How long until another Industrial Revolution would have taken place?

by on May 9, 2017 at 12:42 am in Economics, History, Uncategorized | Permalink

Let’s say that somehow Britain had let its opportunity pass by (lost the wrong war?), or perhaps never had been in the right position at all (no Gulf Stream?).  When would the world have seen an Industrial Revolution?  Keep in mind Song China came relatively close to having a break through of some kind, but still did not pull it off; some commentators suggest the same about the Roman Empire.

My initial presumption is that “industrial revolutions,” if we can even make the term plural in that way, are remarkably difficult to see through.  I offer a few points:

1. Mankind spent about a hundred thousand years before making enough progress to attain the civilizations of Sumeria and Mesopotamia.  Along the way, people discovered how to tame fire and use various stones and metals, but still it was a long, tough slog to a point that still was almost 6000 years short of an industrial revolution.

2. I see, in world history, only two regional units being in a position at all to make a run at an industrial revolution, namely Rome and its offshoots, and China.  That is discouraging, especially because each of those required a fairly large, semi-unified territorial area.  (As an aside, I view “how did China get so big so quickly?” as one of the most under-discussed questions of world history.  Try it sometime, it’s better than arguing about Trump or ACA.)

2b. Were the Roman Empire and China actually independent events?

3. I fear what I call “the James C. Scott dead end,” namely that many territories will develop strong enough “state capacity-resistant” units that further Chinas and Romes will be difficult to achieve in terms of the size of the political unit.  Imagine a world like Laos or northern Thailand.  You may think that is a “mountains effect,” but neither the Great Plains nor Africa developed a China or Rome equivalent in earlier times, or much in the way of a very large or effective political unit.  By the way, when is the next James C. Scott book coming out?

4. I also fear the “energy dead end.”  The Aztec empire and its precursors created an amazing time, most of all for biotechnology — they bred corn out of a crummy weed, one of mankind’s greatest achievements, and without external grants.  Tenochitlan may have been larger and more impressive than any European city, and the residents probably ate better too.  Yet they used the wheel only for children’s toys and, more importantly, they stuck with direct uses of solar power.  There is no evidence of them coming remotely close to a major deployment of fossil fuels.  They did burn coal for fuel, and to make ornaments, but seemed to have no idea of how to put the pieces together to make it an energy source for powerful machines.  For most of their purposes, solar energy seemed to work remarkably well, and Mexico had plenty of it.  It nourished their food and kept them warm.

5. The economic historian R.C. Allen overrated the role of coal in the British Industrial Revolution, and this has kept many people away from seeing #4.  Don’t assign coal a dominant monocausal role in the Industrial Revolution, just have an n-factor model where fossil fuels are one of the binding constraints; circa 2017 we still need them!  By the way, here is an Allen essay on the Britishness of the Industrial Revolution, closely related to this blog post.  I agree with most of his sentences as stand-alone claims, though he vastly underrates the role of non-energy factors in the bigger picture.

6. The Incas also had a remarkably advanced civilization, in select areas ahead of Europeans and spanning a fairly large geographic area at its peak with plenty of state capacity.  They too seemed to be in a cul-de-sac with respect to an industrial revolution, energy again being one factor as best we can tell.

7. Many people fear internecine warfare as preventing an industrial revolution in alternative locales, and while that is a factor, I worry more about “the James C. Scott dead end” and “the energy dead end.”  What other possible dead ends are there?

8. At what point was a European/British industrial revolution “in the bag”?  1740?  1600?  1050?  If the Brits had failed us, at what point would Japan or Bohemia have picked up the ball and run with it?  Seventy years later?  Three hundred years?  Never?

9. The optimistic perspective is gained from studying the history of the arts.  Then one sees European culture as having a series of mini-industrial revolutions, starting in late medieval times and rapidly accelerating progress in painting, sculpture, perspective, bookmaking, goldsmithing, musical instruments, musical notation, paper-making, and many other areas, most of all in northern Italy and also Franco-Flemish territory and a bit later Germany.  Bach came before the British “Industrial Revolution” and his genius had a lot of preconditions too!  The “special” thing about the British IR is that it overturned Malthusian assumptions, but from the point of view of understanding how the inputs related to the outputs, and how so many new, complex innovations were possible all at once, that is arguably of secondary import.  Study Monteverdi, not coal!

For this post I am thankful to a recent lunch conversation with John Nye, Bryan Caplan, and Robin Hanson, of course implicating none of them in these views, though can you guess who disagreed the most?

1 A.G.McDowell May 9, 2017 at 12:54 am

There may be alternate, albeit slower, paths to a technological civilisation. For instance, sustained interest in gambling games may eventually have led to the idea of science as a game of chance played against nature, with the idea of the designed experiment as a good strategy. This leads to enough improvement in agriculture to push Malthus back for a few generations, even given concurrent improvements in medicine, and in turn demonstrates the long term payoffs from scientific research.


2 Troll Me May 10, 2017 at 2:38 pm

Science is more about the process of establishing a hypothesis and being methodological in trying to prove it wrong before you start to wonder if you might be right.

Which is very different from mathematical representations of probability estimations per se.


3 Steve Kellmeyer May 11, 2017 at 8:57 am

You have to define “science.” Formal science, such as mathematics, logic and theology, use foundational premises and logical reasoning to reach conclusions with no experiment or hands-on work involved. This is the kind of science championed by the ancient Greeks.

Applied science, such as medicine and engineering, takes existing knowledge and uses it to resolve new problems, but does not pursue knowledge for its own sake. It is utilitarian. This is the science of Roman engineering.

Experimental science, which requires one to test hypotheses against nature in a reproducible fashion, is the product of a philosophy which views the man who works with his hands in a positive light. This was NOT an ancient Greek philosophy (in ancient Greece, only slaves worked with their hands, civilized men were generally too ashamed to by such work to get their hands dirty). The only culture which embraced and celebrated men who worked with their hands was the Judeo-Christian culture, whose God did precisely that in the first chapter of Genesis. It was also the only system that asserted reality had its own existence and that reality was good, worthy of investigation because it explained who God was (the heavens are telling the glory of God).

Thus experimental science could only arise in a Judeo-Christian context. No other system had the necessary underpinnings.


4 Factory May 9, 2017 at 12:56 am

The UK at that time was quite a different country than China or Rome (although maybe not Rome in the early days).
Maybe the pre-conditions for the UK to go industrial were nearly reached in lots of other places that were much smaller and less studied than Rome and China?
Then again, there is the problem of the IR only happening once so quite hard to know what exactly are the pre-conditions.


5 Thanatos Savehn May 9, 2017 at 1:11 am

The more interesting question is: “When will academics like Tyler get weaned off Jared Diamond’s fashionably pendulous teats?” Which is also to ask: “When will the belief that (when it comes to outcomes) cultures are just passive bystanders in a game of chance, at last be exposed as a lie?” Apparently economics progresses, like physics, one funeral at a time; so hopefully it’ll be awhile (since we like Tyler, despite his tendency to cognitive dissonance, or fear of a Hypatia Journal style Twitter lynching; whichever). Planck ftw.


6 londenio May 9, 2017 at 6:04 am

Culture is endogenous (i.e., itself an outcome)


7 Good to Epic May 9, 2017 at 8:59 am

In the short run, yes, totally endogenous. But I’ve always been fascinated by the role of path dependence in the history/development of cultures. It’s essentially unknowable, but seems totally plausible that culture develops as a semi random walk with enough auto correlation as to allow very different outcomes over the long run over repeated trials given the same Jared Diamond type setup of geography and natural resources and the like.


8 The Centrist May 9, 2017 at 10:41 am

Sick Societies, by Robert Edgerton


9 Thanatos Savehn May 9, 2017 at 10:53 pm

I’ve ordered it. Many thanks.


10 Anonymous May 9, 2017 at 11:54 am

“When will the belief that (when it comes to outcomes) cultures are just passive bystanders in a game of chance, at last be exposed as a lie?”

Are you telling me that if you had been born an Aztec you would have been clever enough to stand outside the system say “wait a minute all this Human Sacrifice stuff is nuts?”

Nope. Instead you have a position that is mostly accidental, your birth culture is, as Epic says, a long line of path dependence.


11 Thanatos Savehn May 9, 2017 at 10:36 pm

I’m telling you that if Aquinas had been born an Aztec then Venezuela would have been today’s U.S.A.


12 Pettifogger May 10, 2017 at 9:40 pm

We have no idea if one or more Aquinas clones were born among Aztecs and Incas, among others. What would those cultures have done to them? That’s probably unknowable.


13 Pettifogger May 10, 2017 at 9:40 pm

We have no idea if one or more Aquinas clones were born among Aztecs and Incas, among others. What would those cultures have done to them? That’s probably unknowable.


14 Troll Me May 10, 2017 at 3:06 pm

Some things were less directed before. More directed now.

I find Diamond’s work on such subjects to be simultaneously among the most popularized and also under-rated on the subject. The accessibility is a huge bonus, but he was the first to make highly concrete statements supported by argumentation on subjects which involved radical rethinks on how history led to the present.


15 Massimo May 9, 2017 at 1:57 am

What a coincidence. I am going this week-end to a Liberty Fund seminar about the role of the mith of “the good savage” in Leftist revolutionary ideology in third world countries, and I spent much time this week pondering this exact issue.

I know very little about China, but being Italian, I know some Roman history. From the Punic wars in the third century before Christ, to the Antonines, in the second century after Christ, the Roman Republic and later Empire were very stable, making an exception for the convulsions between Marius and Augustus in the first century BC and a few internal fights in the imperial times. This is about 350 years out of 450. Very importantly, there was a strong rule of law with great respect for private property, the State was limited (essentially a night watch State, with some welfare only in the capital) and there was accumulation of capital (many rich romans with more than 100 house-slaves are recorded). The market was of course huge, GDP per capita estimated at one third higher than China in that period (“The West and the rest”) and commerce was very well developed, especially Mediterranean navigation. Many crafts were well advanced, mainly due to defense needs (think about the carpentry needed for siege machines), and we have some intriguing objects too, like a sphere with two noodles were water was heated until steam exiting the noodles made the sphere spin (granted, it was a toy for adults, similar to the use of the wheel in America). They had the same needs that started the IR, they could have used spinning jennys and mechanical frames, although mainly for wool, rather than cotton, they had a lot of mining where steam power to eliminate water would be very valuable and the defense needs would have made a Bessemer process a very welcomed innovation.

Some people says that it did not happen because Romans had an abundance of slave. True, but still, a productive slave is better than an unproductive one, so I have my doubts about it.

Another explanation is the lack of the theoretical framework (advanced math, physics) that was developed in the Scientific Revolution starting with Galileo in the XV century. But most of the IR innovators were not scientists (with the possible exception of the German chemical innovations of the XIX century). They were thinkerers, often people involved for many years in some trade that thought about how to make the work faster or less miserable. They generally did not have the cutting edge theoretical knowledge (which was more common for the great inventors of the Renaissance, like Da Vinci).

The last explanation I heard, which is the one that I, as a market anarchist, most dislike, is the role of patents. We know that many early innovators (Watts, for example) were obsessed by the issue of patents. I am afraid, whatever Kinsella says, that patents, essentially starting only with Elizabeth the first, might be the reason why the IR took off in England when it did.


16 Alain May 9, 2017 at 3:53 am

Agreed with patents, they along with the market economy allowed the tinkers to make hay out of their inventions.

Also, the theoretical framework likely wasn’t necessary for the initial inventions, but was required for many of the refinements.


17 Brian May 9, 2017 at 6:24 am

The patent theory is incompatible with the actual history of patents.

For instance, Watt developed the first near-practical steam engine around 1780. But he obtained a patent on it, so it wasn’t possible to continuously improve the design or to compete with Watt in the market. So the engine was very little used.

Once the patents ran out twenty years later, there was an explosion of interest and improved designs from competitors came fast and often. Railroading and steam looms and the rest were finally possible.

Patents create an incentive but they also create a stagnant monopoly. Historians suggest that steam engines were blocked by patents multiple times and each stage of development before Watt had to wait for patents to expire before any further innovation could continue.

The same effect of blocking innovation instead of promoting it can be seen in the effect of patents on sewing machines, aeroplanes, and digital audio/video codecs. Over the centuries patents have often been an impediment and often been an inducement to invention. In every case, the effect is complicated.

But they certainly did not create the industrial revolution.


18 kevin May 9, 2017 at 7:58 am

Are you saying watt would have pursued the near-practical steam engine regardless of patents? The patent theory still holds if patents got Watt started on the steam engine, even if we had to wait another 20 years for it to be completed. That said, I’m sure there’s a point (like the laffer curve) where more/longer patents are worse.


19 Alain May 9, 2017 at 10:35 am

Since I know very little history about the steam engine I can buy your anti-patent rant. However, you said the “same effect” could be seen in audio/video patents, and in that space it is entirely clear: almost all innovation has been funded by patents. Do patents block people in the field? Yes, free implementations have had a very difficult time getting traction, but almost all research in the field is, in the end, paid for with funds from a LA.


20 Axa May 9, 2017 at 9:48 am

@Alain, if patents are that important, Venice would have been the cradle of the IR, not England.

James Watt was an engineer, much closer to a scientist than an skilled iron worker. The machine could be built only because the technology to build it has been developed before for cannons.

Perhaps we have nice things today because England, Portugal, France, Spain and the Dutch used cannons to settle disputes of overseas territories.


21 Troll Me May 10, 2017 at 3:21 pm

Even if something is the strongest explanatory factor in one situation, this does not mean that contrary observations are evidence that it doesn’t matter.

For example, if Vienna had a patent system, but was just a tiny city state with no ability to enforce patents elsewhere, then you would observe a) patents being very important in most/many cases, despite b) patents not yielding industrial revolution in Vienna.


22 Amigo May 9, 2017 at 5:24 am

“They were thinkerers”

I like it. I’m going to adopt that word.


23 prior_test2 May 9, 2017 at 7:35 am

Yeah, that is actually not a bad term to be honest.


24 Aidan May 9, 2017 at 11:35 am

Perhaps the pace romana was itself the problem? Why lend support to new technologies that could destabilize the social order and upset vested interests other than when you’re under continual threat of destruction from other powers? None of the Aztec, Roman or Chinese empires were surrounded by similarly powerful, similarly sized political entities with which they had to battle for survival. The Brits didn’t have the luxury of entering into slow, elegant decline; they had to deal with the French.


25 Troll Me May 10, 2017 at 3:27 pm

I thought that was basically the running view.

Under “pax romana”, there was insufficient intellectual freedom to have free enquiry needed for technological advance. (Stalinist slave masters demonstrated potential results using alternative approaches to knowledge creation.)

And then it was not until this Pax Romana and the complete intellectual suppression of the thousand years that followed its downfall which explain what amounts to 1500 years of non-progress outside of some ship building improvements by the traders and raiders to the north.


26 Massimo May 10, 2017 at 3:52 pm

I do not agree. Especially the first two centuries of the Roman Empire were very free intellectually. Philosofical schools very different coexisted in peace. Even Christianism, with its radicalness and disdain for other cults, including the traditional, State-sponsored one, was tolerated until Decius, mid of the 3rd century. There were “pogroms”, but seldom conducted by local governors and never (with the exception of Nero and the burning of the city) by the central State. It was Marguerite Yourcenar that wrote about her marvellous book “memories of Hadrian”, “those two beautiful centuries when the gods were dead, but God was not yet born”. The initial Roman Empire was essentially agnostic, with the role of the State being simply to maintain each province “pacata atque quieta”, which means, basic policing and judiciary, and strong defenses at the borders.


27 George Turner May 10, 2017 at 10:03 pm

Rome, though skilled in some amazing production techniques such as making plate armor, lacked paper, movable type, and the decimal system, so they were weak in communications and math.

But that wasn’t true of later Venice, where the Venetian arsenal did amazing work at streamlined production. The arsenal hired Galileo, There he would have been exposed to something that had been developing among European soldiers and weaponeers, the scientific method. It wasn’t called that, but that’s how European martial arts masters had come to study their combat techniques.

This differs from Asian arts, where all the emphasis is in lineage back to some supposed “perfect” form, in keeping with the Asian view that a master can only become a master by learning from another master, ad infinitum, and that innovation is deviation and imperfection because it didn’t come down from a line of masters, but was just made up by somebody.

There was a Chinese geologist who got to go on a cruise with geologist who proved continental drift. There he was amazed to see the man’s professors praising him as their most gifted student, even though he had shown that what they’d taught him was wrong. In Chinese thinking, his teachers would have felt he’d disgraced them by exposing them as fools – and thus not true masters – meaning the student couldn’t be a master either because he was taught by fools – and thus knew nothing true. There’s no way out of that circle, and thus innovation in martial arts or science are stifled.

But that’s not how European martial artists view things. They said to learn all you can from a master, then seek out other masters who will teach you other things, and then read books, because no one mind can hold all there is to know about fighting. Eventually you will start making notations in those books as you discover errors or have new insights. Then you will write your own book, coming up with new approaches and techniques that obsolete the techniques of the old masters. That’s how you become a master.

As part of that, given that masters can easily be led astray because their students or fight partners are reacting in a particular way to make the new technique “work”, a technique must be proven by independent replication. If it works for one master, it should work for all masters, or else it doesn’t really work. That’s peer review. All the experiments to test techniques is empirical data. Second is that they applied theory to the techniques, eventually drawing detailed geometric diagrams. If the resulting technique doesn’t work then the theory is wrong.

So there was a pre-existing mindset that was scientific, and it was not in the churches or universities, it was in the training halls. Over on the weapons side of the equation, Europeans were coming up with and testing a great variety of ingenious weapons, such as you seein Talhoffer’s fight book from the 1400’s, or the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci.

Those two threads come together in the Venetian arsenal, were Galileo was asking very fundamental questions about how weapons work, from swords and spears to canon balls. It was probably known that a sword’s pommel changed how it acted during an impact (setting the percussion point), and that this could be measured by swinging the sword as a simple pendulum. The question is why, and Galileo communicated this problem to Marin Mersenne of the Paris Academy, who was the heart of all scientific communications at that time.

