In which English counties was the Industrial Revolution most strongly rooted?

by on December 15, 2015 at 12:44 am in Data Source, Economics, Education, History | Permalink

There is a new and very interesting paper by Morgan Kelly, Joel Mokyr, and Cormac Ó Gráda on this topic, here is the abstract:

We analyze factors explaining the very different patterns of industrialization across the 42 counties of England between 1760 and 1830. Against the widespread view that high wages and cheap coal drove industrialization, we find that industrialization was restricted to low wage areas, while energy availability (coal or water) had little impact Instead we find that industrialization can largely be explained by two factors related to the human capability of the labour force. Instead of being composed of landless labourers, successful industrializers had large numbers of small farms, which are associated with better nutrition and height. Secondly, industrializing counties had a high density of population relative to agricultural land, indicating extensive rural industrial activity: counties that were already reliant on small scale industry, with the technical and entrepreneurial skills this generated, experienced the strongest industrial growth. Looking at 1830s France we find that the strongest predictor of industrialization again is quality of workers shown by height of the population, although market access and availability of water power were also important.

Garett Jones, telephone!  Here is a related paper on human capital and industrialization (pdf), in that study it is the elites who matter.  And here is a new Eric Chaney paper (pdf) on the decline of Islamic science and the role of political elites.

I also found this summary bit from the first paper interesting: “…the early Industrial Revolution was less about the sudden appearance of radically new technologies than about improving fairly familiar technologies to the stage where they became commercially viable…”

1 Donald Pretari December 15, 2015 at 2:10 am

the early Industrial Revolution was less about the sudden appearance of radically new technologies than about improving fairly familiar technologies to the stage where they became commercially viable…”

Isn’t this one of the main themes of the great book Mechanization Takes Command by Sigfried Giedion? It’s been a few years since I read it.

2 Will Rinehart December 16, 2015 at 9:19 am

It should be noted that economic history isn’t really taught in econ departments anymore. And people confuse ideation with development. The same kind of confusion exists with the difference between basic research and development in the R&D debate.

3 Steve Sailer December 15, 2015 at 2:42 am

The Industrial Revolution was such a big deal that it had to require a wide variety of favorable inputs from convenient natural resources to a mechanically inclined populace to the highbrow scientific culture that made James Watt’s career feasible to the sophisticated capitalist legal mechanisms adopted by Britain after 1688. If the Industrial Revolution were easier to pull off, it would have happened someplace else earlier in history.

4 Steve Sailer December 15, 2015 at 8:23 am

Add in a long time orientation helped along by England not being invaded from abroad (other than the occasional Scottish invasion up through 1745) and a legal system that provided excellent security for property over the centuries.

5 Adrian Ratnapala December 15, 2015 at 11:21 am

Scottish invasions of England after the Act of Union? Jacobite diehards or something?

6 dearieme December 15, 2015 at 3:21 pm


7 Doug December 15, 2015 at 6:42 pm

I don’t quite agree with your model. All those things are critical explanations for why England then Northwestern Europe industrialized first. But you seem to imply that had similar factors been present in, e.g. 12th century Iran or 7th century China, then industrialization could have occurred there. The 19th century industrial revolution rested on a huge amount of existing technological advancement that occurred up to just the eve before. The clearest way to see this is to look at watchmaking technology (the most complex pre-industrial machine). Most people think that industrialization didn’t occur earlier simply because the spark didn’t catch, but the truth is the tinder wasn’t there to begin with.

On the flip side, England was particularly pre-disposed. But given another few centuries of pre-industrial technological advancement industrialization would have eventually occurred in less suitable places.

8 Ritwik December 15, 2015 at 7:32 am

Garett Jones? Ok.

But since this points specifically towards the *biological* component of human capital, we should be raising the status of Greg Clark-ian hypotheses, yes?

Eventually, we will have to settle at some combination between geography/germs (1k – 10k yrs phenomena) and institutions/incentives (10-100 yrs phenomena) to explain the definitive stylised fact of the last 250 years. “Human capital” or rather “materialist (biological + technological) human capital” is not a bad bet.

I see this as +11/2 for Mokyr and +1/2 for Greg Clark, and -1/2 for McCloskey. We should relegate the Pommeranzians/ coal-ists already, and Acemoglu/Sachs/Jared Diamond are not even having the right debate.

9 Alain December 16, 2015 at 12:38 am

Nice plug for Mokyr. It is weird how he is so correct and yet he gets no press.

I suppose thee is no money in saying ‘technology comes from a vast array of people and is the source of innovation.’

10 Alex Godofsky December 15, 2015 at 7:58 am

better nutrition and height

technical and entrepreneurial skills this generated

quality of workers shown by height of the population

How, exactly, are they avoiding finding a relationship with wages? Surely all of these things are positively associated with wages.

11 Ray Lopez December 15, 2015 at 10:29 am

I recall reading somewhere the majority of patents back in the early 19th century were agriculture related (farming was 50% of the US workforce until the 1880s) and even Abe Lincoln had one, also, most of the steel was used in agriculture (plows, hammers, etc), and that ‘high-tech’ back then was textile machinery (power PC = power loom!)

12 Graham Palmer December 16, 2015 at 12:09 am

I think this paper makes a useful contribution on the margins. It sets out to challenge Wrigley and Allen. Wrigley’s thesis was that coal broke the pre-industrial organic limit. Human development was constrained by available energy. No amount of innovation or human capability over the preceding several thousand years could change this. Per-capita energy consumption in the UK is 2 orders of magnitude greater now than pre-18th century. Ipso facto, a source of coal, the machines to convert the energy, and the associated institutions, rule of law, property rights etc. were necessary. Perhaps Allen’s thesis that high wages in the UK drove the substitution of labour with capital isn’t completely true. This paper places too much weight on the factor “human capability”.

13 Miguel Madeira December 16, 2015 at 9:23 am

“Instead of being composed of landless labourers, successful industrializers had large numbers of small farms, which are associated with better nutrition and height. ”

This seem to be a general rule – if a country has a region with family farms, and a region with big land estates and many landless peasants, it is the first that is the industrialized region (compare the north versus south of the USA in the 19th century, or in Portugal, Spain and Italy in the 20th century)

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15 M December 19, 2015 at 6:49 am

Thinking about this, I think the question of why

Particular subregions in the UK industrialised and others did not

is quite different from

Why regions in the UK industrialised in other countries did not

The availability of coal, for instance, in a subregion, may not matter (as transport costs between subregions of the England are relatively speaking, super, super low, in the contemporary world context) while it may matter a lot cross nationally. (Another example, well, you can look at the “human capital” by population height as a proxy for nutrition. Turns out Irish tended to be taller than English well into the 19th century. Industrialisation was not going that happen there, whatever.).

Also, re: high wage, high productivity farm labour on very large farms, perhaps that does not predict that those regions will industrialise…. but does that mean the cheap and market traded food produced by those regions, and the rich body of law and commercial practice that evolves around those labour markets is unrelated to industrialisation? I would guess not.

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