Why did it take so long for humans to have the Industrial Revolution?

by on March 17, 2010 at 7:35 am in Economics, History | Permalink

That's a reader request from the especially loyal Harrison Brookie.  First, you might wish to go back and read the MR reviews and debates of Greg Clark's Farewell to Alms,

More generally, extended periods of economic growth require that technologies of defense outweigh technologies of predation.  They may also require that the successful defender, at the same time, has good enough technology to predate someone else and accumulate a sizable surplus.  Parts of Europe took a good deal from the New World and this may have mattered a good deal.

Building a strong enough state to protect markets from other states is very hard to do; at the same time the built state has to avoid crushing those markets itself.  That's a very delicate balance.  China had wonderful technology for its time and was the richest part of the world for centuries but never succeeded in this endeavor, not for long at least.

England was fortunate to be an island.  Starting in the early seventeenth century, England had many decades of ongoing, steady growth.  Later, coal and the steam engine kicked in at just the right time.  English political institutions were "good enough" as well and steadily improving, for the most part.

Christianity was important for transmitting an ideology of individual rights and natural law.  As McCloskey and Mokyr stress, the Industrial Revolution was in part about ideas.

There are numerous other factors, but putting those ones together — and no others — already makes an Industrial Revolution very difficult to achieve.  It did happen, it probably would have happened somewhere, sooner or later, but its occurrence was by no means easy to achieve.  The Greeks had steam engines, proto-computers, and brilliant philosophers and writers, but still they did not come close to a breakthrough.

One question is how long the Roman Empire would have had to last to generate an Industrial Revolution and don't mention the Eastern Empire smartypants.

If you are asking why the Industrial Revolution did not occur in the Mesozoic age, or other earlier times, genetic factors play a role as well.

1 Neal March 17, 2010 at 7:41 am

Do we ignore the Enlightenment entirely? Rationalism had nothing to do with our ability to exploit resources effectively?

2 Millian March 17, 2010 at 8:10 am

You do need a certain amount of scientific knowledge to build a steam engine that generates energy at a viable cost. The Greek engine didn’t have a piston, which separates it from future designs, but it also relied on steam to do all the work, like pre-Watt devices. You need to know something about atmospheric pressure to make better use of your fuel. You need a barometer to deduce this “something”, which means you need both the scientific method and quality glassware. But glass doesn’t have military applications outside of optics at sea; it’s really fragile! So this brings us back to the need for order and peace, which are more important than liberty if you want to achieve basic technological advances.

Inequality, the handmaiden of specialisation, helps too.

3 DWhite March 17, 2010 at 8:24 am

An “industrial revolution” is entirely dependent on concentrated and relatively cheap sources of energy; first coal then oil.

4 nazgulnarsil March 17, 2010 at 8:52 am

do we ignore the organizational innovation of the joint-stock corporation?

5 capitalistimperialistpig March 17, 2010 at 8:58 am

What Millian said. Without Galileo, Newton, and their fellow scientists, the industrial revolution could not have happened.

6 da55id March 17, 2010 at 9:18 am

I propose several key elements:

1. Fixity resulting in transmissability via the printing press. Prior to the printing press nearly all things were forgotten or even worse conveyed in grossly error ridden forms. For a knowledge revolution, one needs actual knowledge. The printing press is a machine that creates more machines resulting directly in our current xray lithographed (printed) circuits, and now, printed organs (organovo.com)

2. Cheap public domain intellectual materials to mine to fill new demand/markets. Several thousand years worth of manuscripts to mine to fill the demand for a growing reading public (fall of Constantinople didn’t hurt – curious timing that…)

3. Market concentration leads to larger market share of languages – marginal languages can no longer compete when printers decide what books/languages to sell. “Winner take all” languages gain populations. Countries become larger. Governments become larger. City power declines. Country power increases. Countries bump into one another…

4. Hundred years style war(s) drives military innovation under general stalemate conditions where outcome is novel technology where each side seeks the weapon that will end all war. For example, the drive to propel cannonballs to greater distances drove improvements in smoothness of cannon bores. Once sufficiently precise and sealed, one could replace the cannonball with a piston.