The question was how to find the percussion point of a sword by purely theoretical means, and that meant solving problems of impact and pendular motion. Almost all scientific advances in the hundred years prior to Newton’s Principia were the result of studies of impact and pendular motion. Fermat and Decartes tried and failed at the problem, which was finally solved by Christian Huygens in Horologium Oscillatorium, which on its face was about clocks and which required the use of a special case of calculus to divide an object into an infinite number of little rectangles. Newton took the basic problem further, giving us the laws of local motion.

So I’d say it’s a combination of a scientific mindset, tools (paper, a common language (Latin), movable type), a focus on efficient production, and the freedom to ask questions.


28 Neil May 11, 2017 at 12:33 am

There have been “thinkerers” throughout human history. The Antikythera mechanism. Chinese printing, pre-Gutenberg. The (semi?) mythical Daedalus. I’ve heard an anectdote about a Roman fellow who went to the imperial court looking for a grant to develop a new method of casting bronze, but was turned down because if successful he would put too many people out of work.

What happened in Britain was that the thinkerers suddenly were able to accumulate enough capital to develop their ideas. Watt, Newcomen, Stephenson, etc., were none of them aristocratic or well-connected. But they wielded power and capital as though they were. How did they do that? Answer that question, and you know how the Industrial revolution happened. If patents were part of the equation, then so be it.

P.S.: I think my next business card just might use the title “thinkerer”.


29 Massimo May 11, 2017 at 1:03 am

Fk, I should have copyrighted “thinkerer”…


30 DPetray May 11, 2017 at 6:34 am

Why would you deny that the abundance of cheap labor, especially for sole-crop agriculture (which most of Italy, Gaul and Hispania were dedicated to) not have exerted downward pressure on innovation? Just look at the South, (I’m a Southerner), to see that the South that the Army of Northern Aggression illegally occupied had very little manufacturing plants or miles of rail road.


31 Brett May 9, 2017 at 2:04 am

4. This an odd point to make, because nobody in the 16th century had figured out how to truly utilize coal as an energy-resource for powerful machines. Technology is path-dependent – the main reason why the Romans didn’t have steam-powered trains is because they simply didn’t have the technology, nor its precursor components. They also lived in a world where technology simply spread a lot slower unless it was either highly profitable or extremely useful for warfare, and even then it could take decades for a useful technology to spread over large distances.

6. The Inca were a relatively new empire that had only sort-of finished unifying a few years before the Spanish showed up (and they’d began an expansionist growth in the early-to-mid 15th century). They weren’t in any kind of cul-de-sac.


32 Brian May 9, 2017 at 6:32 am

“The Inca were a relatively new empire that had only sort-of finished unifying a few years before the Spanish”

Likewise the Aztecs only first arrived in their capital city of Tenochititlán in 1325. They established their empire over the next century and had heavily altered their natural environment with dikes and canals and aqueducts so that they were stable and growing. The development and simplification of written languages was proceeding rapidly; no other Mesoamericans had written language at the time except a few holdovers from Mayan hieroglyphics (and the Aztecs were rapidly collecting those artifacts to advance their system).

The Aztecs also were not in any kind of cul de sac.


33 Scott Mauldin May 9, 2017 at 9:36 am

The Romans had steam engines and pistons, just didn’t figure out how to put them together.


34 Jeff R May 9, 2017 at 10:56 am

Charles Mann was of the opinion in his book 1493 that the industrial revolution wouldn’t have amounted to much without rubber from the New World which wasn’t available until at least the 17th Century, I think, so China would have been an unlikely candidate in any time period, really. It would have to be someone in Europe. Maybe Portugal?


35 DPetray May 11, 2017 at 6:40 am

Nor sea-worthy vessels. Until the Portuguese (Spanish?) galleon came along with the re-discovery of how to read longitude as well as latitude there were tremendous transportation barriers to getting excess to market. If the Romans could have maintained direct control over the trade to China from the Arabian Gulf in open-sea worthy vessels (copy Chinese and Indian versions?) and using Chinese navigational maps, then the Roman Empire, with it’s abundance of labor and raw material, could have had an industrial revolution of its own.


36 Harun May 9, 2017 at 11:21 am

IIRC, the Incas didn’t have currency. They also had a state economy. And their writing system was based on textiles with knots. (Maybe that would work, but it was pretty unique.)


37 Massimo May 9, 2017 at 11:19 pm

True, I was a few months ago in a arqueological fucking hot place close to Lima, and the handicapped lady showing us around told us with a pinch of pride that Incas did not have money. I asked how a boat builder could buy a loaf of bread, and I was ostracized by the Guides’ Union.


38 Wayne H May 9, 2017 at 2:08 am

The ability to create and diffuse knowledge would be a significant variable within any model for an industrial revolution.

We can then work with other variables such as population density (proxy for number of new ideas generated), state capacity (proxy for intergenerational investment) and geography (number factor endowments) to model potential pathways for industrial revolution.

Spatial entities that were able to command the minimum requirements could have model runs done on probability of further option development (next step towards IR) and time to IR. Could through in variable of “bad luck” eg war, harvest failure, etc

Off the top of my head, European IR candidates could have been Bavaria/German states post 1740 with later takeoff eg 1850.
Alternative earlier European IR takeoff is Dutch republic ( global trade connections, financial markets, universities and printing presses).

I discount Rome completely due to no/little knowledge transfer to wider economy. Knowledge was held and shared by elites and ability for society to lose knowledge was high.

China a possibility due to wood block print which supported duplication of knowledge but with a relatively high labour cost for production compared to printing press.


39 Brian May 9, 2017 at 6:43 am

This is the seed of a good simple theory. Lots of places were ready for an industrial revolution at various times, but it was sharing knowledge that was the key. Movable type was popularized rapidly after Gutenberg’s 1500 first practical implementation and that was the key.

China would have preceded Europe except for the cul de sac of Hanzi ideographs. Of the three times in human history written language was independently developed, only the Sumerian version had an alphabet. Switching from Chinese hieroglyphics to an alphabetical system was impossible because of sunk costs. But only an alphabetical system could make printing really universally accessible. And only printing could diffuse knowledge enough for an industrial revolution.


40 Rusty May 10, 2017 at 10:58 pm

Europe had another advantage: A universal language (Latin) that nobody actually spoke as a child. So nobody owned it, but all the educated classes used it to spread their ideas. Chinese was already a melange of dialects – it was unified very late and the character s were reserved for state functionaries, not known for a love of innovation.


41 Mark Thorson May 9, 2017 at 2:17 am

Obviously, it’s IP law. The Industrial Revolution developed in near-perfect synchronization with the rise of patents.


42 prior_test2 May 9, 2017 at 2:36 am

Or inter-continental warfare – it might not be a coincidence that Spain, France, and the UK were all competing to establish empires on a grand scale, and even before the start of the Industrial Revolution, the British were reaping the rewards of fundamental aspects of what created the Industrial Revolution. A prime example being this – ‘The English navy at around the time of the Armada was evolving revolutionary new tactics, according to new research.

Tests on cannon recovered from an Elizabethan warship suggest it carried powerful cast iron guns, of uniform size, firing standard ammunition.

“This marked the beginning of a kind of mechanisation of war,” says naval historian Professor Eric Grove of Salford University.

“The ship is now a gun platform in a way that it wasn’t before.”

Marine archaeologist Mensun Bound from Oxford University adds: “Elizabeth’s navy created the first ever set of uniform cannon, capable of firing the same size shot in a deadly barrage.

“[Her] navy made a giant leap forward in the way men fought at sea, years ahead of England’s enemies, and which was still being used to devastating effect by Nelson 200 years later.”

Deadly artillery

Until now, it was thought Queen Elizabeth was using the same cannon technology as her father, Henry VIII. His flagship, the Mary Rose, was ultra-modern for its day.

However, it carried a bewildering variety of cannon – many designed for land warfare. They were all of different shapes and sizes, fired different shot at different rates with different killing power.

It is known that during Elizabeth’s reign, English sailors and gunners became greatly feared. For example, at the beginning of Henry VIII’s reign, the English fleet was forced to retreat from heavily armed French galleys.

By the time of Elizabeth, even Phillip of Spain was warning of the deadly English artillery. But no-one has ever been able to clearly show why this was.

The new research follows the discovery of the first wreck of an Elizabethan fighting ship off Alderney in the Channel Islands, thought to date from around 1592, just four years after the Spanish Armada.’

The ‘mechanisation of war’ does not sound as inspiring as the rule of law, but when looking at Europe, it can be useful to not ever forget just how incessantly Europeans have been killing each other for thousands of years. Europe’s history is pretty much a blood bath, and any account of the Industrial Revolution that ignores its advantages when gaining an empire is incomplete.


43 So Much For Subtlety May 9, 2017 at 2:52 am

It is noticeable that that last really revolutionary period in modern technology was World War Two. Virtually everything we have is just a further refined version of something someone used in WW2. But 1945 looked little like 1935.

So we fly in jet planes. Which are tracked by radar. We use computers. We get antibiotics from our doctors. We cook our dinner in microwave ovens. When we go to war, we use tanks and assault rifles generally the same as those used in WW2.

Clearly the invention of nuclear weapons, which ensured the end of widespread warfare, has been a disaster for technology.


44 prior_test2 May 9, 2017 at 3:40 am

Antibiotics, and most advances from the ‘life sciences’ have little to nothing to do with WWII. Not counting ‘synergy’ – many strands run together, of course. For example, would penicillin have been mass produced as quickly as it was – a good decade after its discovery – without the pressure of war? Though it is also true that pressure of war delayed British efforts significantly, and mass production of pencillin was first researched in a country not expecting to go to war – certainly not the way it did, on Dec. 7 – though the importance of research was recognized and fostered by a specific government agency – founded two years after the outbreak of mass warfare in Europe. There is no question that pencillin was important in warfare – it is also equally true that its use was obvious years before the start of WWII. It is just that governments fighting wars provide a much better environment for pharmaceutical corporations to grow rich than merely creating things which would benefit humanity in general, which is never a consideration in pharmaceutical corporate decision making.

But discovering the function of DNA, a massive advance, was not connected to warfare, involving as it did almost a century of scientific work –


45 Massimo May 9, 2017 at 3:49 am

Of the three most fundamental concepts in science and technology, the atom, the gene and the bit, 2 out of 3 have nothing to do with warfare.

46 So Much For Subtlety May 9, 2017 at 3:53 am

So basically you are disagreeing with me for the sake of disagreeing with me? Given penicillin owed everything to World War Two. As you seem to admit.

Presumably Fleming being a bad communicator was one problem. But the mechanism is likely to be simpler – everyone likes what exists. No one much cares for the new. So no one cared when Fleming made his claim. He got some people to do a few limited trials which produced mixed results. It was not until the impetus of the war that people overcame their inertia and did something about it.

On the whole funding bodies and companies seem happy enough with minor improvements. Which means little progress.

47 prior_test2 May 9, 2017 at 4:28 am

‘So basically you are disagreeing with me for the sake of disagreeing with me?’

Nope, and do note that the main point was in relation to DNA and its central importance to the vast revolution we are experiencing in the life sciences. A discovery and revolution with no real connection to warfare.

‘It was not until the impetus of the war that people overcame their inertia and did something about it.’

As it turns out, some things are quite hard, and those interested in profit alone generally wait to take advantage of a government handing them lots of money to solve a problem first. Undoubtedly, any free market public choice economist can rattle off any number of examples.

But of course you are not completely wrong – America’s use of the German discovered sulfa drugs was a huge advantage, without needing to invest the massive amounts of effort used to mass produce penicillin, which played a miniscule role until considerably later in WWII as an antibiotic due to that vast effort to manufacture it in sufficient quantity. As noted here – ‘Prontosil, as Bayer named the new drug, was the first medicine ever discovered that could effectively treat a range of bacterial infections inside the body. It had a strong protective action against infections caused by streptococci, including blood infections, childbed fever, and erysipelas, and a lesser effect on infections caused by other cocci. However, it had no effect at all in the test tube, exerting its antibacterial action only in live animals. Later, it was discovered by Bovet,[7] Federico Nitti and J. and Th. Jacques Tréfouël, a French research team led by Ernest Fourneau at the Pasteur Institute, that the drug was metabolized into two pieces inside the body, releasing from the inactive dye portion a smaller, colorless, active compound called sulfanilamide.[8] The discovery helped establish the concept of “bioactivation” and dashed the German corporation’s dreams of enormous profit; the active molecule sulfanilamide (or sulfa) had first been synthesized in 1906 and was widely used in the dye-making industry; its patent had since expired and the drug was available to anyone.[9]

The result was a sulfa craze.[10] For several years in the late 1930s, hundreds of manufacturers produced tens of thousands of tons of myriad forms of sulfa. This and nonexistent testing requirements led to the elixir sulfanilamide disaster in the fall of 1937, during which at least 100 people were poisoned with diethylene glycol. This led to the passage of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act in 1938 in the United States. As the first and only effective antibiotic available in the years before penicillin, sulfa drugs continued to thrive through the early years of World War II.[11] They are credited with saving the lives of tens of thousands of patients, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt Jr. (son of US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt) and Winston Churchill. Sulfa had a central role in preventing wound infections during the war. American soldiers were issued a first-aid kit containing sulfa pills and powder, and were told to sprinkle it on any open wound.’

48 Rusty May 10, 2017 at 11:08 pm

NB: WWII was really the second act of WWI. Remember tanks? Fighter and bomber (and observation) aircraft? The development of penicillin and computers can be attributed to the unsolved problems found in the first war.

49 Massimo May 9, 2017 at 3:45 am

Even if limited to military technology, it is simply not true. A Me-242 has very little to do with a F-22 or a T-50. The entire family of tactical self-directed missiles did not exist, the Germans introduced at the end of the war a torpedo with the final run sonar-guided, but it was so primitive that in a few cases they sank themselves, and an anti-ship radio guided missile in ’43, but nothing self-guided: so forget IR or radar air to air weapons, Patriots or S-400s, Javelins or kornets, and Harpoons or the 8 Machs new Russian Zircon. You might say that a v-1 was a cruise missile, but it has very little to do with a Tomahawk. Choppers were non-existent, only the Germans had something developed, at maybe at 1 year to be introduced. Nuclear power in ships and subs changed radically naval warfare. And of course in the strategic arena, thermonuclear weapons are 3 orders of magnitude more powerful than Little Boy, and ICBMs and sub-based nuclear weapons eliminated the usefulness of distance. Satellites did not exist. Drones are very recent, and rail guns and laser based weapon are about to be introduced.
What has changed very little is basic infantry (the .50 cal is basically a IWW weapon) and maybe tanks, assuming the T-44, from which the T-54 evolved, is the first MBT in history.


50 prior_test2 May 9, 2017 at 3:48 am

Not really defend So Much For Subtlety, but you are broadly talking about refinements, not breakthroughs.

51 Massimo May 9, 2017 at 3:53 am

Well, I guess it depends on the perspective.
A nuclear-powered air-carrier can be considered a refinement of a Roman galley with archers, and a T-90 could be a refinement of Hannibal’s elephants.

52 prior_test2 May 9, 2017 at 4:08 am

‘A nuclear-powered air-carrier can be considered a refinement of a Roman galley with archers’

Not really, but this Enterprise – is just a refinement of this Enterprise – As were the aircraft it carried, and the battle group around it. And to be honest, though the Romans and their use of the corvus allowed them to effectively fight on water as they did on land was quite revolutionary at the time, it tends to pale compared to using a floating platform to launch aircraft against targets hundreds of miles inland.

No need to explain the other example, one assumes.

53 So Much For Subtlety May 9, 2017 at 4:20 am

That is obviously not a valid claim. The Me-262 is obviously of the same family as the F-22. Yes, the F-22 is much better but it is not radically different. In the previous wars, airplanes not only had completely different engines – and the Me-262 and the F-22 share similar engines – but also different numbers of wings, different engine layouts, and were even made with different materials. The Me-262 produced the model which most planes have followed ever since – a swept wing, twin engined, aluminum alloy monoplane. Armed with 30 mm cannon.

WW2 also saw crude attempts at guided missiles. The Germans may not have built one but the Americans did. The ASM-N-2 Bat was to be guided by a TV camera but went with a active radar homing instead. The Germans were working on IR guided missiles as well. The V-1 is obviously of the same family as the Tomahawk. Especially as the Germans were working on replacing the pulse jet with a short-life Porsche jet engine. As it turned out, the Germans did use a helicopter operationally. Again, something that people had played with in their backyards for years became serious once the war broke out.

Nuclear power was something new although it has had limited impact on naval warfare outside of nuclear submarines. The first reactor started in WW2. The important jump is not from a fission weapon to a thermonuclear one, but from none to any. That jump was made in WW2. The rest of your list is basically building better and bigger missiles – first used in WW2 by the Germans. The distinction between a Polaris missile and the V-2 is much smaller than that between a Congreave rocket and a V-2.

I will grant the laser is something new in the post-war period. But look how long it has taken to get to something.

54 Ricardo May 9, 2017 at 4:32 am

The key is that the distinction between “refinement” and “breakthrough” is arbitrary. Are the M-16 and AK47 “refinements” of 19th century rifles or genuine breakthroughs? It depends. In military technology (as in sports), a seemingly slight advantage to one side can completely change the way both sides think about tactics.

55 prior_test2 May 9, 2017 at 4:46 am

‘The key is that the distinction between “refinement” and “breakthrough” is arbitrary.’

Yes it is, until it isn’t. One can argue whether a jet aircraft is merely a refinement of a hot air ballon, but aerial warfare involving ship launched aircraft attacking another ship is a breakthrough from the technology in 1700 CE, much less the technology of 200 BC. The same applies to submarines.

56 So Much For Subtlety May 9, 2017 at 4:48 am

Ricardo May 9, 2017 at 4:32 am

The key is that the distinction between “refinement” and “breakthrough” is arbitrary. Are the M-16 and AK47 “refinements” of 19th century rifles or genuine breakthroughs? It depends. In military technology (as in sports), a seemingly slight advantage to one side can completely change the way both sides think about tactics.

