Was there an Industrial Revolution?

by on December 22, 2004 at 6:39 am in History | Permalink

…the best estimates now available suggest no acceleration in the rate of growth of national product per head in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and that one of the implications of this revision of the previous orthodoxy is that the English economy…was much more productive in the middle of the eighteenth century than was once supposed…it is unlikely that England enjoyed any advantage over her neighbours in this regard in the sixteenth century.  It would be a major surprise, therefore, if the revised view of the situation c.1750 did not imply that the rate of growth of national product per head for a century or more before 1750 was as high as, or higher than, it was in the century next following.

This turns the spotlight on agriculture, whose centrality to all organic economies is clear by definition.  It must figure prominently in any quest for the industrial revolution, despite its apparent exclusion by the oddities of nomenclature.

There are more shocks.  Between 1600 and 1800 English per capita income rose by no more than 0.35 percent a year.  (At the same time population was roughly doubling, from about 4.2 to 8.7 million.)  Such a measured growth rate may sound low but by the standards of the time it was miraculously high.  Other economies tended to hold steady or shrink in per capita income, especially in light of growing population.

Could it be that England’s ability to manage per capita growth above zero percent, for an extended period of time, is what give birth to the modern world?  Was the Netherlands, with its earlier period of growth and urbanization, in fact the true leader?

On all these issues, and many others, read the new and fascinating collection of essays by E.A. Wrigley, Poverty, Progress, and Population.

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