5. shampoo, rinse, repeat

7 Consumer March 17, 2010 at 9:47 am

Two reasons:
1. As Carl Sagan noted in his classic TV series “Cosmos†, the age of Enlightenment played a key role. This is mainly a philosophical issue. There were times in ancient Greece when rational thinking was dominant but then came the mysticism, which ruled for nearly 2000 years. During those 2000 years humanity did not progress much in terms of population numbers, food supply, life span, health, science, industry, etc. And that lasted until Enlightenment came.
2. The ability of certain nations to gain access (by force) to cheap labour and resources. British Empire drew on the resources of India, China, Australia and North America – all taken by force. Also let’s not forget that USA were build by “slave owners who wanted to be free† 😉 So to a great extent Industrial Revolution was done at the expense of the less advantages nations and races.

8 Floccina March 17, 2010 at 9:52 am

I think a factor is a higher accessible population. “The division of labor is limited by the extent of the market?” Of course Tyler list some factors that allowed the population density to rise.

9 Trevindor March 17, 2010 at 10:09 am

Floccina: did you read the second page of that article?

England’s population density and deforestation drove a need for coal.

10 Paul McMahon March 17, 2010 at 10:26 am

Perhaps the solution is more mundane. What about the invention of accounting? The concept of balancing, and the math, certainly figure into a lot of the equations.

And looking at the books would spur one in certain directions, like increased efficiencies.

11 Barkley Rosser March 17, 2010 at 10:52 am


Modern accounting was invented in Pisa and surrounding cities in the 1200s. A bit too early. So, no, that is not it, although it does not hurt to have it.

12 glory March 17, 2010 at 11:11 am

Steven Johnson’s entryThe Invention of Air — is also well worth reading.

13 Neal March 17, 2010 at 11:32 am

Regarding ignoring the enlightment, TC doesn’t.

“As McCloskey and Mokyr stress, the Industrial Revolution was in part about ideas”

I don’t know about McCloskey, but Mokyr book “The Enlightened Economy,” is precisely about the effect of enlightenment on the revolution. The book can be found on the “what we’ve beeen reading” sidebar.

14 Chris March 17, 2010 at 12:03 pm

As others have mentioned information was critical, without decent methods of distributing accurate information it’s very hard to sustain a technological revolution.
This doesn’t explain it entirely of course, China had developed means of duplicating information, but didn’t have a revolution.

What was key in Europe was the fractured political map. Since geography prevented the unification of Europe through military means, Europe was never completely consolidated as China was. A large number of sovereigns competed and had no choice but to adopt innovation or fall behind. A unified and mostly isolated China could afford to take its time and not adopt innovations (same was true of Japan).

A unified China also meant the percentage of people required for soldiering at a given time was lower, making it easier to rely on labor instead of investing in capital.

15 dearieme March 17, 2010 at 12:10 pm

“One of the things that Marco Polo reported to the amazement of Europe was that those Chinese people are burning rocks.” Then the Europeans must have forgotten their own history: the Romans had been astonished to find the Britons doing the same.

“Why did humans go so quickly from horse power to steam power, in the comparitive blink of an eye, after the American and French Revolutions?” Those two Revolutions were far too late to matter.

“England’s population density and deforestation drove a need for coal.” Almost everything commonly repeated about England’s deforestation is unhistorical bollocks – see the writings of Oliver Rackham.

16 Radford Neal March 17, 2010 at 12:54 pm

They may also require that the successful defender, at the same time, has good enough technology to predate someone else and accumulate a sizable surplus. Parts of Europe took a good deal from the New World and this may have mattered a good deal.

The New World may have been important, but I doubt for this reason. Most of what was taken from there and from asia was not too useful – goods like gold, furs, spices, tea, jewels – luxuries whose procurement would if anything have impeded economic developments that had more long-run potential.

