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Welcome to, rationally speaking, the podcast, where we explore the borderlands between reason and nonsense. I'm your host, Julia Gillard, and it's my pleasure to introduce today's guest, Professor Gregory Clark. Gregory is a economic historian at the University of California, Davis, and the author of the excellent book, A Farewell to Arms A Brief Economic History of the World, along with other books. But I think he's most known, at least among my circles, for a farewell to Arms.
I reached out to Gregory because I've recently become obsessed with this mystery of why the industrial revolution occurred in the time and place that it did, namely England, in the late 18th century. I'm not alone in this obsession. This question is one of the big holy grails of economic history, in large part because the Industrial Revolution was just so uniquely transformative for all of the major events that that a lot of historians ink has been spilled over like the fall of the Roman Empire or the Black Death, etc.
None of them really had much impact on these sort of big, long run trends in measures of human well-being like health and wealth, except for the Industrial Revolution.
So is the only sort of major and lasting change to what it's like to be a human on Earth. So this is what Greg is one of the leading scholars on this topic and has also written some very nice overviews of the different theories that have been proposed and their strengths and weaknesses. So that's what we're going to talk about today. And that's what I'm that's why I'm excited to have great on the show. Greg, welcome to rationally speaking. Thank you very much.
It's great to be here.
I guess my first question for you would just be, what do you think of my bold introductory claim that basically nothing else in history had any any major and lasting impact on human well-being other than the Industrial Revolution?
I think that's actually precisely correct. And indeed, I've been once when I was giving a talk, a scholar of 13th century Italy asked me, he said to basically, are you saying that everything I do really has no impact on anything? And I had to think about it for a little bit and then see the answer, I think is yes, the world is essentially the same until the industrial revolution arises and then all of the world is forever changed.
Yeah. And so the only outstanding problem in the history of the world really is why did this event occur? Why was it delayed so long? Why did it occur on a tiny island off the coast of Europe? Why did it occur in a relatively remote section of that tiny island? And that's a question that has bedeviled and kind of also spurred on economic history ever since the industrial revolution. That's right. That's right.
It's not just a question that demands an answer in the sense that, you know, if it had happened anywhere, we would want to know why it happened there. But there are these additional factors that make that particular at least that particular place. I don't know about that particular time. Surprising in the sense that England was was, I don't know, one fiftieth the size of China and India at the time, roughly speaking, and and relatively remote geographically.
So I guess one piece of the causal puzzle that might be good to start with is what role the scientific revolution played in the industrial revolution, because there's this relatively straightforward story that I've always believed since I can remember thinking about this topic, which is that, you know, we had the Enlightenment, the scientific revolution, and there were all these advancements like Newtonian physics and new scientific instruments being developed, like the microscope. And those scientific discoveries in turn made possible all of the practical technologies that fueled the industrial revolution.
How much truth is there to that story?
Well, unfortunately, it's actually quite difficult to link the industrial revolution in any direct way to the scientific revolution. I mean, the first problem you're going to run into is that the scientific revolution was well underway by the mid 17th century, more than 100 hundred years before the Industrial Revolution. And, you know, in history, time gets compressed, but that's the equivalent of three and a half generations. And yet initially, as far as we can tell, it had really very little impact on that kind of breakthrough towards relatively rapid technological advance.
And for example, the Netherlands was the richest country in Europe in the 17th century, at the forefront of the scientific revolution the Netherlands never experience. That transformative growth and instead it kind of gently stagnated as we head into the 18th century and actually began to become more agricultural as we moved into the 18th century. And so, as I see that, there's a just a timing problem to start with. A second problem with the scientific revolution is we know a lot about the details of who transformed England in the Industrial Revolution period.
And there were some important engineers and scientists. James, what was the instrument maker for Glasgow University? And he helped improve significantly the steam engine. But most of that advance was concentrated in cotton and textiles and then later in other textiles and the innovators, there are almost entirely people without any scientific training or at least, you know, even in the case of Courtright who invented the power room, he was actually trained as a classical scholar and mathematician. He had no practical scientific training and allegedly he'd never seen anyone with before.