At some level that may be true. But we are nowhere near it here. You can put an elephant (or Roman galley) next to a T-55 (or an aircraft carrier) and they may have some function in common but they are clearly not related. But a 2017 Aircraft carrier is not that radically different from a 1945 one. Improvement, not breakthrough. Since the T-34 pretty much all tanks have shared the same design (the Swedes built the S-tank and the Israeli’s put the engine in the front of one of theirs, but pretty much).

The M-16 and the AK-47 have more in common with each other than with a 19th century rifle. They are self loading. They have an automatic option (off and on for the M-16). They use an intermediate cartridge. Which is encased – depending on how far back you want to go in the 19th century. Everything evolves from something. But some things are radically different. The Germans entered WW2 with a rifle going back to the 19th century. The British entered it with a rifle that would be hard to distinguish from earlier Lee–Enfields, Martini–Henrys, Martini–Enfields, or Lee–Metford rifles unless you were an expert. The Germans ended it with an assault rifle that has been used recently in Syria and would not look out of place in any modern Army.

57 albatross May 9, 2017 at 1:09 pm

My guess is that it’s not so much lack of war, but (to steal a term from Tyler) complacency that’s the innovation killer. You can see this effect with big companies whose researchers develop some breakthrough idea, but can’t get anyone at the company interested in pushing on it. If things are going fine already, why spend resources and take risks to rock the boat in favor of some theoretical improvement?

58 Massimo May 9, 2017 at 10:03 pm

A fun thought experiment is asking what assets could have changed the course of the war in, say, autumn ’44, assuming they could be replenished.
Thermonuclear ICBMs, or boomer-based nukes, without a doubt.
A single nuclear powered sub or even 3-4 diesel-electrics would have kept the American Navy at bay and could have saved the Japanese, assuming the Soviets would have not invaded Manchuria.
Same for one of today carrier
An additional nuclear sub or carrier would have blockaded the Atlantic Us coast, keeping the US out of the war, but after Bagration in the summer ’44, there was no way the Germans could have stopped the Soviets. To stop the soviets you needed either a good amount (5 divisions?) of modern tanks, or the same amount in form of attack choppers, better if helped by at least 5 squadron of, say to keep the tab reasonable, Vipers. If you want to do it with infantry alone, it could have been done if the Wehrmacht had ample access to Javelins and Stingers, I’d say. With Stingers alone Falaise would have not happened, but they would not be enough on the Eastern front. What do you think?

59 Ricardo May 9, 2017 at 3:45 am

Drones, spy satellites, GPS, modern encryption, laser-guided missiles and bombs and the lasers and transistors that make them (and most of modern civilization) possible are all very much post-war inventions. And then there is most of modern medicine.


60 prior_test2 May 9, 2017 at 3:54 am

Not really defend So Much For Subtlety, particularly his point saying it ended with WWII, but you are broadly talking about things that came about during the Cold War, in large part to solve problems that became apparent in WWII – better missiles needed better (lighter) nuclear warheads, for example, which also happened to lead to satellites being developed which merely replicated the functions of aerial photography in a better fashion than a U2. The transistor’s use was quickly adopted in areas where vacuum tubes were not optimal – again, think missiles or radar. The MAD world was full of innovation, much of it based on the problems that arose out of the weapons that were used at the end of WWII.

61 So Much For Subtlety May 9, 2017 at 4:28 am

Are drones that new? People had been building drone-like things for a long time. What has made them useful is that data transmission has become very good enabling useful messages to be passed back and forth. That has been the long slow work of small improvements until it breaks through into something a little bit radical.

Modern encryption? That is cheating. Encryption is as old as feudalism. As can be seen by the fact that we still can’t break most of the USSR’s diplomatic messages from WW2 much less earlier. Lasers are new. But guided missiles are not.

62 Ricardo May 9, 2017 at 5:14 am

1. Drones and robots are new and they allow police and military to do things like kill a hostage taker at minimal danger to themselves like the Dallas police did last year or strike convoys deep in enemy territory. These were unheard-of in 1945.

2. In 1945, governments were able to crack the enigma encryption system. Today, the NSA is on the record as saying they cannot crack the public key encryption combined with state-of-the-art private-key methods that are in widespread use (including by every e-commerce site in existence) and that has big implications.

3. The points about transistors, orbital satellites, and lasers still stand along with their game-changing implications. Stinger missiles would have been very useful in World War II as they were for evicting the USSR from Afghanistan but they simply hadn’t been invented yet. Etc.

63 prior_test2 May 9, 2017 at 7:41 am

‘governments were able to crack the enigma encryption system’

Yes, but depending on your definition of modern encryption, no one has (publicly) ever broken a one time pad encryption system.

64 g May 9, 2017 at 12:37 pm

Correctly-implemented one-time pad encryption is provably impossible to break.

Incorrectly-implemented one-time pad systems have been broken. Venona is a famous example.

65 Alain May 9, 2017 at 3:59 am

The transistor. I know you are saying that computers were 1st created during WW2, but the real jump was the transistor and all that followed.


66 So Much For Subtlety May 9, 2017 at 4:31 am

It is a bigger breakthrough to show you can build a programmable computer with electronics than it is to decide one type of electronics is smaller, faster and more efficient than the other sort of electronics.

Work on the transistor spans WW2 anyway.

67 Troll Me May 10, 2017 at 3:45 pm

The marine chronometers which enabled them to show up for sea battle at the same time may have been more relevant than things like cannons.

In an increasingly automated world where people think less for themselves every day, analogous problems could have serious consequences with respect to the ability of a political entity to maintain genuine security at a reasonable price, unless mitigating or even eliminating vectors (such as continuous and geographically pervasive use of the 20 MHz to 20 GHz photon wave spectrum, as opposed to more restricted uses of these bioeffective frequency bands) conducive to being on the wrong end of that equation.


68 Anonymous May 9, 2017 at 2:23 am

“The Aztec empire and its precursors created an amazing time, most of all for biotechnology — they bred corn out of a crummy weed, one of mankind’s greatest achievements, and without external grants.”

One of the simplest errors to make is to compare past epochs with current moments in time. It is, I believe the root of all stagnation theories. What did external grants achieve last month? Look at how little was done in that month compared to the 9000 year selective breeding of maize!

If you gave “external grants” a 9000 year window, it might look different.

As far as the main question, the industrial revolution may have been an accident, and I’m fine with that.


69 prior_test2 May 9, 2017 at 2:27 am

‘Along the way, people discovered how to tame fire’

Except a proven order magnitude earlier than 100,000 years – ‘Discussions of fire and human evolution conjure up images of cavemen sitting around a campfire roasting chunks of meat on sticks. But who were the first “cavemen” to do this? Debate goes back and forth between anthropologists who claim hominids began controlling fire nearly two million years ago and those who think our ancestors started stoking flames only a few hundred thousand years ago.

Now a new study of one-million-year-old charred bones and plant remains provides the earliest “secure” evidence of hominid fire-making, researchers say.

The new evidence comes from South Africa’s Wonderwerk Cave. Archaeological investigations there in the 1970s through 1990s turned up Acheulean tools—stone handaxes and other implements that were likely produced by Homo erectus. In 2004, Francesco Berna of Boston University and his colleagues began new excavations. They found several signs of fire, including tiny charred bone fragments and ash from burned plants. They also found ironstone—which the hominids used to make tools—with telltale fractures indicative of heating. Using a technique called Fourier transform infrared microspectroscopy, which examines how a sample absorbs different wavelengths of infrared light, the team determined the remains had been heated to more than 900 degrees Fahrenheit, with grasses, leaves or brush used as fuel.

The shape of the bone fragments and the exceptional preservation of the plant ash suggest the materials were burned in the cave—not outside and then transported in by water, the team reports this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Spontaneous combustion of bat guano was also ruled out (apparently this sometimes happens in caves). That left hominids as the most likely source of the fire.’

Obviously, one can debate how far back in time ‘people’ go, but we have been using fire from the very second that one establishes a time boundary of when humans first existed. In other words, we did not discover it ‘along the way’ – that discovery was made far earlier. It is also pretty much the reason we have the brain capacity we do. Again, from the publication of some obscure DC institution – ‘It is, of course, impossible to imagine a human society that does not have language, but—given the right climate and an adequacy of raw wild food—could there be a primitive tribe that survives without cooking? In fact, no such people have ever been found. Nor will they be, according to a provocative theory by Harvard biologist Richard Wrangham, who believes that fire is needed to fuel the organ that makes possible all the other products of culture, language included: the human brain.

Every animal on earth is constrained by its energy budget; the calories obtained from food will stretch only so far. And for most human beings, most of the time, these calories are burned not at the gym, but invisibly, in powering the heart, the digestive system and especially the brain, in the silent work of moving molecules around within and among its 100 billion cells. A human body at rest devotes roughly one-fifth of its energy to the brain, regardless of whether it is thinking anything useful, or even thinking at all. Thus, the unprecedented increase in brain size that hominids embarked on around 1.8 million years ago had to be paid for with added calories either taken in or diverted from some other function in the body. Many anthropologists think the key breakthrough was adding meat to the diet. But Wrangham and his Harvard colleague Rachel Carmody think that’s only a part of what was going on in evolution at the time. What matters, they say, is not just how many calories you can put into your mouth, but what happens to the food once it gets there. How much useful energy does it provide, after subtracting the calories spent in chewing, swallowing and digesting? The real breakthrough, they argue, was cooking.’

So, in other words, no fire, no capacity to evolve into humans – fire is certainly necessary to an industrial revolution, but its importance is in allowing hominids to become the humans possessing the brain capacity to create an one.


70 So Much For Subtlety May 9, 2017 at 2:45 am

I think the odd unspoken assumption is that once the Industrial Revolution has happened, it has happened. It is irreversible in the way that once you take Russia and execute all the landowners, there is no way to reconstruct the ancien regime. I doubt that. I think the Industrial Revolution is a process. It is always taking place. It is always in peril of being slowed down or prevented outright. No one likes radical change after all. What these stories forget is that large parts of the world are de-industrializing. Look at Africa.

I think the likely end is the “the James C. Scott dead end”. After all the Industrial Revolution required something unique – a government effective enough to provide the legal and social framework for capitalism but not so strong, or at least so motivated, to prevent that industrialization taking place. Since governments have become stronger, they do tend to prevent change. Look how hard it is for new European companies to start up. The world now depends on the US for innovation – and how long will that last? Obama was willing to reject the Keystone Pipeline because of quasi-superstitious political reasons.


71 Kevin May 9, 2017 at 2:49 am

So how *did* China get so big so quickly?


72 Roy LC May 9, 2017 at 4:46 am

My theory is industrial production of first cast and then wrought iron which goes back to around 500 BC at the latest.

Having mass produced iron plows and harvestng equipment by itself makes a huge difference, and mass production of even poor iron armaments is an amazing competitive advantage.


73 The Other Jim May 9, 2017 at 10:29 am

>So how *did* China get so big so quickly?



74 Jeff R May 9, 2017 at 10:32 am

Once you master techniques for optimal rice production, it’s an extraordinarily productive form of agriculture, enabling rapid population growth.


75 Troll Me May 10, 2017 at 3:47 pm

Something about 5000 years of continuous history and 1.3 billion people might be relevant.

GDP per capita is still about 5 times smaller than most Western countries. If they have miracles to teach of, we are not the ones needing to learn from them.


76 So Much For Subtlety May 9, 2017 at 2:58 am

6. The Incas also had a remarkably advanced civilization, in select areas ahead of Europeans and spanning a fairly large geographic area at its peak with plenty of state capacity.

I think the Incas benefit from not having a proper writing system. That means that no one realizes how backward they were and all sort of myths can flourish. In which areas were they ahead of Europeans? Cranial surgery with rocks perhaps. I don’t think there is any evidence of state capacity at all.


77 Steve Sailer May 9, 2017 at 3:11 am

My guess would be that Belgium or the Ruhr would have done something similar within, say, 100-150 years if it didn’t happen in Britain. Britain had some unique advantages but I have to imagine it would have happened in the same general part of the world sooner or later.


78 So Much For Subtlety May 9, 2017 at 3:30 am

And yet even with the example of Britain a short boat ride away, the Belgians needed British immigrants to transfer large parts of the Industrial Revolution. They could not do it on their own. Or at least they did not do it on their own.


79 Roy LC May 9, 2017 at 3:51 am

When I was studying Chinese history in the 90s we constantly talked about the N. European Industrial Revolution happening in the Netherlands as well, as if it was established fact, granted this may be an overstatement but it is pretty much accurate nonetheless.

As to missed Industrial Revolutions, Renaissance Northern Italy comes to mind, huge numbers of scientific and engineering advances were made there in the period 1400-1550, and without the French invasion and the subsequent involvement of Spanish armies… if you look at it I think even Naples back then is a possibility.


80 josh May 9, 2017 at 11:20 am

What scientific and engineering advances did you have in mind?


81 Techy May 9, 2017 at 11:42 am

La Serenissima, The Serene Republic of Venice was the most advanced, prosperous, globally connected city in the world for hundreds of years. It was a major producer of cannon (the famous armory), a center of printing and publishing, or arts and crafts, of trade, of translation and diplomacy and map-making. It was stable and- relative to peer cities- quite well governed with advanced rule of law for centuries.

But all that never led to the industrial revolution. Why not? How are Belgium, Germany, Naples or the other candidates being proposed any more likely than Venice?


82 prior_test2 May 9, 2017 at 1:38 pm

Below, more as an aside, I proposed Sweden or a German state/region like Saxony. Mainly because, unlike Venice, they possess iron ores and coal.

It is extremely flip to simply dismiss the role of metal and coal in creating the Industrial Revolution as seen in England. Which would also explain why that part of the European Low Countries centered around Amsterdam did not have its own distinct Industrial Revolution.

83 Steve Sailer May 9, 2017 at 8:59 pm

Netherlands was more like Britain politically, religiously, and legally (due to the events of 1688), but it didn’t have much iron and coal. Belgium had the raw materials but was kind of different culturally.

84 Adam Tondowsky May 9, 2017 at 3:27 am

I read this very good short book on the Industrial Revolution:
The book itself was a combination explanation of the engineering and the economics that enabled the Industrial Revolution.

This was the process it argued that led to the Industrial Revolution:
1.Increased Agricultural Output from Agriculture Revolution enabled 2.A larger population which 3.led to greater demand 4.and necessitated Industrial Revolution

With the same process
the Agricultural Revolution
1.Led to greater growth, 2.which enabled greater financing, 3.which enabled the Industrial Revolution

According to the book, the designer of the first modern steam engine, Thomas Savery, was likely inspired by the rediscovered knowledge of the Roman ‘steam power’ invention of Hero of Alexandria And Savery built the first practical steam engine to work in his mine. The understanding of the science behind the steam engine may not have been too important (the physics or mathematics) for Savery, Newcomen or Watt, but the book made clear what mattered was the complementary things that had to occur to enable the steam engine to revolutionize the economy. I personally prefer to regard this as an example of network externalities, or network effects, but it seems economists don’t use the term in that way

The book mentioned that with the increase in the amount of coal from the industrial revolution which met the increasing demand for fuel and other industrial purposes, the turnpike roads at the time couldn’t handle the movement of the coal. That led to the desire for and construction of canals and waterways that connected all of Britain by water. This can also be called, I guess, a ‘second order effect’ of how the Industrial Revolution required all sorts of concurrent developments. Another example of this, was James Watt breakthrough steam engine that was efficient enough in its energy use that it could be used in factories and not just in mines where the slack powered the engine. Watt’s engine required precise fitting of parts. (Standardized parts came later.) It took Watts and his financier Boulton several years to convince parts manufacturers to make parts more precisely. Also, these parts were often made with iron, which required the breakthrough of using coal in iron production instead of charcoal from wood, which had led to Britain cutting down whole forests.

In these regards, if you look at China and Rome, Although Joseph Needham showed there was a great deal of science and technology in China, China was a society that largely looked to history thanks to the teachings of Confucius. So, the Chinese people were unlikely to embrace radical change.

And Rome had slave labor. I used to think that Roman employers could be convinced to replace slave labor with capital (steam power). but I recently read a book on U.S history from the first colony to the end of the Civil War, and it pointed out just how ingrained the ‘Slave Economy’ was in the U.S South. The book explained how the slave economy basically locked the U.S South economy into stagnation.

So, a modern economy really is a case of “everything connects to everything else.”


85 So Much For Subtlety May 9, 2017 at 4:37 am

This was the process it argued that led to the Industrial Revolution: 1.Increased Agricultural Output from Agriculture Revolution enabled 2.A larger population which 3.led to greater demand 4.and necessitated Industrial Revolution

If this were true, China would have been there before the UK. Given a huge agricultural output from the much more productive rice paddies of Asia. Leading to a much bigger population. And hence a presumably large demand.

The book mentioned that with the increase in the amount of coal from the industrial revolution which met the increasing demand for fuel and other industrial purposes, the turnpike roads at the time couldn’t handle the movement of the coal. That led to the desire for and construction of canals and waterways that connected all of Britain by water.

China, again, has a lot of coal – Marco Polo saw it after all – and even more canals. So it can’t be these factors. At least not on their own.

In these regards, if you look at China and Rome, Although Joseph Needham showed there was a great deal of science and technology in China, China was a society that largely looked to history thanks to the teachings of Confucius. So, the Chinese people were unlikely to embrace radical change.

Needham was a Communist and a large part of what he did was propaganda so I am not sure I would take him all that seriously. A lot of wishful thinking I expect. However trite comments about Confucius don’t really explain much.


86 Adam Tondowsky May 9, 2017 at 10:09 am

Needham’s series Science and Civilization in China is taken seriously by China Scholars and is not disputed by them. Whether Needham was a communist or not, China scholars are well aware of the “China did it first” propaganda.

I don’t think the comment about Confucius is as ‘trite’ as you claim. As I wrote in my post, the industrial revolution took a number of concurrent processes to succeed and this was unlikely to occur in a society that looked to the past.

However, if you are tying to get from me an ‘anti government’ comment: whether or not you believe Gavin Menzies’ book ‘1421’ there is no debate that the Chinese Emperor at that time ordered his nation to look inward and did essentially prevent new technologies and other innovations from developing and this continued until the 1800s by which time China was a backwards civilization compared to much of Europe and was easy pray for England’s superior military in the Opium Wars.

