and West.
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Make no mistake, this is serious history, not light reading. It suffers, too, from modern publishing’s usual shortcomings, e.g. footnotes have become endnotes, rather than appearing at the bottom of the page, where they belong (which computers should have, but have not, facilitated). At least, Cambridge U.P. appears still to employ copy editors, as I did not encounter any typos, now a rare event, and only one inaccurate reference, to a Figure 8.4, which does not exist. (Plate 8.4 seems to have been meant.)
His narrative and thesis is that in England you had the Industrial Revolution as a result of two factors. First is that Britain was a high wage labor market at the time and the availability of coal as a fuel source. In this the author takes a slightly differing tact to other books I have read lately such as `The Most Powerful Idea in the World' and `The Industrial Revolutionaries'. These books cover the technology of the steam engine and the individuals behind the ideas as well as the spread of techniques of the revolution. Here the emphasis is more upon the economics behind the movement, as benefit's a book in a series titled `New Approaches to Economic and Social History'. It is a bit dryer and more academic tome than either of the other two volumes I mentioned, and honestly reading those has helped me approach this book more productively
The state of the British labour market during this period has been attributed to the aftereffects of the plague and other epidemics over the previous centuries. This is an approach that that I had heard of before, I think I first read it 20 years ago that the Black Death was in some ways responsible for the Industrial Revolution. Here it is proposed that the need to pay higher wages made both the invention of and investment in labor saving machinery attractive to people who ran businesses (manufactories). The other surprising aspect of this is that the people employed in these fields had more money to spend on consumer goods and thus added an additional push to development of the economy. There is data and discussions included to show the costs of an English worker compared to those on the continent as well as in Asia (China and India).
The other factor in the birth of the modern economy in Great Britain was the availability and costs of coal as a fuel versus wood and charcoal as well as animal and water power in powering first metal works and then the textile industries. Data is also given that shows the advantages that coal had over charcoal in both costs and technological means. In most cases the cost and availability of coal kept the other economies on the continent lagging behind Britain in utilizing coal and then coke in fueling industry.
The second half of the book covers the easier for me to follow examples of technologies being invented and adapted to service the economy. The development of the steam engine is well covered with the Newcomen's simple pumping engine thru Watt's engines and ultimately the compound engine. It was not as detailed as say the narrative in `The Most Powerful Idea...', however it was sufficient, especially after reading the other books. An aspect that I had not seen addressed (or at least recalled) was in how economic forces drive the adoption of technology, that sometimes just the existence of a technology does not mean it is adopted widely. Today the example that leaps to mind is the electric car such as the Chevy Volt. Currently the user cost for a Volt is half again to twice what the cost of a similar sized gasoline powered car is. If the benefits of the Volt more than doubled the benefits of driving a gasoline powered car then people would buy the cars and let simple economics decide the success of the modern electric car on the market. The problem with the Volt is that the improvement in mileage - overall - is not much greater than a gasoline powered economy cars which can reach 35-40 mpg today and the still relative cheapness of gasoline. These factors determine that on simple economics the Volt will never succeed without either a massive infusion of incentives from regulatory agencies - like the tax credit the federal gov't allows for purchasers, a shock to the costs of gasoline, or another massive technological revolution in battery technology that both lowers the cost and improves the efficiency of an electric automobile.
Adoption of the technology of the Industrial Revolution followed a similar path. Any technology has various inputs that determine the success or failure of it to be adopted. In the book the two primary ones that are focused upon are the labor and energy inputs. Others can be the availability of the raw materials, economical access to markets. If an economy has an advantage in any aspect of the equation then it has a competitive advantage in utilizing a new technology. One example that is given in the book is the adoption of coke smelting of iron in France and Belgium. In these areas coke (as well as coal) did not have an advantage over charcoal as a fuel, early in the development of the technology. So Britain led the world in both the development of using coke and the incremental improvements in the efficiency of the technology until a point was reached where it proved economical for the low countries to adopt the coke fueled technology nearly a half century after it's adoption in Britain.