He set out to actually devise a parallel. He just happened to be a vicar in the textile area and was talking to his parishioners. And they said, well, someone should now invent a parallel because the wages of weavers have gone up extraordinarily. And so it really is very hard at that kind of practical level to connect the innovators to that scientific revolution. Now, some people, such as John, work here, who's a big proponent of the idea that this really is an intellectual transformation that took place in Europe.
He wants to argue that that kind of elite knowledge actually diffused down to a surprising extent through the population in a country like Britain, that there was a lot of popular interest in science, there was a lot of interest in going to lectures and demonstrations and that basically somehow you've got this kind of widespread basic scientific literacy or basic idea that you could do things scientifically.
Yeah, just just to clarify, those those are two different things, right? Scientific literacy in the sense of knowing facts about science. Being familiar with scientific discoveries, on the one hand, is different from a sort of scientific mindset or respect for science. Like I mean, when I talked about scientific discoveries sort of at the object level, like Newtonian physics. But there were also just advancements in thinking about the scientific method or, you know, the idea that we can go out and discover things about the world at all, that we can experiment and learn things.
So I could maybe see more of a role for that general attitude diffusing even if the specific knowledge wasn't diffusing.
Yeah, I think the idea would have to be that people had got the idea of experiment and and also that that basically you can change things that that there's lots of possibilities for improvement. I mean, one thing that example is very surprising is that agriculture in Britain was not really transformed until quite late in the industrial revolution and it was transformed relatively quickly once people started actually doing experiments. But they only started really doing that about 1842. And you just wonder why no one in the 18th century said, I'm going to take my farm field and plot a I'm going to do the following and plot B, I'm going to do something different and then let's see what works.
And so, as I say, it is interesting that there you don't see a lot of that kind of mindset. Now, it is the case that Stevenson, who is the inventor of the modern railway, actually was a culinary engineer. He was actually self-taught. He was illiterate as a young adult and then became a main engineer, became self-taught, became literate, and actually did perform experiments in terms of developing the railway and figuring out could you actually have steam engines running on iron rails and what would you have to do about the gradient?
But as I say, the mystery of the Industrial Revolution is that the majority of the innovation was it was made by people who had no formal connection to science and no formal scientific education and who were just instead kind of tinkerers and mechanics and and really had no access to that kind of high level scientific knowledge. Right. And so, again, it's very hard then to know. It's hard to disprove that this wasn't connected to high level scientific advance, but it's very hard to show that there really was any strong connection.
And another problem that you're going to run into as well then, of course, is that Britain was not alone in terms of having the scientific revolution. I mean, the French. I also have an enlightenment, and so the question then would come, why was Britain so much more successful in the Industrial Revolution period? There are many more French people than there are British people in that period. Why didn't this spread all across northern Europe and result in multiple centers of innovation?
So this is probably a good place to zoom out and talk about some of the other major categories of theory. But before we do that, I realize we haven't exactly defined what constitutes the industrial revolution. So let me take a stab at it and you can tell me if this is a good definition. I would say the Industrial Revolution is is distinguished by being the first period of kind of continuous growth in efficiency, in being able to produce more output from the same amount of input.
Is that fair?
That is exactly correct definition. I mean, that is what makes the Industrial Revolution period different. So the hundred years of the Industrial Revolution are different from any previous period in human history in terms of sustained improvement in output per unit of input. And then we can go further and say that that improvement came through development of new techniques. And and so it's I say it's very easy then to identify exactly what the Industrial Revolution looks like. And it's also easy to see that that process has continued up until the present day as just a normal part of economic life.
But it just didn't exist in the world before the industrial revolution. And now another thing that makes the Industrial Revolution so hard to actually explain is that a lot of the innovations that were initially made were actually very simple. And so, you know, the earliest innovations in textiles were simple enough that the ordinary mechanic could actually copy the devices. And it was very hard to actually earn income from making these innovations because it was so easy to copy these. But again, it makes it the mystery of, well, why did we wait till 1770 for this innovation all the greater, because it would seem that even in medieval Europe or in Roman times, people could have made some of these similar types of innovation.