I think the two big effects of the New World were first, new crops – potato, maize, tomato, squash – and second the psychological effect, showing that the future need not be the same as the past.

17 Andrew March 17, 2010 at 12:58 pm

Btw, Peter Drucker notes that Da Vinci was not really an innovator because almost none of his designs ever really saw production.

18 Ak Mike March 17, 2010 at 1:28 pm

Andrew – respectfully disagree. Christianity conducted crusades and inquisitions against heretics, killing thousands; also in the fifteenth through late seventeenth centuries burned thousands of witches; not to mention the horrible Thirty Years War which was a war of religion.

Whether you accept Gibbons’ thesis or not, it’s hard to deny that the rise of Christianity coincided with the decline of civilization for a prolonged period.

Why industrial revolution is really a head-scratcher, but it seems reasonable to look for connections with the other big things happening at the time to the people involved: discovering and settling the New World, the Reformation, lenses and the consequent discoveries in astronomy and physics and decline of religious orthodoxy.

19 mpowell March 17, 2010 at 1:56 pm

I think that in a very general sense, basic science was needed for the industrial revolution. But I think the answer is economic more than anything else. An experienced engineer can appreciate the enormous amount of work that it takes to go from a basic understanding of something to designing something useful. A lot of the time, most of the work isn’t revolutionary or amazing at all. It’s just something that a dedicated and relatively smart person can figure out if he spends enough time at it. But it’s not interesting work to the scientist. You need an economic motivation for developing processes and engines to slightly improve productivity and then keep doing that over and over again so over time you are finally getting a huge improvement in productivity.

So I think the Chinese may have had the science necessary for an industrial revolution (could be iffy, though- who really knows that much today about the science and engineering of early industrial machine and machine-making?), but never had the right economic structure. England did.

20 Lord March 17, 2010 at 3:47 pm

It is that technology was useful for warfare and the divided power structure that led to an arms race, demanding the accumulation of practical technical knowledge, not any difference between defense and predation, which is largely nonexistent, but an appreciation that technology can produce more gains than those of predation, especially when your opponents are poorer than you.

21 Cyrus March 17, 2010 at 6:16 pm

I’m going to say that textbook history is correct on this one and that the Agricultural Revolution was an important precursor. As long as market power was in the hands of the primary producers of raw materials, there was little money to be made in completely reorganizing manufacturing to take advantages of economies of scale.

Note that mining and metallurgy exhibited industrial scale in several places and times in ancient and medieval history, but as a vertically integrated state-controlled enterprise. This is not the industrial revolution.

22 Classics owns March 17, 2010 at 8:16 pm

Matt: good catch there. This relates to Ak.Mike’s comment, which firmly mounts the old hobby-horse of the conflict theory: the grand dialectic of religion vs science. Honestly, now. As a classicist, when I hear that the rise of Christianity “coincides” with the fall of the Western Empire, my forehead tends to make contact with the desk. This an extremely outmoded notion, much like Edward Gibbons himself. Please read Peter Brown’s “The World of Late Antiquity” if you’re willing to educate yourself on this subject.

23 Tom March 17, 2010 at 11:24 pm

So you have no clue, Nik, eh?

24 mulp March 18, 2010 at 3:44 am

Trace back the evolution of high volume steel production and you pretty much have the answer.

Until chemistry could figure out the elements in metal and ore and then mix in additives, the production of iron and steel depended on having the right iron ore. And for mass production, the right coal.

At the rise of England as one of the world trading powers, 16th century or so, iron from Swedish ore became available to England which had lots of experience with charcoal and coal, which was good coal for steel production. Then coke was reinvented in Germany early in the 18th century. With mass production of iron, England could develop low pressure steam engines. With refinement of mass production of steel, high pressure steam became possible. Mass production of iron enable railroads, but steel mass production vastly improved the rails allowing increased reliability and speeds.

Iron and steel were produced long ago, but they both required the right combination of local materials; if the iron ore isn’t suitable or the trees the wrong type or too few or the coal too contaminated and you didn’t know the art well enough to do the right steps, what you produced wasn’t worth the effort.