The Chinese Emperors had various means for preventing the widespread adoption of new inventions including confiscation, and likely preventing financing. Some of the Chinese Emperors were also the first totalitarian dictators as they instituted a system whereby neighbors spied on each other, and if the neighbors were found to be covering up for one neighbor, the entire neighborhood would be punished. Not all of the Emperors from 1400-1800 or so used this method though.


87 Troll Me May 10, 2017 at 3:51 pm

Increased agricultural output leads to population growth and then more poverty. This is the Malthusian trap.

If that’s step one in the explanation, it is bound to go wrong from there. FIRST, you need a mechanism to escape the Malthusian trap. Why did higher agricultural productivity lead to investments in technology instead of just feeding more children?


88 Rusty May 10, 2017 at 11:15 pm

The Black Plague of the 1400’s killed an awful lot of peasants.


89 James May 14, 2017 at 8:25 am

Indeed…the rural development of the manor system followed by the black plague was a great one-two punch for encouraging increased labor productivity.

The manor system made a very labor intensive system which was well-tuned to churning out excess for the rentier class to enjoy, and they developed a taste of luxury to go with it.

And then, basically overnight, all social classes were decimated. There was a surplus of capital, and a significant appetite for the production of specialized goods by the aristocracy. Suddenly, there was an incentive to make the most of labor instead of capital.

In other words, population implosions drive innovation, under the right circumstances.

We’re likely to see a lot of great stuff coming out of East Asia in the next few decades; those miniscule birth rates are going to propel them to the top of the game per capita, just watch.


90 Alex May 9, 2017 at 3:31 am

The Industrial Revolution was caused by political freedom and John Locke. Innovators had legal protection to disrupt and scientists had legal protection to publish.


91 prior_test2 May 9, 2017 at 3:44 am

Of course, the pursuit of profit had nothing to do with it – the Industrial Revolution was far too noble to be sullied by money grubbing.


92 derek May 9, 2017 at 4:52 am

The pursuit of profit is the ultimate expression of freedom. This stuff never happens too down.


93 prior_test2 May 9, 2017 at 6:45 am

‘The pursuit of profit is the ultimate expression of freedom.’

And everything single king agrees with that – that is, the pursuit of profit always benefits the freedom of the king to do whatever desired. To use a feudal example, while an example involving bankers in combination with debtor’s prisons as existed during the Industrial Revolution, is another.


94 Slocum May 9, 2017 at 7:59 am

“the pursuit of profit always benefits the freedom of the king to do whatever desired.”

Quite the opposite. The successful pursuit of profit by those unconnected to and unbeholden to the king is likely to create rival sources of power and status that threaten the king’s position.

95 prior_test2 May 9, 2017 at 8:15 am

‘The successful pursuit of profit by those unconnected to and unbeholden to the king is likely to create rival sources of power and status that threaten the king’s position.’

Nobody in a kingdom along the lines of those in Europe during the age of absolutism was unconnected nor unbeholden to the king. Unless the king/dynasty was losing its grip on power, that is – which certainly explains the UK following Cromwell, as the Georges never came close to having the sort of power that Elizabeth did. Lopping off a king’s head does wonders for that unbeholden idea in the view of the masses, and makes a distinct break in British history..

Which also leads back to Protestantism as a way to become less connected and beholden to those possessing power both divine and secular.


96 Slocum May 9, 2017 at 7:15 am

“The Industrial Revolution was far too noble to be sullied by money grubbing”

The IR would never have happened in a place where people widely held sentiments like those. Which is why it happened in northern rather than southern England where noble gentlefolk continued to sneer at those tainted and sullied by being ‘tradesmen’. This, of course, is Dierdre McCloskey’s thesis — innovators and entrepreneurs had to become respected and admired rather than sneered at as ‘money grubbers’ for the IR to happen.


97 prior_test2 May 9, 2017 at 7:43 am

I’m guessing the sarcasm I intended to convey in connection with the expressed noble sentiments was not evident enough.

Of course the Industrial Revolution was about making money, and a society which disparaged that would be unlikely to foster one.


98 Slocum May 9, 2017 at 8:06 am

No, you weren’t too subtle. The sarcasm (and the attitude behind it) are quite obvious. But if you really don’t disdain ‘money grubbing’, you’ve been putting on quite an act.

99 prior_test2 May 9, 2017 at 8:23 am

And yet, no mockery of what prompted my money grubbing comment? – ‘The Industrial Revolution was caused by political freedom and John Locke.’ The cause of the Industrial Revolution was the pursuit of profit. If one wishes to argue that the pursuit of profit was enhanced by political freedom and Locke’s ideas concerning property (which, sad to confess, I studied at GMU), that is a thoroughly defensible perspective.

And I’m curious – where do I disparage the pursuit of profit as a normal motivation in human affairs? Obviously, I scorn a blatant criminal conspiracy like Uber, and the rich getting richer as the highest goal of human endeavor is worthy of much more than scorn. The rich getting richer, like the poor, will always be with us, of course. No reason to fawn at the feet of the rich hoping for table crumbs however – freedom is not bought, though seemingly it can be sold. As the past generation in the U.S. has all too clearly shown.

100 Slocum May 9, 2017 at 8:57 am

“The cause of the Industrial Revolution was the pursuit of profit.”

The desire for wealth predates the Industrial Revolution by many millennia. I could not have been the cause of the Industrial Revolution (or we’d have seen an IR in every agricultural society where wealth accumulation was possible).

“And I’m curious – where do I disparage the pursuit of profit as a normal motivation in human affairs? Obviously, I scorn a blatant criminal conspiracy like Uber…”

You do so immediately — it’s encapsulated in your view of Uber. When there’s a conflict between king and profit-seeking upstart, you reflexively side with the king against the upstart. It is entirely possible to view Uber as having fought against the kings, his dragoons, and his connected cronies (taxi cartels) by an audacious approach of ignoring the king’s edicts, evading the king’s dragoons, and rolling the service out to the people so quickly and having the people value it so highly, that the king ultimately dared not shut it down (which is a pretty reasonable description of Uber in NYC). But given your inherent suspicion of profit, there was 0% chance you’d see Uber in that light. Now I expect you’d respond by saying that it’s not the king, but a democratically elected government that Uber is battling. But I suspect you don’t disapprove of all attempts to thwart the will of democratically elected governments (e.g. the civil rights movement in the American south) — but when there’s a profit motive involved, then — in your view — then the upstart is sullied and the government is right, regardless of whether the authority figure is an actual king or, say, the mayor of New York.

101 prior_test2 May 9, 2017 at 11:06 am

‘The desire for wealth predates the Industrial Revolution by many millennia.’

All human traits have existed as long as humans have.

‘It could not have been the cause of the Industrial Revolution (or we’d have seen an IR in every agricultural society where wealth accumulation was possible).’

Much of the discussion here has been about just that – and let us be honest, somewhere in Europe was going to gain the definitive advantage that the Industrial Revolution presented to the British, allowing a fairly small island nation to acquire a vast global empire in about a century. My personal bet for where the Industrial Revolution would have occurred if not in the UK would have been Sweden, or possibly a German state/region like Saxony. Prof. Cowen may dismiss the role of coal and iron ore in this discussion, but then, he is a GMU econ dept. professor.

‘You do so immediately — it’s encapsulated in your view of Uber.’

Look, Uber cares nothing about the law – having put major effort into evading it using Greyball – nor contracts, having blatantly violated Apple’s terms for apps.

Then there is Uber doing this in 2014 – ‘Controversial ride-sharing service Uber says it has disciplined the executive accused of accessing the company’s “God View” tool to track a journalist who used the service. However, Uber isn’t saying much more than that.

The company told several media outlets late Friday that it had “taken disciplinary actions” against Josh Mohrer, Uber’s general manager for New York City. On November 18, the company said it had begun an investigation of Mohrer, who’s been accused of tracking a reporter’s whereabouts using a tool that lets Uber employees see logs of customer activity.

Uber has been under fire since that accusation — which prompted Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) to send a letter to Uber CEO Travis Kalanick about privacy concerns — as well as another report about the potential tracking of journalists. That other report said Uber executive Emil Michael had made remarks about how the company could spend a million dollars to hire a team to “dig up dirt on its critics in the media.”‘

Bad apples are just that – bad. If I was criticizing Uber and Lyft together, you might be making more of a point.

‘When there’s a conflict between king and profit-seeking upstart, you reflexively side with the king against the upstart. ‘

Excuse me? I talked about the beneficial benefits of lopping off a king’s head – and that was not sarcasm. It is also what benefited Protestant Germany, at least after a century of brutal warfare was over – breaking the power of a monarch is always and everywhere a good thing. At this point, I’m not sure it is even worth continue replying.

‘It is entirely possible to view Uber as having fought against the kings’

No, Über has expended considerable effort to completely ignore any boundaries in its attempt to earn as much money as possible. Including breaking Apple’s terms – ‘Uber hid its fingerprinting of iPhone users from Apple – techniques that would have had any other app thrown out of Apple’s store. Uber retained the information even after the Uber app had been deleted and the phone had been wiped. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick got a personal reprimand from Apple CEO Tim Cook, but the app stayed put, and Uber continues to use fingerprinting worldwide.’ Unless you consider Apple a king too, of course.

‘But given your inherent suspicion of profit, there was 0% chance you’d see Uber in that light.’

Well, that is because I’ve read of God View, Greyball, and how Uber blatantly violated Apple’s terms – not to mention how Uber broke German law, and was stupid enough to think that would be an effective tactic in Germany. I have no problem calling Uber a criminal conspiracy, but admittedly, that is merely based on their actions, and not some romantic vision of a company that does not exist in reality.

‘Now I expect you’d respond by saying that it’s not the king, but a democratically elected government that Uber is battling.’

Clearly wrong, particularly when pointing out Uber’s blatant violation of Apple’s terms. Uber is breaking existing law, and deserves to be penalized for its law breaking. Lyft, which is not breaking the law, deserves no penalties as it is not breaking the law.

‘But I suspect you don’t disapprove of all attempts to thwart the will of democratically elected governments’

There seems to be some confusion – at least in your framing – between laws, and changing them. Laws can be changed – breaking laws as they exist leads to punishment. Which may lead to the laws being changed as people vote – Martin Luther King Jr being jailed was part of the civil rights protests. It was not part of an effort to thwart democratic government, it was an attempt to use it. He did not spend any time or effort trying to evade laws through developing a tool like Greyball.

‘then the upstart is sullied and the government is right’

You are aware that there are more companies offering what Uber does, without breaking the law incessantly, right? To the best of my knowledge, I have never criticized the fairly law abiding Lyft. And if services like those provided by Lyft are revolutionary, or merely an improvement, fantastic, and let the best non-law breaking company win in the marketplace.

102 Slocum May 9, 2017 at 11:44 am

“Look, Uber cares nothing about the law – having put major effort into evading it using Greyball ”

Let’s try some other examples. Where do you fall on Eric Garner — a poor person selling loose cigarettes to other poor people vs the city of New York? Which seems to you more engaged in a criminal enterprise — Eric Garner or the city and its police? Or how about Aicheria Bell. Yes, the law has now been changed. But in the years beforehand when it was a crime to braid hair without a high school diploma and a costly cosmetology degree and license — would you have been on the side of the hair braiders and their customers who wanted to carry out a peaceful exchange without harassment? Or on the state government doing the bidding of the cosmetology guild through force? Would you have been rooting for the hair braiders to escape detection, or would you have been rooting for the authorities to catch them? If the hair braiders had had a ‘greyball’ like system to avoid accepting on undercover agents as customers, would you have thought that to be outrageous?

In the pre-Uber days, many poor New Yorkers relied on illegal jitney cabs for transportation. Same questions — would you have been rooting for the jitney drivers and their customers to get away with their ‘crimes’ or for the authorities to catch them, fine them, and shut them down?

In my moral universe, there should be an extremely high bar against state interference in peaceful exchanges and my view is most current government interference is unjustified (done at the behest of various cronies and rent-seekers), and people trying to evade the authorities have my support — especially because poor people are generally the ones most impacted by the unjust legal restrictions. Of course many laws should be changed, but until then, the most of the rule flouters have my support.

And civil rights leaders? They definitely broke unjust (but democratically enacted) laws — intentionally and rightly so. That was the route to change. Rosa Parks didn’t dutifully ride at the back of the bus until the law was changed, she helped drive change by breaking the law.

103 prior_test2 May 9, 2017 at 1:50 pm

Without having read beyond this – ‘ Where do you fall on Eric Garner’ – my stand is he was a clear victim of brutal police tactics in no proportion to his criminal activity.

‘Which seems to you more engaged in a criminal enterprise — Eric Garner or the city and its police?’

Neither is the quick answer, though of course Garner denied violating the law before complaining about being harassed, which then led to his death.

You keep trying to have a discussion with someone who clearly is not me. Laws are not simply something one gets to pick and choose to obey, and when choosing not to obey, simply complain about how unfair it was to get caught breaking one. And as for people who put major expenditure into devising ways not to get caught, thus proving their contempt for the law and a belief that it should not apply to them, they deserve nothing but contempt if they complain about their punishment.

‘and people trying to evade the authorities have my support’

Well, you are truly living in a glorious time then, as the curtain rises on the Trump Administration.

104 Slocum May 9, 2017 at 4:10 pm

” Laws are not simply something one gets to pick and choose to obey, and when choosing not to obey, simply complain about how unfair it was to get caught breaking one.”

No? Not even when laws are unjust? I notice you evaded the question of deliberate (and justified, IMHO) law breaking in the civil rights movement. Was it OK to ‘pick and choose’ which Jim Crow laws to disobey? Would it have been wrong for gays to knowingly disobey sodomy laws, try not to get caught, and then complain about unfairness if they did? Was it wrong for interracial couples to ignore anti-miscegenation laws before Loving v Virginia? Personally, I count the right to earn a living and engage in peaceful trade with other citizens (and non-citizens) as a human right on the same plane as the right to love the partner of your choice. You clearly do not.

“And as for people who put major expenditure into devising ways not to get caught, thus proving their contempt for the law and a belief that it should not apply to them, they deserve nothing but contempt if they complain about their punishment.”

Again, anti-sodomy laws? Restrictive hair-braiding laws? Nothing but contempt for those law breakers? And how did ‘major expenditures’ slip in there? Is it your position that it’s OK for an unjust law to be evaded inexpensively but that spending money to do it somehow taints everything?

105 Massimo May 9, 2017 at 4:16 pm

The slave asks if the law is legal, the free man asks if it is just

106 Axa May 9, 2017 at 10:10 am

Yep, there have been artisan/engineers in many civilizations but they were considered low, inferior people. High status activities were being part of the king’s court, religion, war, scholars.

Perhaps admired is a bit too much, respect to life and property of artisans is enough.


107 Slocum May 9, 2017 at 10:49 am

“Perhaps admired is a bit too much, respect to life and property of artisans is enough.”

Admiration is better (and well deserved). The idea that the clerisy, hereditary nobility, and warrior classes are more worthy of admiration than those whose efforts have lifted us all out of endemic disease, poverty, and ‘rural ignorance’ is an offensive idea that needs to be killed and buried.

108 Axa May 9, 2017 at 10:57 am

Well, I’m an engineer. I’m happy with paying some taxes and keeping the rest for me. Admiration is optional, property and human rights are more important.

The warrior class deserves some admiration. Today, I don’t know which ones are the most useless: nobles, clerics or sportsmen?

109 Alex May 9, 2017 at 9:13 pm

The pursuit of profit was always there. What changed was political freedom. A few decades before Isaac Newton would have been burned at the stake.


110 So Much For Subtlety May 9, 2017 at 3:44 am

So the Industrial Revolution is threatened even in the US. Scientists will get fired if they say, much less publish, the wrong thing. Look at James Watson. Other people have demanded that politically incorrect scientists should be jailed. And the courts have held that jurors holding Wrong Thinkful opinions is enough for jury nullification.

Locke is not much admired or taught these days. The brief period of human progress he influenced is coming to and end.


111 prior_test2 May 9, 2017 at 3:45 am

‘Scientists will get fired if they say, much less publish, the wrong thing.’

The Washington Post is doing some good reporting on this phenomenon, which has really sped up under the Trump Administration.


112 Roy LC May 9, 2017 at 4:02 am

Of course Government scientistsbrarely have anything to do with the early stages of these revolutions, heck the known Industrial Revolution was almost entirely engineering and tinkering rather than science until the telegraph and the chemical industry.


113 prior_test2 May 9, 2017 at 4:14 am

This is a hazy subject, to be honest, as the Enlightenment also tended to run in parallel with the Industrial Revolution, and both were preceded by a scientific revolution. Watt was considerably more than a tinkerer, for example.

114 derek May 9, 2017 at 4:50 am

Scientists were tinkerers. Each advance in understanding came from the invention of some device that could measure, process or examine, showing the current understanding to be incomplete.

115 prior_test2 May 9, 2017 at 7:00 am

‘Scientists were tinkerers’

When looking at Newton, this is not especially accurate, though like many, he certainly ‘tinkered.’ But his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia has essentially nothing to do with tinkering. Much the same can be said about another notable telescope user, if not quite inventor, though obviously he is quite famous for his astronomical observations. Nonetheless, as fairly well summed up by wikipedia, Galileo’s major role was in creating the framework of science as we know it, even if some of the following summary is clearly at odds during the age of Trump – ‘His work marked another step towards the eventual separation of science from both philosophy and religion; a major development in human thought. He was often willing to change his views in accordance with observation. In order to perform his experiments, Galileo had to set up standards of length and time, so that measurements made on different days and in different laboratories could be compared in a reproducible fashion. This provided a reliable foundation on which to confirm mathematical laws using inductive reasoning.’

Broadly, science is about understanding, not tinkering – not that engineers ever accept that perspective.

And of course, Mendel was a gardener, while Darwin was a naturalist with an interest in biology and geology.

116 LeavingForLemmings May 9, 2017 at 4:48 am

So true

This Kid Was Suspended Because He ‘Liked’ a Picture of an Airsoft Gun on Instagram


117 So Much For Subtlety May 9, 2017 at 4:52 am

Being fired from a government-run boondoggle is not the same as being black balled from your professional association, forced to resign your research position and being unable to continue your work.

