China kiln fact of the day

At around the time of the Industrial Revolution:

Pottery, for instance, was manufactured in both England and China. The
design of the kilns differed greatly, however. English kilns were cheap
to build but very fuel inefficient; much of the energy from the burning
fuel was lost through the vent hole on the top (Figure 4). The typical
Chinese kiln, on the other hand, was more expensive to construct and,
indeed, required more labour to operate. Figure 5 shows how heat was
drawn into the chamber on the left and then forced out a hole at floor
level into a second chamber. The process continued through many
chambers until the air, by then denuded of most of its heat, finally
exited up a chimney. In England, it was not worth spending a lot of
money to build a thermally efficient kiln since energy was so cheap. In
China, however, where energy was expensive, it was cost effective to
build thermally efficient kilns. The technologies that were used
reflected the relative prices of capital, labour, and energy. Since it
was costly to invent technology, invention also responded to the same

Check out the accompanying sketch, from a short essay by Robert C. Allen, drawn from his new book The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective.  The bottom line seems to be this:

Success in international trade created Britain’s high wage, cheap
energy economy, and it was the spring board for the Industrial

Here is what WolframAlpha gives you for "Industrial Revolution."


For me, the thing to take away is the role of colonialism and mercantilism in creating the environment for successful international trade. A little troubling.

The strong demand for food and particularly meat, butter, and cheese led to the conversion of arable to pasture, convertible husbandry, and the production of fodder crops (beans, clover, turnips), most of which raised soil nitrogen levels and pushed up the yields of wheat and barley.

Wow, so agricultural practice in the not-as-rich countries was suffering from a huge market inefficiency problem? Everyone could have enjoyed higher yields-per-hectare of staple crops, if only they had been willing to grow more fodder/meat? How established is this hypothesis?

"Emerging consensus": what a breathtaking concept - what a wonderful shortcut to the truth.

"Of course, the Western Tradition requires that we deny all civilizations, all inventions, all innovations, all industry and development that didn't come from the West."

Wild and self-comforting hyperbole.

I call a "just so story" on this one. It was also the case that Europeans for centuries in the Middle Ages yoked their draft animals around the neck. This meant when the animal exerted any force at all, the windpipe was constricted -- this drastically lowered the productivity of draft animals.

The Chinese, on the other hand, had already figured out how to build a circular collar that would not constrict the windpipe of the animal. It is a very simple idea that Europeans never figured out on their own even given several hundred years -- they only adopted this technology from China after the Mongol invasions exposed them to it directly. Was this because the relative price of animal energy in Europe was so much lower than in China? Very doubtful considering how quickly the technology spread in Europe once it was introduced directly.

We suffer from a Hayekian knowledge problem here.

We are unlikely to ever know why the kilns were different. They existed in different economic contexts certainly. That doesn't necessarily mean that one particular type wasn't better and wouldn't have been adopted by the other group.

To actually understand this we must consult such a profusion of facts that we are unlikely to even to uncover the truth. Measuring the aggregate output of goods like steel or pottery is, as usual, mostly useless and generally confusing. Trying to solve problems like this is like trying to plan a centrally planned economy, except in reverse, it is impossible to do well.

To demonstrate the problem, consider Sbard's suggestion about ovens. Certainly ovens are common in Europe and have been for a long time. However there are so many other differences. For example, in Europe in the 19th and 18th centuries ovens were generally part of fires made to heat rooms. The fire was often needed anyway. An oven is only inefficient if you're house is already heated in some other way.

"And the Chinese economy was the largest in the world until European colonial conquest produced the kind of free trade that involved the English pushing drugs into China."

Under that logic, you must blame Mexico for America's drug problem. Sometimes the level of left-wingery in these comments is breath-taking.

I see Travis Fast's website is called "Relentlessly Progressive Political Economy".

A progressive who understands Hayekian knowledge problems, that's progress.

Yes Travis. The point is not only one of German tradition but also of Scottish and classical political economics in general. Adam Smith said similar things.

Marx did not fully accept the point though in terms of businesses. The tendency for the rate of profit to fall can only come about if knowledge is similar in all businesses. There need to be no entrepreneurs who have competitive advantage. This is unrealistic.

I don't know very much about kilns I'm afraid. Except a little bit about the bottle kilns I mentioned above. My parents went to university in Stoke about forty years ago. At that time there were still many of them there.

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