All in all the book helped me in my thinking of how technology is adopted in an economy. One thing I wonder about is how productivity improvements that today are mostly electronic or intellectual and therefore much more easily disseminated to competing economies - or even locations - how does one achieve a competitive advantage? America and Europe both have high wage economies and have produced productivity improvements, now as productivity has improved - the technology has become simpler and more transferable to what were a couple of decades ago third world economies - where today have comparable educational standards as we do here. And we lose jobs to lower cost locations, and they themselves will be supplanted in a generation or two as the rising tide of modernity reaches more formerly bypassed locations.
Probably the biggest 'a-ha!' moment I had in reading this book was the discussion about the cotton industry and the impact on industrializing that it had in Britain. Reading American history cotton is often relegated to one of two subjects- slavery or the cotton gin. Seldom has there been a satisfactory description of what was done with the cotton to turn it into thread and fabric. The story starts to be hinted at as increasing demand for consumer goods, in the form of draperies drives ways of improving both the quality of cotton thread as well as finished product - like the higher thread count as being a more value added final product. The story is then picked up in the second half of the book with descriptions of the technology of spinning cotton into thread. The development of mechanical carding of raw cotton is touched on and then the story of the machines that were developed to produce thread, the spinning wheel, spinning Jennies and water frames. These are all described both physically as well as the economic performance and finally the development of the cotton mill that incorporated all aspects of spinning cotton into thread (or yarn). One interesting thing is that the weaving of fabric is not really touched on - compared to `The Industrial Revolutionaries'. Perhaps that is a subject that is either outside of the timeframe covered by the book - or more than likely it does not have as good of a subject of improvement that the spinning technology showed. All in all it did lay out a good case for how important of a product cotton was in the development of the Industrial Revolution.
Now one tangent my mind did set off on was the impact on the trajectory of American History on how the Southern States could have seen the importance they played in the British economy with the cotton exports, and that it may have helped embolden the secessionists with hope that their cause would be looked upon favorably by the biggest power in the world at the time - The British Empire. Now what they did not take into account was the impact that Egyptian and Indian cotton would have on lessening any potential negative impact on the economy the Southern blockade had. Then you have the strategic misstep that the then independent Egyptian state made in assuming that the cotton trade would finance development and when the war ended and American cotton returned to the global market they would face financial ruin within a generation and de facto absorption into the British Empire for nearly 70 years. A problem that seems common when an economy - local or national - is based upon one item especially so if that product is in its rawest form.
In general the book is definitely an economic history book and suffers in readability that books on this subject often do to the non economist. I don't think I'd recommend it as a first book on the subject by any means - however if one has read some of the books I have mentioned in the preceding paragraphs it is easier to slog thru the graphs, models, and formulae. An interesting connection with this book is then reading The Tycoons by Charles Morris. His book covers the growth of corporations in America in the later half of the 19th Century. This is probably the best description of the next step in the evolution of the industrial revolution into an economic revolution that I have read so far.
Here are the Amazon links for a few of the other books that I have mentioned here that actually helped me with this book.
The Industrial Revolutionaries: The Making of the Modern World 1776-1914
The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention
The Tycoons: How Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould, and J. P. Morgan Invented the American Supereconomy
Why the West Rules--for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future
Not sure if I mentioned this one in the body of my text - however it was the book that I read immediately prior to picking back up this book and may have again eased my way thru some of the denser chunks of it. It also introduced me to the concept where those who lag behind in developing and adopting technology can eventually make a jump to the front of economic growth and surpass the society that developed it, by avoiding the pitfalls inherent in developing technology. It's something simple but god help me I cannot remember the correct combination of words Mr Morris uses!
Anyone reading this book may well enjoy reading "Keeping Ahead of the Curve" which describes how five generations of one British family survived the technological and social changes of the last two hundred years. This latter book is also available from Amazon.