Much less being jailed. Which is what the Left wants these days. Not only have people like Al Gore called for it, but Deirdre McCloskey did try to get J. Michael Bailey jailed.


118 VanWilder May 9, 2017 at 5:00 am

Are you talking about the Duke Divinity Crisis?

“These disciplinary proceedings are designed not to engage and rebut the views I hold and have expressed about the matters mentioned, but rather to discipline me for having expressed them. Elaine Heath and Thea Portier-Young, when faced with disagreement, prefer discipline to argument. In doing so they act illiberally and anti-intellectually; their action shows totalitarian affinities in its preferred method, which is the veiled use of institutional power. They appeal to non- or anti-intellectual categories (‘unprofessional conduct’ in Heath’s case; ‘harassment’ in Portier-Young’s) to short-circuit disagreement. All this is shameful, and I call them out on it.”

119 So Much For Subtlety May 9, 2017 at 5:06 am

So many cases are piling up it is hard to know where to begin. The Canadians have closed down a Department because it did not agree with the prevailing view that children should be encouraged to transition. Marquette University – a notional Catholic university I note – has just fired John McAdams because of a blog post in which he discussed a lecturer’s blithe dismissal of the question of Gay marriage on the grounds no one disputed it any more.

The totalitarians have taken over the system.

120 carlospln May 9, 2017 at 8:30 am

“Scientists will get fired if they say, much less publish, the wrong thing. Look at James Watson”. [SNIP]

You’re hilarious-invoking the feeble minded musings of a senile, puerile 80+ year old

Who happened to team up with the second greatest scientist of the 20thC.

Writhing in your agony: fascinating

How embarrassing for you.


121 Troll Me May 10, 2017 at 3:53 pm

Maybe. But freedom does not need to be defended on such bases.


122 Roy LC May 9, 2017 at 4:00 am

I think that it is a lack of imagination that makes the Industrial Revolution seem so difficult. Even if England had not, why isn’t it possible for it to have happened in New England or Pennsylvania some years later.

Of course this is about definitions, if you think the American Revolution was after it started, you are going to have a whole series of preceding Industrial Revolutions, while the self sustaining wonder we still inhabit was only possible as a chain reaction because things like steamboats. And these would have remained very underdeveloped and possibly not transformative without very early American refinement. Refinement that is very hard to imagine exploding nearly the same way if the the technology had not reached Pittsburg, and escaped Fulton’s monopoly, so early. Even the railroad which followed it becomes hard to imagine without the success of the steamboat and later ship.


123 ChrisA May 9, 2017 at 4:02 am

It’s pretty easy to see, with the sole exception of Japan, the only rich countries in the world are either North Western Europe or colonies of North Western Europe. We can also see many examples of where western technology is fully available, like South Africa, or Australia, but where the native population is not able to utilise it in any form even today. So I would argue outside of NWE and Japan there is no way any other country could have developed an IR anytime soon, without substantial cultural and genetic changes to their populations.

So, if the UK had been destroyed by a giant flood circa 1500, this leaves us with either North West Europe or Japan as potential candidates for an IR. Taking NWE first, it is clear that the closest genetic and cultural cousins to the UK are the Dutch, followed by the Scandinavians followed by the Germans. My bet would be on the Dutch, they are strongly capitalistic and individualistic with similar banking institutions, strong shipping culture and so on. After the Dutch then the Germans. I rule against the Scandies as their populations were too small. Probably the Dutch I think they would get to an IR within 50 to 100 years of the UK one, with the UK gone I imagine they would be the ones competing with the French for North America and India which drove the British to develop gun technologies, which were a big component of the IR. Big risk for the Dutch is that they are a continental country, if they started to get too strong, they are vulnerable to invasion by the more numerous powers arounds them, who could win by shear numbers. The UK was always protected by the Channel against this threat.

On the Japanese, my view is that they are not a natural capitalistic society, a lot of their culture is essentially communist, with little tolerance for individualism. Their economic success comes from evolution not revolution (this is the essence of the Toyota way). So I don’t see them kicking off an IR independently, and anyway, absent a “black ship event” from the West most probably they would stay a hermit kingdom.

An interesting idea would be that Dutch in North America could be the first to an IR in a no-Britain world. They would be under tremendous pressure to defend against outside threats which is a spur to innovation, but they had defendable positions, like Manhattan island to retreat to.


124 Roy LC May 9, 2017 at 4:06 am

I think you have a very teleological view of Japanese culture. The Japan of 1500 was extremely feudal and uncapitalistic, the one of 1700 was amazingly advanced when it came to capitalism. I would argue, and not alone, that Japan had a successful Capitalist Revolution by the early 1700s and this was why the transition to Industrial Capitalism was so swift. It is the creation of Capitalism that is the hard part.


125 Hoosier May 9, 2017 at 11:19 am

Japan was still extremely feudal up until the Meiji restoration. There was a lot of commerce going on in the cities but most people were still under strict restrictions on movement and living on gruel.


126 Troll Me May 10, 2017 at 3:56 pm

Where do you find arguments like that?

Japan had to send a mission to English to learn how to make their first loom around 1900. I do not see how that can be consistent with being “amazingly advanced when it came to capitalism” in the 1700s.


127 Ashby May 11, 2017 at 9:47 am

Like China, Japanese history is complicated and filled with intermittent openings and closings, rapid advance and retrenchment. p. 369 Wealth and Poverty of Nations:

Unfortunately, these same imports hurt home industry, including manufacture of cotton goods in Satsuma itself. “Of all things Western, what do you dread the most?” asked the Satsuma Daimyo Shimazu Nariakiru of his councilors. European guns and ships came the answer. “No,” said the Daimyo. “It is cotton cloth. Unless we begin preparing now, we shall soon be dependent on Westerners for our clothing.” In an effort to prepare, the han began to distribute better cotton seeds, purchased better spindles and looms (not yet powered), built a manufactory near Kagoshima, and set unemployed samurai to work there. The result: cotton goods costing half as much as before.

At the same times, Satsuma began to invest in war and modernity. This was a han with a disproportionate number of samurai, one in three people as against a national average of one in seventeen. Idle warriors were the makings of power; also of management; also of trouble. Nariakira chose to focus on the first two. He built up the army, bought foreign arms and vessels, and undertook a program of economic development: a research center (the Shuseikan), an iron foundry using a reverberatory furnace (the first in Japan), an arsenal, a shipyard. In 1855, Satsuma was able to put a steam vessel into the water. In 1867, it opened a mechanized cotton mill. Way to go!

A terrible irony lurked here. Satsuma, by its enterprise, contributed not only to its own development but to that of Japan as a whole. But then it turned against the new Japan. It was technicians from Satsuma, often drawn from the lowest levels of samurai (thus talent before birth), who staffed key positions in the national government of the Meiji Restoration. But it was also Satsuma that became a stronghold of the old order. All those samurai could not bear their eclipse by the commoners, the abandonment of old dress and ways, the usurpation of their monopoly of war by general military conscription (1872). So in 1878 the Satsuma warriors, in their gorgeous robes and terrifying armor, brandishing steel swords that could cleave a body at a blow or slice a floating, gossamer piece of silk, pranced and bragged before the impassive, stolid ranks oaf a disciplined, uniformed peasant army equipped with muskets. And when the smoke cleared, the flower of Japanese chivalry lay dead.


128 Roy LC May 9, 2017 at 4:30 am

The Dutch in the New World, or in the East Indies, were all living in a company tiwn where any local development or added expense would directly threaten the very rigid and paranoid proprietors. Keep in mind that the New Netherlands were the only US territory subject to actual feudal rule, the patroons. And I am including Puerto Rico, which was founded in 1508, a year when Kings still fought with lances.


129 JonFraz May 9, 2017 at 4:44 pm

Ew: We can also see many examples of where western technology is fully available, like South Africa, or Australia, but where the native population is not able to utilise it in any form even today.

So no native African in South Africa uses a computer or a cell phone? Or drives a car? Or has electricity in his home? Or knows how to use firearms?

Are you posting from an parallel universe?


130 Roy LC May 9, 2017 at 4:20 am

There are two different processes here. One the Industrial Revolution of creating ever more efficient machines based on principles of mass production and the factory system, and the other is the system of Capitalism.

The first happens regularly gor short spurts, and its process is often unrecorded, Chinese salt or Iron casting industries, or semi-recorded such as the Arsenal of Venice, Roman pottery industry, etc… these all lead to dead ends because the mechanism that keeps it moving forward is a different Revolution: Capitalism and that isvwhat requires all the finicky conditions.

It is easy to imagine a top down industrial revolution driven by War, say in a state like Russia or in Late Warring States through early Han China which definitely had intense development of industrial processes. But these dead ended.

I suspect that the driver of Capitalism was often missing, but not always. What about the opportunity for non technically difficult, in scientific sense, revolutionary development sustained over many decades of intense exploitation that can create several successive generations of industrialists, who then become used to innovation? The advent of coal and mass production of Iron coupled with the Steam Engine created that, and the massive increase in understanding of chemicals and electricity that accompanied the radical standardization of materials and feedstocks kept it going. Without Newton, Bernoulli, Torricelli, Lavoisier, Davy and Faraday would it really have led to a tradition of progress? And they all stood on each others’ shoulders.


131 blah May 9, 2017 at 4:32 am

“Study Monteverdi, not coal!”

Mind boggles to imagine how low the burden of proof is to give credit to arts for anything and everything.


132 Roy LC May 9, 2017 at 4:51 am

The arts require huge technical apparatus to exist. Notice all of Tyler’s examples were technical leaps. Imagine a Beethoven with no piano, Jimi Hendrix without an amp, imagine Monteverdi without Venice and its ships and long distance commerce or the amazing technology that allows Opera to exist at all.


133 VanWilder May 9, 2017 at 4:56 am

On point! Without technology like the first amendment, you can’t have art like portraits of Mohammad.


134 prior_test2 May 9, 2017 at 7:11 am

Amazingly, portraits of Mohammed (peace be unto his name, blah, blah) existed before the writing of the 1st Amendment – you are welcome to read it about here, for one overview.

Oddly, one place portraits of Mohammed (peace be unto his name, blah, blah) can be found is a place where the 1st Amendment has no force – the Islamic Republic. There is even a public depiction of Mohammed (peace be unto his name, blah, blah), though calling it a portrait is probably going just a step too far – ‘In Tehran, a mural depicting the prophet – his face veiled – riding Buraq was installed at a public road intersection in 2008, the only mural of its kind in a Muslim-majority country.’ Islam may be strictly monotheistic, but it is not monolithic.


135 blah May 9, 2017 at 7:41 am

The key is the word *low*. One could make a similar case about, let us say, religion. And this is apart from the fact that the causation in your argument runs in the direction opposite to that you want.

We should stop irrationally worshipping art.


136 Alain May 9, 2017 at 4:20 pm

> We should stop irrationally worshipping art.


Thread winner.


137 Ashby May 10, 2017 at 10:38 am

A reasonable argument can be made that one of the crucial missing ingredients in Arabic society was the visual arts. Specifically, the science of perspective (used to create realistic 3d pictures on a 2d surface) was the missing ingredient that early Italian renaissance scientists had but the Islamic world was lacking due to the prohibition on representational art. Accurate measurement of scale and size and distance were tremendously useful to Galileo and Brahe in challenging Aristotle and breaking down the Medieval idea of an unchanging celestial sphere.

David Wootton covers this in The Invention of Science (A New History of the Industrial Revolution).

Also, think how critical visual thinking is, things like exploded diagrams and cutaway figures or the science of anatomy and inventions/patents. (DaVinci’s drawings of a child in the womb & siege machines & such.)

So, artists ought to get at least SOME credit. 😉


138 Dub Dublin May 11, 2017 at 3:47 am

Da Vinci was unknown as an inventor or scientist in his own time. It’s only because we have his journals (carefully “encoded” as mirror writing) that we recognize him as an experimenter. In his own time, he was known only as an artist.


139 Ashby May 11, 2017 at 8:46 am

You can use Vesalius if you would prefer.


140 Troll Me May 10, 2017 at 4:00 pm

Are you familiar with the concept of a strawman argument?

For starters, I don’t see how your quotation is in any way related to burdens to prove things.


141 MilitaryIndustrialComplexRevolution May 9, 2017 at 4:38 am

“How long until another Bill of Rights would have taken place?

8. At what point was a European/British Bill of Rights “in the bag”? 1740? 1600? 1050? If the Founders had failed us, at what point would China or Saudi Arabia have created Separation of Church and State, and the exclusionary rule? Seventy years later? Three hundred years? Never?”

It’s hard to say who would’ve written the Bill of Rights first if the U.S. hadn’t, but surely such ideas as Separation of church and state, the miranda warning, and the exclusionary rule would’ve appeared in most other cultures by the early 1800s had they not been created by the founders in 1791.


142 Ashby May 10, 2017 at 10:45 am

The Dutch had religious liberty and a functioning separation of church and state long before the US bill of rights. The Founders got it from the British who got it from Locke who got it from Spinoza and the Dutch coffee shops.

It’s no accident Thomas Jefferson had Locke and Spinoza in his library.


143 Troll Me May 10, 2017 at 4:03 pm

it is a particularly American thing (and possibly more broadly Western, and differentiated from such beliefs in the religious sense that Christians or Muslims might) to believe that all other cultures would have ended up at similar results if they are just left a little more time.

It is one of the major values in learning the word “teleology” for questions like “does progress have teleology”. Among other absurdities, the risk is to end up believing that everything will end up just fine, without anyone endeavouring to make it so.

If history is pre-defined, if there is fate, then why waste time trying to influence anything?


144 prior_test2 May 9, 2017 at 4:40 am

And not to respond to several people individually, but can one consider the Royal Society (or its French pendant) a government agency or not?

The Industrial Revolution was part of a much broader framework going on throughout Europe, and at times, in the form of supporting and distributing the work of scientists, major breakthroughs were achieved – here is an example involving Alessandro Volta (yep, another lazy wikipedia link) – ‘He invented the Voltaic pile in 1799, and reported the results of his experiments in 1800 in a two-part letter to the President of the Royal Society. With this invention Volta proved that electricity could be generated chemically and debunked the prevalent theory that electricity was generated solely by living beings. Volta’s invention sparked a great amount of scientific excitement and led others to conduct similar experiments which eventually led to the development of the field of electrochemistry.’

And to be honest, an Electrical Revolution would likely have been possible without a preceding Industrial Revolution. Which would be an interesting SF premise.


145 Roy LC May 9, 2017 at 5:08 am

The supply requirements of wires and insulators would lead to an industrial revolution shortly. Actually how likely is an electrical breakthrough before the industrial scale drawing of wire began in the late 17th and 18th century, and the vulcanization of rubber didn’t happen until the 1840s.


146 prior_test2 May 9, 2017 at 7:29 am

‘The supply requirements of wires and insulators would lead to an industrial revolution shortly.’

Glass does not require an industrial revolution. Wire is another subject, of course – but drawing wire with a watermill is thoroughly conceivable. Then, after the creation of generators, electrical furnaces for smelting, etc., insulators like glass and wire are not a problem for the Electrical Revolution. Wire insulation is another subject, but we don’t use that much natural rubber for it anymore, I believe. And considering the vast interest the Electrical Revolution would have in such material, one can imagine a solution being found that is not connected to vulcanized rubber.

Just speculation, of course. As noted by someone who can be considered part of the Electrical Revolution that we experienced – ‘”I’d put my money on solar energy…I hope we don’t have to wait till oil and coal run out before we tackle that.” Thomas Edison (Apparently sourced from here – Uncommon Friends: Life with Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, Alexis Carrel, and Charles Lindbergh (p. 31)

Personally, I expect in a few centuries, assuming progress as we have experienced continues apace, people will look back at this age and its penchant for burning things in much the same way we look at public hygiene in the Middle Ages.


147 Alnair May 9, 2017 at 4:59 am

Regarding the wheel, notice the most important invention for having an effective wheel is the bearing. A wheel is a very simple and very common device around civilizations, but the bearing is a sophisticated device than needs more complex design and materials and also needs a proper lubrication.


148 VanWilder May 9, 2017 at 5:03 am

That’s why the best advice is to “get your bearings”


149 The Other Jim May 9, 2017 at 10:28 am

No, “bearing” refers to a compass in that context.



150 Troll Me May 10, 2017 at 4:04 pm

No. Coal was once useful. And therefore into eternity it will be the only way.


151 Ashby May 10, 2017 at 10:59 am

Did oxcarts and windmills have bearings or plain axles? The bearing would seem to be a late entry (1794), coming nearly 100 years after the the steam engine was being used to pump water from mines or even the spinning jenny (invented in 1764), but they are unquestionably an extremely useful invention.


152 Dub Dublin May 11, 2017 at 3:42 am

You definitely don’t need modern materials (babbitt metal, etc.) for good bearings. Hardwoods, leather, and fiber for axles and bearings were the usual material until about a century ago. (Search “boxing and skein”…) Even today, you’ll find many ships’ propeller shafts use a bushing of the hardest of woods, lignum vitae (more than three times the hardness of Oak, and over twice that of Hickory). Natural fibers, including wood, really have some pretty amazing properties that can be tough to beat. (The load floor of the C-130 and C-141 transports use a balsa wood core – it offers a better combination of lightness, strength and toughness (damage resistance) than any other material known. (I started my career doing cutting edge R&D with aerospace composites…)


153 Roy LC May 9, 2017 at 5:20 am

The biggest dead end is technical, of which energy is a subcategory, what if you are lacking the nontrivial scientific insight or material. If you are still thinking in alchemical terms your dyeing industry is dead ending, you need an open path forward scientifically. Our revolution occurred coincidentally just after Newton’s opticks, which has lots and lots of wrong in it and no industrial pay off for more than 150 years, yet all the work fixing that with its dead ends in the aether meant that by the early 20th century we were on the cusp of modern chemistry just in time.

And missing that key material is another technical danger. Electricity without rubber or the lack of necessary metals. What if there was no Uranium ore at Joachimsthal and thus the x ray’s early discovery, or what about timing, if photography had not been invented when it was.