Making steel before then involved days of work starting from iron. The quantities of iron produced was in kilograms, and the steel produced from that was even less because of factors no one really understood. In Asia, the processes were ritualized to the point of religion that required years to master. It isn’t the kind of thing a visitor could pick up and take home.

Of course, a synergy occurred between mass production of iron and steel which required steam engines to bring the raw materials together which provided more and better iron and steel for steam engines which drove their improvement.

Iron and steel and steam were some of the technologies that rapidly evolved in the process Clayton Christensen described in The Innovator’s Dilemma. Growing demand drives increased production which drives innovation which drives both increased production and demand.

25 Classics owns March 18, 2010 at 10:36 pm

Funny, I said nothing about the Enlightenment (or the IR). I agree with Nik that technological determinism is a truly inane view (cf. Jared Diamond’s “why would the Agricultural Revolution be a step forward at all in terms of welfare?” thesis). But that’s kind of you to conflate my views. What I’m talking about is simply that those who still adhere to Edward Gibbon’s thesis (which quite literally includes the claim that “Christians made the Roman character effeminate and weak”) are grasping at ideological straws. Speaking of straws, I’m not sure how you managed to straw-man my comment into implying that I somehow cast doubt on the existence of a Western imperial collapse; “there was most certainly a collapse!” Oh, and everybody poops, right?

But your “argument” completely ignores the fact that prior to the rise of the Christian emperors, the Empire approached the brink of collapse in the 3rd century CE for reasons that have nothing to do with your Hollywood-tinged history (“suppression of knowledge”), such as: barbarian invasions, civil wars, disease, severe devaluation of currency, political instability, etc, etc. All of which, by the way, played a role once again in the later collapse of the Western Empire.

But wait, let’s ignore that and talk about the Texas Board of Education! Right, those SILLY Christians. Why do we even read historical sources when we have Enlightenment figures like Edward Gibbons to read and interpret them for us?

26 Barkley Rosser March 19, 2010 at 4:39 pm

Classic owns,

I mentioned the IR because you mentioned Ak Mike did who was responding to Andrew’s initial
argument that somehow Christianity provided this tolerant view of individualism and supported
the advancement of knowledge.

Regarding the history of Rome, well indeed its peak of territorial and military control came
under Trajan when both Dacia and Mesopotamia were under Roman rule, with Hadrian pulling back
somewhat from that. There certainly were the crises you mentioned, and most would agree that
after Marcus Aurelius the trend was downward. However, most evidence also suggests that despite
those problems, the economic and demographic peak was still not achieved until around 300 CE.
Note, I did not specifically agree that the rise of Christianity caused the fall of Rome, rather
that it did coincide with it. What it did do was to lead to the suppression of knowledge at
various stages, which is a distinct issue, starting with Theodosius prior to the end of the
Western Empire, and then ironically at the peak of the Byzantine Empire under Justinian when
he closed the Philosophy School of Athens. It was not all that long after this the intellectual
and technological leadership of the world shifted eastwards to China and, after 622, the Arab
Muslim world, where the classical knowledge was not only preserved but advanced.

Regarding your remark that “technological determinism is truly inane,” well, I do not know what
your field is, but it is probably time to point out that the overwhelming consensus of established
economic historical literature and studies is that the overwhelming determinant of long-run economic
growth is technological change. Go check it out if you do not know this. Of course that is not the
same thing as “technological determinism,” which looks more like Marxism or Charles Beardism, but
to dismiss the role of technology as “inane” is simply ignorant.

As for the “SILLY CHRISTIANS” on the Texas School Board, are you actually attempting to defend these
intellectual scum? You really prefer replacing the author of the Virginia Declaration of Religious
Liberty with a theocratic dictator who burned his critics at the stake? I know where I stand on that
one, if you do not.

27 Harrison B March 22, 2010 at 3:23 pm

Thanks for such a thorough answer Tyler. Hopefully sometime you can visit North Carolina in person!

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