154 Shane L May 9, 2017 at 5:43 am

Historian Ian Morris in his “War: What is it Good For?” argues that the developments of ancient Eurasian civilisations were reversed by the rise of semi-nomadic horse peoples (Mongols, Manchus, Huns, Scythians, Parthians, Turks, Magyars, etc.), who were extremely difficult for infantry-based empires of Rome, Persia, China, etc. to fight. He suggests various collapses in empires like the fall of Western Rome followed from the rise of horse technology and breeding, causing declines in civilisational progress.

It was only the development of hand-firearms that finally defeated the threat of horse people, Morris adds. This allowed Europe, first, to undergo a period of rapid accumulation where the states were no longer being wiped clean by periodic horse raids.


155 Roy LC May 9, 2017 at 6:57 am

Europe’s last successful horse invader was the Magyars, for everyone else it was the Mongols. Guns were still a couple centuries from dominating war and often it was the descendants of those mongols who first used them widely. If anything it was the advent of cheap locally produced iron.

While in China, the Middle East, and Central Asia settled people were not nearly so successful, with the notable exceptions of the Levant and India. In the Chinese case the Mongols and Manchus overcame them only after becoming agriculture based states with large permanent cities. The same is sort of true of the Levant.

I suspect that what defeated the horse nomads was the end of the centralized state and the rise of post Viking age feudalism with its resultant proliferation of fortifications. While it is a cliche to claim it was overextension that saved Europe, it is worth pointing out that by 1200 pretty much every defensible hillock, river bend and swamp had been fortified usually with a resident garrison. If their was a reliable water supply and a few feet of elevation there was at least a fortified manor house. When the Mongols invaded they took very few fortified places and while they approached Vienna all the fortified cities and castles of Hungary still had Hungarian garrisons.

Can you imagine the nightmare they faced in continuing into Germany or Italy? No safe interior communication, no rear area, no supply lines, and even the smallest manor with its supplies and food requiring some siege.

And in the Middle East, their advance ground to a complete halt once they entered the levant which had become heavily fortified once the Crusades had begun.


156 prior_test2 May 9, 2017 at 8:04 am

‘it is worth pointing out that by 1200 pretty much every defensible hillock, river bend and swamp had been fortified usually with a resident garrison’

Yep, you can really see this on the Neckar in Germany. The number of ‘castles’ (forts is probably the better term, except for the pretension of the owning family) is unbelievable.


157 JonFraz May 9, 2017 at 4:56 pm

The real civilizational decline occurred in Europe and the Mediterranean some time after the political events event we call the “Fall of Rome”. At the beginning pf the 6th century it looked quite possible that the various barbarians would become Romanized and a group of Roman-like cultures would redevlope around the Mediterranean. It was also possible the Eastern Empire would simply reconquer the lost territory. What doomed this possible future was natural disaster: a volcanic winter starting in 535 lasting two years, which produced worldwide famine, and this was followed, in western Eurasia, by an epidemic of plague that exceeded even the Black Death in ferocity. Cities became ghost towns, economies collapsed, coinage all but disappears, long distance trade became rare, armies were too decimated to defend borders let alone expand territory, Rome’s infrastructure decayed because not enough survivors remained to maintain it. In many ways the early Middle Ages were a post-holocaustal world in Europe.


158 rayward May 9, 2017 at 6:03 am

Does Cowen believe the boy wonders will spur the next industrial revolution? My comments reveal my view: never in history has so much capital been given to so many to produce so little. Maybe I’m being too optimistic, lest the boy wonders destroy what they inherited. The Austrians teach us that to go up one must first go down, so the boy wonders might be leading us in the right direction even though it’s down. One might compare the quest of the boy wonders to the quest of monarchs and assorted despots for territory: what’s the point? I’m reminded of the fishermen who, after they launch their boat, always proceed to the opposite side of the lake in the firm belief that’s where the fish are. In their quest for something new, the boy wonders and their predecessors fail to recognize that progress is made in increments, that something new isn’t found by groping in the dark but by exploring what’s already known and making it better.


159 rayward May 9, 2017 at 6:19 am
160 DoubtingThomasKuhn May 9, 2017 at 6:24 am

Normal scientific progress was viewed as “development-by-accumulation” of accepted facts and theories. Kuhn argued for an episodic model in which periods of such conceptual continuity in normal science were interrupted by periods of revolutionary science. The discovery of “anomalies” during revolutions in science leads to new paradigms. New paradigms then ask new questions of old data, move beyond the mere “puzzle-solving” of the previous paradigm, change the rules of the game and the “map” directing new research.[1]


161 rayward May 9, 2017 at 6:53 am

Of course, the boy wonders are all about data, collecting it and making effective use of it. The problem is that the boy wonders have learned the wrong lesson: that the most effective use of data is to sell you something, something usually made, ironically, in the world of atoms (to use Thiel’s metaphor). Sure, it’s possible (anything is possible) that the boy wonders will accidentally discover something that launches a new industrial revolution. Possible but not likely. I linked Drezner’s post not as confirmation of my bias about the boy wonders (indeed, Drezner identifies Silicon Valley as a productive form of entrepreneurship), but to emphasize the distinction between productive and unproductive entrepreneurship. My observation about the boy wonders isn’t profound; rather, it’s intended to ridicule. Thiel is more generous, suggesting that the boy wonders should devote more time and effort to the world of atoms rather than the world of bits. But it’s not convincing coming from someone who became a billionaire by virtue of the world of bits, in particular using data to sell you something.


162 Axa May 9, 2017 at 10:15 am

Most of time, the ones who start a revolution are not the ones who reap the benefits of the revolution.

So, it’s good to give to recognition to those boy wonders, because very probably it’s all they’ll get out of work.


163 chuck martel May 9, 2017 at 6:44 am

“still it was a long, tough slog”

Bad metaphor. An individual might endure a “long, tough slog” but not a culture or civilization or multiple generations. The status quo over the lifetime of a human changed hardly at all for the overwhelming majority of the earth’s population during all of recorded history. They had no reason to expect anything different. It wasn’t a long, tough slog. It was normal life.


164 KimILLSuited May 9, 2017 at 6:49 am

“The status quo over the lifetime of a Korean changed hardly at all for the overwhelming majority of the North Korean population during all of recorded Korean history. They had no reason to expect anything different. It wasn’t a long, tough slog. It was normal life.”

Until the last twenty years of South Korea!


165 polyglot May 9, 2017 at 6:54 am

Britain devoted the Seventeenth Century to making the State dependent on Taxes raised by Parliament- a representative institution, however imperfect. At the same time, the English were developing their mercantile marine in conjunction with the Royal Navy. King James II was a dreadful ruler but conscientious in developing the Navy.
Thus Britain had two things no previous Empire ever had viz. Rule of Law and the protection of property from arbitrary taxation as well as a global Trade footprint which later turned into the ability to extract agricultural surpluses from distant colonies and protectorates.
The Dutch ought to have got there first but their precarious geopolitical position as well as the excessive financialisation of the their trading economy handicapped them.
Britian’s success had a lot to do with the role of ‘transferable utility’ in Social Choice- new technology turned into new money which could, slowly but surely, buy itself a seat at the table. It took a long time to curb the power of the landowning aristocracy and get rid of the Corn Laws which made bread expensive thus squeezing manufacturing wages but once it happened it became impossible to reverse till Britain joined the EC.
China has grown very quickly, as Soviet Russia industrialised very quickly, because better than ‘transferable utility’ is shooting people in the head.


166 j mct May 9, 2017 at 12:44 pm

Also, at the end of the 17th century, they imported fractional reserve commercial banking and the government bond, along with, believe it or not, gin, from the Dutch.


167 Hanoian--BT May 9, 2017 at 7:02 am

Kenneth Pomeranz is working on a monograph on why China is so big, so Tyler’s question will be answered by one of the best possible people to do so.


168 Ted Craig May 9, 2017 at 7:35 am

8. For Britain, at least 1509, when Henry VIII ascended to the throne.


169 JonFraz May 9, 2017 at 5:08 pm

Take it back to 1485 when Henry VII emerged from Bosworth the victor. His son was much more flamboyant and is better known to history what with his many marriages, his beheadings and his religious changes, but the elder Henry put England on the path to modernity by banning private armies, making the nobility answerable to the King’s justice, and involving the Crown in profit-making trade (Henry made a huge fortune on the alum trade). England became a unified county with a truly national economy much sooner than any other European state with the possible exception of Portugal.


170 Bruce Cleaver May 9, 2017 at 7:40 am

So, venturing a little off-topic, this is one of my favorite explanations for the Fermi paradox. It’s (likely) hard enough to end up with intelligent multicellular beings, but the probability of developing a technological society seems small to me, and there may be a few populations out there in the heavens that are wandering around a cul-de-sac of development, never quite getting to the point of mastering electricity, etc.


171 ChrisA May 9, 2017 at 2:25 pm

I find it very hard to believe the great filter is development of a technological civilisation. I think that is a failure of imagination. Remember we are talking about millions of civilisations lasting for millions of years in this scenario.


172 Bruce Cleaver May 9, 2017 at 3:27 pm

Well, I would dispute ‘millions of civilisations lasting for millions of years’, at least for this one galaxy, or even the closest handful. I think the numbers are far smaller. I stand by this assertion with far less than 1% confidence 🙂


173 Tom G May 9, 2017 at 8:15 am

” it was sharing knowledge that was the key”
Having a written language based on an alphabet, not icons, is a requirement;
plus a printing press with movable type – a requirement.
Patents – not a requirement; tho some kind of support for tech advances IS a requirement (like patrons, either rich or gov’t).
Rule of law – a requirement.
Effective state defense of private property – a requirement.
Some war, but not too much — a requirement for pushing tech advances (some), but allowing consolidation. Treaty of Westphalia (1648)
No slavery* — probably a requirement. So that the surpluses generated by tech advancement are not siphoned off to the rulers.
A religion like Christianity: a balance of individual rights (each person created in the image of God) plus social responsibility. Most religions are too much social responsibility, meaning support for the current elites — probably a requirement. Unlikely that any China, Japan, India, Asian culture would have gotten to IR take off, because of too much enforced & supported stability. *Possibly most underrated (type of religion needed)
Tradespeople, middlemen, are respected — a requirement, * Possibly most underrated, if respect is required before Free Trade is accepted.
Free Trade – a requirement.
Sources of energy and iron – a requirement (for initial IR start)
Controllable Engine allowing industrialization – a requirement.

Above comments on specific tech advances are tangential, which specific steam engine is adopted, and sequence of tech advances.


174 Bill May 9, 2017 at 8:53 am

All this discussion,

But no one


Industrial Revolution.


175 The Other Jim May 9, 2017 at 10:27 am

True, but let’s be clear, it had NOTHING TO DO WITH COAL. NOTHING!!!!!


176 Troll Me May 10, 2017 at 4:32 pm

Veritably, what was previously useful must be held as central to all things for all time.


177 prior_test2 May 9, 2017 at 11:13 am

Well, likely because it was assumed most people here were familiar with British history between roughly 1700 and 1850, and what occurred during that time span – you know, the period known as the Industrial Revolution.

Along the lines of when talking about the Renaissance, generally it does not require defining the term when the audience is assumed to be educated.


178 Bill May 9, 2017 at 5:29 pm

So. The next industrial revolution is coal.


179 Saturos May 9, 2017 at 9:22 am

You can’t have an industrial revolution without an Enlightenment (or importing from one), and you can’t have an Enlightenment without (lots of) books. So I’d say the Europeans had it in the bag by 1570, when they had both the first sufficiently good printing/information tech as well as seeing the appropriate followon effects to culture and political organization from the Reformation. (Also the same time as the first British coal mine, Tycho Brahe’s clocks, and the first sale of tobacco and opium to China.)


180 Jesse Walker May 9, 2017 at 9:24 am

By the way, when is the next James C. Scott book coming out?

Well, at least that question is easy to answer. In August.


181 Edgar May 9, 2017 at 9:31 am

Evidence suggests that there was actually an industrial revolution in ancient Greece. As the Iliad and the Odyssey illustrate, one of the core features of Greek culture was a ritualized hospitality to strangers and merchants known as xenia. Forms of this protection and hospitality to merchants and strangers would appear to be a common, and essential feature, of many social advancements including the industrial revolution but also, arguably just as important, the expansions of trade across centuries that expanded horizons for cultures around the world.


182 John May 9, 2017 at 10:20 am

I’d guess Robin disagreed the most. Arguing that the phase changes (life, multicellular life, brain, Forager, farmer, industry, etc.) happened at predictable intervals and this there was some likelihood of it happening somewhere around that time.


183 Karl Lembke May 9, 2017 at 10:26 am

On reading this, my thoughts turned to the issue of the development of life on this planet.

Life seems to have arisen on this planet as soon as conditions weren’t absolutely deadly. However, it would take over a billion years for the first living thing to develop photosynthesis. After that, it was nearly a billion and a half years before cells came up with the notion of organelles (first step toward division of labor). After that, somewhat more than half a billion years to develop multicellular life (further division of labor). The proliferation of living things making up the complex and varied ecology we see today happened in the last 10% of the history of life on this planet.

Conclusion: The first three breakthroughs were unlikely and/or difficult. After those were in place, the biological revolution was easy.

So it’s reasonable to ask how long any of those first three steps would have taken, if a meteor had wiped out the first successful photosynthesizing life form, how long would have been until the next one came along? Among other things, this has profound implications for what kinds of life we can expect to see on other planets.


184 JonFraz May 10, 2017 at 3:08 pm

Conditions on the planet dictated against the emergence of multi-cellular life until a good ways into our planet’s lifespan. First off, the sun was weaker in the past than it is now (and it will gradually grow hotter still as it ages). The Earth’s atmosphere contained a lot of CO2 so the Greenhouse Effect kept temperatures warm enough for life– but when the earliest plants (cyanobacteria) started pulling CO2 out of the air, temperatures plummeted ,and the Earth spent a very long period of time all but frozen over (“Snowball Earth”) and life only survived marginally during that lengthy era. Only when the sun warmed up on its own did this frigid period come to an end– allowing the plants to pull more CO2 out of the atmosphere– and fill it will oxygen instead. That in turn allowed the formation of an ozone layer in the atmosphere, protecting the surface from deadly solar UV which had previously all but sterilized the dry land surfaces, restricting life to the seas. The accumulation of O2 also allowed the evolution of animal life (previously not possible without free oxygen). Additionally natural background radiation was higher in the distant past. Prehistoric bacteria seem to have developed ways to survive these higher radiation levels (even today there are bacteria that flourish inside nuclear reactors where the gamma ray flux would kill most other living things), but the cost of that strategy was the lack of genetic mutation– hence all but freezing evolution. Only when the background radiation decayed enough so that mutations were not so common and so lethal as to render any strain that could not prevent such mutations not long for existence could evolution really take off.
Life’s evolution on Earth happened in tandem with the evolution of the planet itself, and the latter was a constraint on the former. It does appear that the developments you cite as occurring late, had to wait until the Earth itself could support them, and the delay was not due to any inherent unlikeliness.


185 Sergey Kurdakov May 9, 2017 at 10:37 am

Exactly energy and information.
if to unwind back – we can see, that Newcomen engine would lead to newer engines ( say in Russia there was in inventor who made some improvements over Newcomen engine after reading books on engines – so books with descriptions of engines were published and improvements were tried ). So concerning when – if we postulate Newcomen engine existence – we get ~100 years to industrial revolution. That might go slowly, but Watt engine really added a lot and allowed a lot to base on it – steam ships, railways etc – all these things will appear if Watt engine exists.

Now – before Newcomen engine – it is paper and printing and also mechanical devices/factories to saw wood (from XVI century Netherlands) and of cause non stopping progress with gunpowder guns. That might give possibly another 300 years before industrial revolution starts.

now before printing there was a horsecollar, horseshoe and plough which made ‘rise of nothern europe’ – a sustained growth of population on new ‘virgin lands’ – see russia which was basically a forest wilderness in vi century (during Dark Ages cold period – there are no settlements recovered in russia during that period ) – but was an established state with many cities by XIII century,
with ships reaching america – another horse driven plough civilization might develop in north america and huge states appear. And America was inevitable with introduction of compass to europe and quite a huge maritime activity ( which was times more developed due to Mediterranean than in china ).
So going back in time – we see – that industrial revolution was inevitable after relatively efficient agriculture could be sustained on huge northern territories. And nothern climate variability itself constantly pushes to make small improvements to counter constant pressures, but the possible timing margin increases when we go back in time. From Newcomen time it was ‘done’, from time of wide spreading of technical book printing it was almost ‘done’ – but could take several centuries more.
From advent of horsecollar/horseshoe/heavy iron plough it was a strong few centuries/millenia possibility given compass somehow arrives in Mediterranean


186 Slugger May 9, 2017 at 11:10 am

Ideas need to be tied together to produce progress. However, you can’t bootstrap off someone elses ideas unless you know what the ideas are. The 1450 development of printing dropped the price of books by two orders of magnitude. This led to the development of the modern world. I would argue that the Thirty Years’ War drove development back for at least one century which obscures the fantastic technological advances made possible by printing. Why didn’t the Maya, the Aztecs, the Han develop technology further than they did? Because they had no cheap method for dissemination of ideas. A handwritten book cost the equivalent of about two to ten thousand dollars then, Interestingly, a Torah scroll is still about that price.


187 j mct May 9, 2017 at 12:39 pm

Is paper a no brainer?


188 Ashby May 10, 2017 at 9:52 am

China had paper and printing long before the West.

“History of printing in East Asia. Printing in East Asia evolved from ink rubbings made on paper or cloth from texts on stone tables in China during the Han dynasty (206 BC–220 CE). … Use of woodblock printing quickly spread to other East Asian countries.” wiki


189 Rojellio May 9, 2017 at 11:19 am

As Mokyr emphasizes, the Great Enrichment/Great Divergence/Industrial Revolution/Modern Breakthrough was not so much a British thing as much as it was a European thing with Britain being the clear superstar and epicenter. As an analogy, Silicon Valley isn’t so much a San Jose thing, it is a global phenomenon centered around San Jose.

To understand what the Modern Breakthrough was it is important to step back and see it was substantially more than just steam power and mechanization. It included a shift to literacy, books, enlightenment philosophy, accurate time pieces, fossil fuels, the scientific mindset, political liberalism, superior military technologies, capitalist institutions and substantially more productive agriculture. The real breakthrough was that society learned how to solve problems substantially better while creating fewer problems on net each year than they could solve. It was a network phenomenon with Britain at the critical center of the network.

Why did it emerge? I agree with many researchers that the key was the competition between states that continued for over a thousand years in Europe and which was amplified with the discovery of 20X more land and resources in the new world than Europe. This led to a partial relaxation of Malthusian pressures and a flurry of new state formation and exit options.

Britain was the first to figure out a recipe involving cultural frameworks, political frameworks, science, markets and steam power. If they had not discovered it, I find it very possible that the US would have shortly afterward. After all, the US was a more Whiggish version of England, with plenty of fossil fuels.

In summary, I assume as long as there were hundreds of competing and cooperating states with literacy and the scientific mindset, that the IR or Modern Breakthrough was possible though in no way guaranteed.

I also agree with above comments that the closest thing in history to the Modern Breakthrough was Classical Greece, which also shared high literacy, egalitarian politics and a thousand plus competing cooperating states. (it is estimated standards of living in Athens were not surpassed again until the 20th C) Athens was just too soon, still too small, and the experiment was aborted by Alexander and later the Romans. There was no way in hell that imperial Rome or China would ever have a Modern Breakthrough. Absent competition, history shows rent seekers, incumbents, priests, bureaucrats and cronies ALWAYS choke off prosperity and progress


190 Meets May 9, 2017 at 11:33 am

So who disagreed the most?

I would guess Robin Hanson, as his ideas for the future have some sort of inevitability to them, so perhaps he thinks the industrial revolution was going to have soon regardless.


191 Brad May 9, 2017 at 11:35 am

How did China get so big so fast? Here’s a few points.

1. The Yellow River is a strangely productive river. The loess it brings down from the mountains is not only very fertile, but encourages the river to unexpectedly change direction, spreading the dirt across the central China plains. (This is also why early emperors always based their legitimacy on their ability to control the river).
2. Central China sits on a large plain that’s very easy to conquer with horses. A conqueror who is strong enough to overcome whatever state is in central China will quickly conquer everything north of the Yangzi, and, because of #1 quickly be imbued with a large amount of agricultural/human resources.
3. Everything South of the Yangzi is much harder to conquer and more mountainous, but it isn’t only when you get to the jungles in the south, the deserts in the north, and the mountains in the west that conquering the land isn’t really worth it.

You see this dynamic play out many many times during Chinese history – the three kingdoms, the Jin Dynasty, even the Mongols. They all conquered everything north of the Yangzi very quickly, and then everything south of the Yangzi through wars of attrition.

Comparisons to the Great Plains is wrong because of #1. The great plains are a lot more like Mongolia than the Central China plain. A more appropriate comparison might be something like the Mississippi river, California or the Seine, but none of those are nearly as large as the Central China plain relative to their surroundings, nor do they really have as fertile rivers.


192 j mct May 9, 2017 at 12:17 pm

I’d say that the hardest part about thinking about problems like this is the natural human tendency to think everyone is just like you, in this instance it manifesting itself in assuming people in other places and in that other place known as the past, know all the stuff you know, when they obviously didn’t.

I see up the thread that someone mentioned that the precision metallurgy needed to make a steam engine existed in Watts time from making cannons. So could the Romans have made a steam engine like Watt’s? What had to be known and understood for anyone to have gotten interested in precision metal casting for making cannons? Did the Romans have a reason to master that? What didn’t they know about to think mastering precision metal casting would be something worth knowing how to do, or, more precisely, that the precision metal casting one needs to know in order to build a steam engine was even something that was possible to do?

One thing that I think is really really underappreciated with regards to its effect on the modern world versus say the Romans, is our number system. Arabic (really Indian) numerals, looked at correctly, is that the system is one of the most awesome bits of tech humans have ever produced, in that in theory one can do any arithmetic calculation that one can do with Arabic numerals with Roman numerals, it’s just so much easier with Arabic numerals, as in try to do long division with Roman numerals, that anything that needs arithmetical calculation would have been, and was, revolutionized by their introduction. It might be very hard for a modern to imagine not knowing about Arabic numerals, and thus the subsequent difficulty thinking in terms of precise quantities like a modern does, and needs to do all the time for modern society to be like it is, it permeates everything, would have been for an ancient.

So even if one is completely aware of the need to completely forget what moderns know that people in the past couldn’t have and thus didn’t know, it’s still pretty hard to do, as in very few historians of such stuff really seem to get the number system stuff, and that’s really basic. It would seem to me something one has to be hyper fanatical about if one might come up with a story that might be right.


193 rayward May 9, 2017 at 12:25 pm

Here’s an interview of Richard Florida, the author of The Creative Class, on the downside of the concentration of the creative class in certain places. What Florida doesn’t see is the fundamental issue of whether today’s creative class is, well, creative. I think not. Consider the creative class of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who concentrated in the cities of the northeast and mid-west, whose creativity redounded to every class not solely to the creative class. I suspect the high flying days of the present creative class are numbered, that another advertising platform is just another advertising platform, that the fall will be fast and hard, and that journalists will be asking why economists didn’t see it coming.


194 Wonks Anonymous May 9, 2017 at 1:57 pm

“I fear what I call “the James C. Scott dead end,” namely that many territories will develop strong enough “state capacity-resistant” units that further Chinas and Romes will be difficult to achieve in terms of the size of the political unit”
But the industrial revolution didn’t happen in Rome or China, and how “close” they were is hard to say. It actually happened in Britain, a much smaller island.


195 Gregor Macdonald May 9, 2017 at 2:57 pm

Robert Allen hardly overstates the role of coal in the industrial revolution. Coal offered humanity a 3X step up in energy density over average biomass (wood). No tripling of BTU density in coal; no industrial revolution. That Allen focuses in concentrated fashion on coal also is not a disclusion of other factors. As we know, coal lay in the ground for the taking in multiple regions around the world all during the Age of Wood. So, scholarship that address other factors is welcome. But Allen’s scholarship is not lacking, simply because he focuses on the crucial input to the building blocks of industrialization, and the heat requirements of steel, and machine fabrication.

Let’s consider a scholar who really did make a mistake: Marx. Marx’s blanket disclusion of coal in his works really does stand out.

If you haven’t contemplated the step up in power offered first by coal, and then by oil, it will be easy to miss the next industrial revolution which in some sense one could argue is happening right now with wind and solar. Or rather, made possible by the rapid cost declines of wind and solar. That these two energy capturing technologies offer a way out of chronic extraction, and especially the heat loss associated with combustion, is pretty radical.



196 JonFraz May 9, 2017 at 4:01 pm

Before there could be an industrial revolution there had to be a lot of incremental improvements in metal working so that sufficient fine tolerances could be achieved. The Greeks had a steam engine– but it was horribly inefficient and not economical due to loose fastenings and the like. Neither Rome nor Song China could have done any better.

The Incas and Aztecs did not have iron metallurgy at all. They barely had bronze. Given time they might have gotten to the point of learning iron working on their own (China and west Africa both did, after iron was first smelted in the Middle East), but that probably lay millennia out in a future that Columbus forever interdicted.


197 Li Zhi May 9, 2017 at 4:38 pm

I’m way out of my depth here (not unusual for me), but:
#1. 100,000 years? A silly argument. I guess we have to start somewhere, but why not 400,000 years ago with the first spears? Or 64,000 ya with the first arrow? (arguably either bow propelled or atlatl propelled.) We don’t really know if our direct- line ancestors from 100,000 years ago would, if inserted (neonatally) into modern technological civilization, be indistinguishable from us. I doubt it. TC just shared a link which discussed the lack of fit between OUR children and our classrooms (and the resultant attention deficit/hyperactivity problem). How well would these children handle our educational system, or even apprentice/ journeyman/ master type system(s)? We should, imho, confine ourselves to the historical period, say 4,000 years B.C.E. to now. (Some argue for a sudden cognitive change to our ancestors 40 or 50,000 years ago.) #2. Northern Europe, Roman Empire, China are suggest to be the only possible candidates for IRs. The problem is, TC is arguing from a sample size of 1. We’ve seen 1 IR. If we knew what were the potential sets of characteristics (ecological, geographical, cultural, economic, etc.) which could lead to an IR (or possibly a more gradual transition to our technological civilization), then we’d not be speculating about coulda, woulda, shoulda here. #2b. No, Tyler. Neither the Roman Empire (which, at least, has recognized geographical and temporal boundaries) nor China are “events”. #3. The J.C.Scott dead-end presumes that there are some set of precursor states (state variables, not political states) which are effectively prohibited from changing into an Industrial state. Hmmm. I’ve no doubt that lacking sufficient resources, population, and economy would prevent the effective development of an Industrial State (Afghanistan? central Australia?) But isn’t this just a (partial) list of the conditions which do not lead to an IR? To the extent they are exclusive, they are exclusive; to the extent they overlap, they’re not exclusionary. What is the reason to believe that the boundaries of a sovereign nation/state limit the boundaries of an Industrial civilization? None, as far as I can see. Again, sample size is 1. #4. Energy? Based on our sample, we can’t ignore the Little Ice Age as being a significant factor, can we? What areas of the Roman Empire (geographically and temporally) or “China” we want to compare the climate of northern England with? Let’s get specific. #5 Don’t assign coal a dominant role? What is your alternative? Gas? Water? Nuclear? Oil?? This is like arguing that intelligence is not strongly dependent on a high calorie diet. Well, the sample size is the same: just us. Although I see no reason water (flow) couldn’t have led to a gradual change to an industrial society, I suspect “Revolution” would be incorrect, and “Industrial Evolution” would better describe a much more gradual adoption of more efficient technologies. #6. Inca’s blah blah advanced civilization blah blah. Shouldn’t we confine ourselves to similar industrializations? TC seems to be conflating “civilization” with “industry”. (I guess both “civilization” and “industry” are abstractions and dependent on the factors we are most interested in (although undoubtedly with feedbacks) rather than necessary precedents #7. Dead ends? There are an uncountable infinity of “possible” dead-ends. The number of real dead-ends is the number of regions which never would have developed into industrial states. This is a counterfactual. The only ones we can really “count” are the extinct civilizations:Norse, Germanic, Inca, Mayan, North Amerinds, Iranian, S.E. Asian, but how about Ottoman or even the Holy Roman Empire? We’ve all the “dead-ends” in history to chose from. (That’s assuming, of course, that Hawking isn’t right about 100 years till Western Civilization is extinct.) How important was the fact that the “place the IR started” was an island? How important was it that the island was only separated by 20 miles from larger trade partners/competitors? Would the IR have occurred if the English Channel was only 5 miles wide? 50 miles? And then there’s the Irish Sea…#8. This is the core question. When exactly was the IR more likely than not? When did it have 80%, 90%, 99%, 99.9% likelihood of occurring? Should we assume a specific climate or geography? How about a geography of the world as it was 1 billion years ago (Rodinia super-continent)? Isn’t is just as likely that it required the Neandertal DNA contribution prevalent in Europe (rather than the more ‘pure’ H. Sap. Sap. genes of Africa or the (different) DNA contributions in Asia ) as it required wet coal mines? It seems to me that we’ll never be able to answer this, and if any humans (should that be any intelligent species?) do, it’ll be because they’ve found some very good (lost) records of previous industrial civilizations. We need a sample size much larger than 1. #9. I’m not sympathetic to this pov. In my view the two key factors are: robust A. trade & economy and B. information distribution. I just had a (original?) thought: wouldn’t it be ironic if the thing the Neandertals gave us was a less “family oriented” species? Perhaps the problem was that the strong preference we give to our relatives, especially our children and immediate relatives was too strong to allow for sufficient trust of “the other” for either robust trade or robust information sharing to occur… (I suppose I’d have to explain the African civilizations/empires somehow…due to competitive pressures? maybe.)


198 Patrick Laske May 9, 2017 at 6:31 pm

There’s a history of the Middle Ages that has its origins with the French, that sort of pretends everything that happened before 1792 didn’t exist. As though the middle ages were some ‘dark age’ of mankind. In reality you have this slow steady progress punctuated by periods of war and disasters and revolutions acting as weights against ramping of progress. If we look at Britain, the first pieces show up around 1500, but Henry the 8th’s destruction of the monastery system led to an economic revolution that acts as a great reset on about a third to half of the economy. There is an great argument that this act was necessary, but it still set things back a couple generations. By 1510ish you have large scale blast smelters and it’s pretty close to the time when labor was specializing in mining, and you have massive land owners for large scale wool and cloth production. You also have the Printing Press. The majority of power is done by humans, animals, wind, and water, but by Henry the 8th you are starting to see some serious change in the economy. People are wealthier in 1500 then they were in 1000, it’s still not enough to support specialization of trade outside of a few small areas. Most remain at risk of falling below subsistence from war, weather, and bad crops, and excess wealth is being shaved off into the Church. The industrial revolution is about being rich enough to support a population large enough that it can specialize in several specific areas: mining and cloth production. Which that also means having farms capable of sustaining such a population.

It’s not until 1601 that all the pieces start being in place: new world crops such as the potato; new world colonies to ship the less productive who can also take advantage of more productive land, and the return of the large scale land owners. 1600 is also about when you see the earliest experiments in Steam technology, the outcome of which took about 60 years to enter the intellectual arena, and another generation past that for the first practical steam engines. These early models were defended rigorously with patents, and also tended to explode. More advanced models would slowly trickle out through the 18th century until Watt’s engine in the 1760s.

Then some distractions happened between 1760s and 1820s, and then the Industrial Revolution SPONTANEOUSLY HAPPENED FOR NO REASON AT ALL. As though the steam engine was invented by Hero of Alexandria in the 1st century and 1600 years later someone decides to put it to a good use.


As for the Wheel, of course the Native Americans knew about it. Examples of it date to 1500 BC. The wheel just doesn’t do anything without cattle or donkeys or horses. The New World horse was hunted to extinction almost immediately by Humans. The Llama didn’t spread past the Andes. The Bison is hard to domesticate. The Aztecs did have a domesticated animal though: the Turkey. Try pulling some carts with them sometime.

The real question is why the Arabs and the Chinese never had an industrial revolution. I suspect large scale cloth and wool production is special, and the British were basically the best in the world at that. Increasing wages caused by labor force relocating to the colonies would have put pressure on land owners of large sheep herds to mechanize, and cotton was becoming an increasingly important import from British Colonies. Widespread printing presses and growing literacy allowed ideas to spread more easily.

The industrial revolution is mostly a revolution of Clothing. Clothing in the Middle Ages was expensive. Today it’s at least a hundred times cheaper. People in the Americas wore furs, leathers, plants or very little. People in the Arab world wore mostly cotton with a little wool. People in China wore silk, cotton and leather. Silk is made by caterpillars and cotton was hard to industrialize until the invention of the gin. The Arabs have the basics of the steam engine 50 years before Europeans, but they don’t do anything with it. Europeans start putting it to use in mining and clothing production.


199 JonFraz May 10, 2017 at 3:16 pm

A form of cotton did exist in the New World and was commonly used for cloth from the Andes birth to the American Southwest.


200 Zach May 9, 2017 at 7:48 pm

There is no evidence of them coming remotely close to a major deployment of fossil fuels. They did burn coal for fuel, and to make ornaments, but seemed to have no idea of how to put the pieces together to make it an energy source for powerful machines. For most of their purposes, solar energy seemed to work remarkably well, and Mexico had plenty of it. It nourished their food and kept them warm.

5. The economic historian R.C. Allen overrated the role of coal in the British Industrial Revolution, and this has kept many people away from seeing #4. Don’t assign coal a dominant monocausal role in the Industrial Revolution, just have an n-factor model where fossil fuels are one of the binding constraints; circa 2017 we still need them!

The stumbling block here is that constructing a steam engine that’s worth the coal you feed into it requires a fairly sophisticated understanding of thermodynamics — at the very least, you need to understand a thermodynamic cycle. It’s not a coincidence that the steam engine was developed in a culture that already had a tradition of mathematical physics and experimental chemistry.

The questions “What is fire?”, “What is heat?”, “What is energy?”, and “What is free energy?” are tricky and subtle, and they all have different answers. It would be very, very difficult to perfect a steam engine without a working theory that encompasses these questions.


201 Walt G May 10, 2017 at 1:03 am

The age of exploration exposed trade opportunities; corn and potatoes, for example, significantly enriched the old world. This new wealth bought leisure; more hours were available tinker and philosophize, and, of course, shop.

I’m sure the comments will explain why this sparked in England.


202 stefano May 10, 2017 at 6:36 am

It reminded me of this
“As Karl Polanyi showed in The Great Transformation (1944), only in the west and since the nineteenth century have economic activities been represented as forming an autonomous system, “disembedded” from the ensemble of social activities. Actually the question is, why did we not remain, like the rest of humanity, in the traditional type of social organization?”


203 Ashby May 10, 2017 at 9:33 am

Though not exclusively about the Industrial Revolution, “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations” by David Landes is a worthwhile read in this context. China had nearly everything necessary for the IR hundreds of years before Great Britain (including coal and massive production of pig iron ), so why not China? (p. 55 in The Invention of Invention begins an explicit discussion of the question.) Nutshell:

The absence of a free market and institutionalized property rights. (Constant meddling from centralized authority, bad government strangling innovation as threatening to central control, suppression of external trade.)
The larger values of society. (Role of women kept them from participating to same extent.)
Too much central control and omnipotent bureaucracy, emphasis on custom & stability. Monopoly on education.
Advances were frequently kept hidden and thus knowledge was lost. Change didn’t accumulate the way it did in Europe.

In contrast, Europe had a number of small competing political states (and small competing churches and schools diffusing knowledge). Crushing innovation was less beneficial because there was always the threat that if you did, one of your enemies would make the crucial advance instead.

Arguably labor saving devices are more valuable when labor isn’t as plentiful.
The Christian notion of nature’s subservience to man and the linear (progressive) notion of time.

“In the final analysis, however, I would stress the market. Enterprise was free in Europe. Innovation worked and paid, and rulers vested interests were limited in their ability to prevent or discourage innovation.”

He also covers the role of tinkering and technological precursors to the industrial revolution. Eyeglasses/optics, windmills/applied power, cuckoo clocks/fine gears and machinery, etc.. and, of course, Galilean science.


204 Mcmike May 10, 2017 at 10:33 am

Perhaps the english were merely the first society to voluntarily accept the dull meaningless existence of rootless unskilled factory work


205 Dan hanson May 10, 2017 at 12:47 pm

An industrial revolution was inevitable so long as te following conditions were met:

– the ability to share information between members of the masses, and to retain it between generations (the printing press, and free speech laws).

– enshrining property rights in law, so that individuals who came up with life improving ideas could personally benefit from them.

– the people having enough wealth to allow a certain amount of social surplus that could be used to invest in ideas, along with enough free time to work on them.

With these elements in place, technological innovation was no longer in the hands of a few elites supported by patrons, but was available to the masses, who were also motivated to engage in innovation. The march of technological progress was inevitable once that happened.

The industrial revolution happened when we stopped concentrating intellectual activity at the top, and opened it to the masses. Billions of brains in competition with each other are far, far more effective than some small number of brains shackled in a gilded cage of orthodoxy.


206 Dallas Weaver Ph.D. May 10, 2017 at 3:43 pm

Tyler, you got close to what I believe with 9 when you described a bunch of mini-revolutions that just added up. You need to note that each of these revolutions harmed someone or some existing interest. For example, printing challenged the scribes who had an interest in opposing the printing press and stopping its development. However, the power of the church who financially benefited from printing indulgences with a huge profit margin suppresses the power and influence of the scribes.

The ability of existing interest to prevent the millions of small revolutions, usually from insignificant individuals, that make up an industrial revolution may be the key element. It may be the prevention of a natural evolution of all the insignificant steps in the mini-revolutions. Both the USSR and the US Military pushed to prevent the transistor from displacing the more developed and EMP resistant vacuum tubes (a major mini-revolution), but an unknown geotechnical company with no vacuum tube business blew the area open with consumer products (why the USSR ended up so far behind the curve). We had a system where RCA was not allowed to prevent Texas Instruments for marketing transistors for pocket radios.

If you tried to make a TI type mini-revolution today, the Environmental Impact Report for the impact of a plant using new unapproved technology and all sorts of very nasty and hazardous chemicals would take decades, with the existing interests (like RCA) filing suits, supporting environmental activists, using the lobbying power to prevent the competition with its vacuum tube business. This is today’s regulatory state giving everyone a veto over the industrial revolution of tomorrow.


207 Troll Me May 10, 2017 at 4:43 pm

You seem to be assuming that a strong central state is required for industrialization to take place. While this might be helpful in some instances to implement industrialization for the umpteenth time, in 30 or 50 years instead of 500, I do not understand why this assumption should apply historically. For example, the trading unions of northern Europe prior to the British Empire taking off were extremely involved in that trading and industrialization process, but this was practically the opposite of a strong central state – it was a loose union with ties based on shared commercial interest.


208 Agra Brum May 10, 2017 at 9:19 pm

When Thomas Savery invented the first primitive engine, it was almost 80 years before James Watt came out with his somewhat less primitive engine. But Savery was able to get a patent, and then he presented on his engine to the Royal Society, which was formed to “College for the Promoting of Physico-Mathematical Experimental Learning”, which would meet weekly to discuss science and run experiments. Shortly after presenting, Issac Newton took over as head of the Royal Society. But with the printing press, Savery also published a book advertising his machine “The Miner’s Friend – An Engine to Raise Water by Fire”

Having a society dedicated to experiments to advance knowledge (rather than a collegium based on the study of past arguments and past developments) AND the ability to print AND patent protection all helped propagate the ideas enough that Newcomb and then James Watt could continue to refine the idea (as the inferior Savery machine still got customers – there was a market!).

Inventions in Rome or China such as this would not be publicized before a learned committee dedicated to advancing science (to this, the Royal Society was in the debt of Francis Bacon), and then would not be commercially publicized with the aid of a printing press or protected by patents. The inability to spread the word or secure commercial returns helped prevent the ‘leap’ from being made.


209 jorod May 10, 2017 at 9:58 pm

We needed Christianity.


210 Christopher Chantrill May 10, 2017 at 10:08 pm

I go with the Deirdre McCloskey innovation thesis. You need to have a situation where the ruling class does not have the power to stop the innovators. Usually, all innovation is stopped in its cradle, because all innovation threatens the ruling class and its power, but not in Britain during the Industrial Revolution.


211 John C. May 10, 2017 at 10:14 pm

In part it depends on what you are referring to as an “Industrial Revolution”. There was a major one in the Middle Ages in Europe that is little-known today, because it mostly used wood as a structural material instead of metal (so few of the actual artifacts survived), and used water power instead of steam. There are books with extensive diagrams and descriptions of how they were able to mine deeper than ever before, and use water power for trip hammers and other industrial machines. The invention of vertical windmills gave some energy independence from waterways, and the invention of the horse collar in the 9th century revolutionized agriculture. Since the guild system was still powerful and water and wind power is not as energy dense as steam power, this did not progress as far as the Industrial Revolution did in the 18th-19th Centuries.

As for why England got a head start on the Industrial Revolution, one underappreciated factor is the uniformity of English weights and measures; when there are a couple of dozen values for a foot, it makes transferring technology difficult (more reinvention than transfer), but England had a set of standards enforced throughout the United Kingdom.


212 Brett_McS May 10, 2017 at 10:19 pm

The scientific mindset (developed by the Ancient Greeks) is the key. With it (the western heirs of Ancient Greece), an industrial revolution is inevitable. Without it, it is impossible, no matter how intelligent and industrious a civilisation is (eg China).


213 Steve Kellmeyer May 11, 2017 at 8:50 am

“The scientific mindset (developed by the Ancient Greeks)”

The Ancient Greeks did NOT develop a scientific mindset. In fact, they were deeply opposed to experimental science. Working with one’s hands was for slaves and artisans (barely a step above slaves). Free men spent their time in thought, not hands-on work. Remember, in the pantheon of both Greek and Roman gods, the only god that was crippled, ugly and constantly cuckolded was the god who worked with his hands.


214 Jim in NM May 10, 2017 at 10:23 pm

This undervalues the importance of private property and especially intellectual property protection (patents, copyright, etc) to the British success. James Watt patented many versions of his steam engine which justified continued investment and improvement. The early versions of the steam engine had efficiencies of about 1%. Steam locomotives obviously have a much higher efficiency. So private property protection is a key reason for British (UK) success here.


215 rktsci May 10, 2017 at 10:29 pm

I wish that the great BBC series “Connections” by James Burke was available. One of the seeds for the industrial revolution was the Black Death – a shortage of workers and everyone getting wealthier led to the need for more machines, IIRC.


216 Joe Mack May 10, 2017 at 10:35 pm

HBD proposes that maybe one group evolved differently. Maybe Europeans are smarter and more innovative? Certainly not, look elsewhere forever.


217 Steve Kellmeyer May 10, 2017 at 10:40 pm

The 1740’s was actually England’s SECOND attempt at an Industrial Revolution. They failed the first time through when Henry VIII demolished the monasteries. English monks had just figured out how to make what is now known as Bessemer steel, but before they could spread the news to the monasteries on the continent, Henry killed them all, took their lands, and destroyed their furnaces.

The key to the Industrial Revolution was the information network created by the network of Catholic monasteries, filled with monks who invented labor-saving machinery so they could spend more time at prayer. For instance, most Cistercian monasteries were built near running water, so a watermill could run washing machines, grind wheat, turn spits for roasting meat, etc. They built the closest thing to powered assembly lines the world had ever seen prior to Henry Ford.

Western Civilization is built on experimental science, and Catholic Christianity, in the form of Catholic priests and bishops, essentially invented the philosophy that we now call experimental science. That’s why Rome, China and the Aztecs failed – they didn’t have the necessary philosophical underpinnings.


218 TBlakely May 10, 2017 at 11:54 pm

For an industrial revolution you need a strong state with good access to raw materials and most importantly, the state isn’t afraid of innovation that might shake up the social order. Britain was pretty much unique in that area.


219 Steve Kellmeyer May 11, 2017 at 12:05 am

“For an industrial revolution you need a strong state with good access to raw materials and most importantly, the state isn’t afraid of innovation that might shake up the social order. Britain was pretty much unique in that area.”

Incorrect. The state doesn’t have to be strong, it has to be flexible. In re raw materials, the reason England was interested in coal was precisely because all the easily accessible forests had been cut down, and the English needed an alternative fuel source that was local, therefore cheap to transport. It was precisely the LACK of raw materials that drove the change to coal.

Similarly, it was precisely England’s innovation, in regards to royal marriage, that destroyed their first Industrial Revolution just as it was taking off. If Henry hadn’t killed all the monks, he would have had Bessemer steel three centuries before the English finally managed to re-invent that particular wheel.

The experimental science which undergirded the Industrial Revolution only works inside of an information network, a widely dispersed group of people who freely disseminate information between each other. Without that information network, no revolution can take place. Every particular discovery made by every solitary individual is lost with that individual’s old age and/or death. There’s no way to build on knowledge. There has to be a HABIT of building knowledge, a recognition that this is how progress is made.

Church councils provided that recognition of continuous, slow process over centuries. Monastic communities provided the information network for spreading knowledge about each small advance:

“”One of the key things is that the Cistercians had a regular meeting of abbots every year and they had the means of sharing technological advances across Europe,” he said. “They effectively had a stranglehold on iron. The break-up of the monasteries broke up this network of technology transfer.
“They had the potential to move to blast furnaces that produced nothing but cast iron. They were poised to do it on a large scale, but by breaking up the virtual monopoly, Henry VIII effectively broke up that potential.””

It was precisely Henry VIII’s strong, innovative state that destroyed England’s first chance at an industrial revolution.


220 C T May 11, 2017 at 12:48 am

There are probably nutritional factors that are being missed, too. Take the Aztecs. They ate a ton of amaranth (up to 80% of their energy, some say) and had a thriving civilization; a similar thing happened with both the Maya and the Inca. Then the Spaniards arrived and forced them to give up the amaranth on pain of death, and that was basically the end of indigenous-American-led civilizations for a very long time. Amaranth seed is extraordinarily nutritious and easy to grow, so it wouldn’t be surprising if we should find out that it allowed the development of the Andean and Mesoamerican civilizations. Look anywhere else in the Americas that had large buildings as part of a pre-Columbian society, such as Cahokia, and I’ll bet they cultivated amaranth.


221 Massimo May 11, 2017 at 12:58 am

Not sure if I agree (I actually thought amaranth was a color and a disgraced PE fund) but kudos for creativity, I suspect nobody ever mentioned this thesis.


222 Dub Dublin May 11, 2017 at 2:51 am

Rome came very near to the IR, but “missed it by that much”, as Maxwell Smart would say. The Roman water mills, driven by relatively sophisticated mechanisms, were very close to those used to launch the IR in Britain. (Steam was essential to the IR’s explosive growth, but was not required to launch the IR – that really happened in the pre-steam era, with hydraulic power, which the Romans were quite clearly masters of. Other complex mechanisms of the period (the Antikythera Mechanism (1st century BC), and others that we have descriptions of, but no surviving examples) were far more difficult to conceive, plan, and design than to fabricate.

This indicates that had that magnificent treasure ship not sunk a few decades before Christ, it’s secrets might have spread and Rome might well have been on the way to an IR as early as the first or second century AD. (Antikythera used crude hand-filed triangular gear teeth – the invention of cycloidal gears made decent clocks possible, and involute gears finally made spur gears a good alternative to peg and cage gears for power transmission. Replicating the AM’s geartrain over even a few dozen units to be sold throughout the empire would likely have led to enough tinkering and secondary replication to produce some fundamental improvements in a reasonable time – a couple of centuries, at he outside. Of course, Roman concrete was famously advanced, and it’s not a big stretch to expect iron reinforcement to become common if Rome had remained stable for only a bit longer. Although Rome’s mathematics was awkward, it’s clear from both practical applications (e.g. complex commerce, and the design of complex structures such as the Colosseum’s likely retractable roof shade) and the calculations of the earlier Greeks, that they were capable of at least getting there, even if somewhat painfully. Only much later stages of the IR require much in the way of math, anyhow – earlier stages are more vision, intuition, and a bit of craftsmanship, all of which the Romans clearly possessed.

Ultimately, it was political and economic instability that took the wind out of Rome’s sails just as it was on the verge of really spinning up its nascent IR. In reflecting a bit on this, I’m inclined to believe that the rise of capital banking in Scotland may have been the key catalyst that allowed the IR to flourish, rather than be stillborn as it was at other times and places. (Of course the medeival university and the printing press for the dissemination of ideas and information was also a significant accelerant…)


223 Dave May 11, 2017 at 4:22 am

You need a large, homogeneous population with a high average IQ before the right tail of the bell curve produces enough geniuses that they can work together and build on each other’s innovations. The ancient world had only one Archimedes, then he died, the end. Why did England evolve such a high average IQ?

(1) No Jews. Since their expulsion from Judea, Jews have generally held a 15-point IQ advantage over their host populations, but always as a tiny minority that hogs all the high-IQ jobs and doesn’t intermarry.

(2) An island just the right size for a nation-state based on horse-powered transport, surrounded by sea. Easy to move goods around; England is fairly flat and nowhere more than 20 miles from navigable water. This enabled mass markets that could support mass production.

(3) It’s really bad for your genetics when Mongols invade and rape all your women. With no successful invasions since 1066, England could discard feudalism and replace it with a rigorous system of private property and a high tolerance for inequality. This was a massive incentive to create wealth — no one dedicates his life to making the Emperor 1% richer!

(4) Eugenic fertility, so that poor people had few children and were constantly replaced by the less successful offspring of landowners and merchants. Average IQ increases when the smartest people have many children and only breed the best two or three.

All these factors worked together, and it still took 600 years for the Industrial Revolution to happen!


224 TBlakely May 11, 2017 at 5:20 am

Wow, that whole Jew thing came out of left field…. and you think it’s your most important point. You’ve got issues, dude.


225 Dave May 11, 2017 at 11:22 pm

Nothing against Jews, it’s just that one species can’t evolve into a niche that’s already occupied by another species. Jews are of course able to breed with Gentiles, but since they chose not to, they might as well have been a different species.

To develop large-scale industry requires an open, meritocratic, non-tribal society, because you need to hire the best candidate for the job, not your Uncle Billy. You can’t have it both ways; no tribes means no Jews unless they assimilate, in which case their Jewishness dissipates in 2-3 generations.

If your country has a low average IQ and little chance of de-tribalizing in the next 1000 years (e.g. Iraq), you might as well have a tribe that can read and do math.


226 M. Rad. May 11, 2017 at 10:02 am

Looking over this thread, I come the the conclusion that there are really two different, but related, questions. The “general force” question relates to what factors incentivized innovation and permitted it to spread, and the accumulated understanding of math/metallurgy/physics of motion that make invention easier; it is analogous to “How did so much water accumulate behind the dam?” The “historical mechanism” question relates to what gateway factors of geography, local culture, economic freedom, and key individuals caused the IR to happen where it did and not elsewhere; it is analogous to “Why is the dam break *here*?” I think it is fair to say that Rome did not have the IR due mostly to a lack of “general force”; too many key inventions were missing so that it would have taken both a technical genius and a charismatic leader to invent and promulgate something like steam power, whereas someone like James Watt could crack open a book and learn how analyze the thermodynamic performance of his lab creation. Conversely, I think it is fair to say that cultural factors (like a vastly inferior writing system) are mostly to account for why the IR happened in Britian and not China.

Which question you ask depends on what you are trying to accomplish. If you want insights on how to make your city into the “next Silicon Valley of X”, then the historical mechanism is what interests you. If you want to know what it will take to bring about the next big revolution (e.g. space colonization, massive lifespan extension), then the general force question is what you should be thinking about.


227 submandave May 11, 2017 at 11:26 am

I think the importance of capitalism and the emergence of a robust leisure class can’t be discounted. After the wars of unification were won, England was a single nation with the world’s most effective moat. After learning the lesson of the futility of foreign military adventures on the continent, through sea power the ruling and affluent were able in safety to shift their attention to other endeavors. This first was in trade and finance, increasing their affluence even more, and then toward philosophy and understanding the natural world. The opportunity to financially benefit from practical application of the learned principles, largely due to market capitalism, made such innovation not only desirable, but a point of pride and status in itself. IMHO, one of the greatest artificial barriers to similar revolutions today is the opprobrium leveled against the successful by many elements of today’s society.


228 TBlakely May 11, 2017 at 1:18 pm

“I think the importance of capitalism and the emergence of a robust leisure class can’t be discounted.”

Sadly, it will be discounted since many academics despise capitalism.

As you’ve pointed out, you need enough surplus wealth to enable inventors and entrepreneurs to experiment. You also need a society were the elites don’t stifle innovation for fear of losing power. And probably most important of all, you need a society that follows the rule of law.


229 Frank Dobbs May 11, 2017 at 3:45 pm

The gospel planted seeds of great power but with very long gestation periods. Alexander Men said of Christianity: 2000 years is a good beginning. The Judaeo Christian idea of man as a being defined by free will, with a depth infinite enough to contain the kingdom of God and created in the the divine image –this creates a powerful structure for the imagination to innovate.

Combine this with compassion for human weakness and suffering. It is an earthquake.

It has always been a religion of what we do not know, what we do not see.


230 Dean May 12, 2017 at 12:34 pm

Maybe I missed it, but I don’t see anyone here mention what I see as the most important factor: culture. Can anyone name any ancient or medieval Chinese inventor or engineer who was not a ruler? Can you name the Roman who invented the water wheel? Who was the Roman who designed the first aqueduct? You cannot name them, because those cultures did not respect and celebrate their inventors and engineers. Since they did not, their inventors and engineers were not held up to their youth as role models to emulate. With the exception of ancient Greece, had there ever been a culture that celebrated non-religious figures that were not warriors or rulers before the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.


231 PNW May 13, 2017 at 11:27 am

“Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded — here and there, now and then — are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty.

This is known as “bad luck.”

― Robert A. Heinlein


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