And again, it actually gets back to another idea, which is that maybe there was actually kind of a kind of subterranean development of just the level of precision and technique that craftsmen had in the society that made it then possible that then now you have a hundred thousand potential innovators in England, people who have the kind of ability to work wood and metals and fabric, where now this becomes possible. But again, it's very hard to quantify. Well, how do we know that a craftsman in 1750 is that much better than a craftsman?
Back in thirteen hundred, when you used the phrase subterranean, did you mean sort of below our ability to to observe it?
That's right. That's right. Yeah. OK, but but as I say, there has been some recent work that really emphasises that even before the formal industrial revolution, they were in some areas actually becoming surprisingly better able to do things. And so in Adam Smith, watches are cited as a classic kind of industry of the Industrial Revolution period. But until recently, we haven't really known much about how much technological advance there was in watchmaking. We just didn't have the data.
But there's an interesting new paper by some colleagues in Ireland, Cormac Arada and Morgan Kelly, where they used the records of the Old Bailey in London to actually estimate how much productivity growth there was in watchmaking in the 100 years leading up to the Industrial Revolution. And they can do that because watches were very frequently stolen. They were the iPhone of the 18th century. So when people got drunk in pubs or had assignments with prostitutes, they lost their pocket watch and then they were valued in court.
And so you get all these statements out, records on what's the price of a watch and what type of money is right. And they can use that to show that the efficiency with which people could make watches probably almost doubled, I think, in the period 100 years leading up to the Industrial Revolution. How interesting. And it's suggesting that even though in other ways the society looks kind of static, static, that here watches are actually quite detailed and quite elaborate elements of.
Go into making these things, and so it's saying that, look, you had you had this large scale industry where people really are innovating just as later came in, cotton, textiles, and it didn't have a big kind of economy wide impact. But it is suggesting that the industrial revolution is actually much more stretched out, that there are kind of maybe accidental elements that actually focuses on the particular year 1770, because, you know, it turns out an innovation in watches can't do that much for you because it's still a luxury item.
It's relatively modest in expenditure. Clothing is a very substantial share of people's expenditures, maybe 10 percent. And so when you innovate and clothing, you affect the economy much, much more. But there's some arguments that maybe that's just a kind of an accidental element.
And so one of the things that actually started the accident being that innovation came first in watches, which is a relatively small industry and not in textiles.
That's right. And it turns out watches are not the only example. I mean, the introduction of printed books was as dramatic a productivity advance in that area as textiles were later. But when did that happen? And that occurred around 14, 50. And but it turned out that that had no measurable impact on the economic output of those societies because no one now. Yes. And interesting. And we haven't invented yet the novel. We hadn't had Shakespeare yet.
And so, you know, and so there is this other kind of and that's why it's so hard to explain the industrial revolution, because there are so many potential interesting ideas. And one is that there's just this huge like element that all of these different innovations were actually occurring long before the formal industrial revolution. But it just took the element of that. Someone stumbled on something that really mattered a lot to people, and that's why we did it from that point.
But if you dated the Industrial Revolution, for example, by someone who only consumed books, right. Who was a scholar or something, they might say, no, no, no, it's fourteen fifty. That's when the world dramatically changed.
I mean, do we really have to immediately jump to luck? There should be some explanation for why these innovations happened in the sector as they happened in or in England as opposed to in other countries. That might have to do with the amount of demand or something like that, like maybe England. You know, they were going around being all imperial and they built this empire. And so maybe by the time there were all these innovations in the textile industry that happened right around the time that they had developed this huge market of people around the world that they could sell cheap cotton to, for example.
Yet I'm not saying that there's a belief that there is a reason for the industrial revolution, but it's a unique event in history. And so the puzzle does actually arrive. Will we ever know enough to be able to see for sure what that reason was? And, you know, but it also, I think, is the case that there are going to be chance events in the course of the industrial revolution as well. And so, for example, why was textiles transformed in the way it was?
Well, it turns out that the transformation first occurred in cotton, textiles, cotton, textiles didn't exist really in any scale in medieval Europe. But it turns out the cotton, it's easier to transform that as a fabric than lots of other things like wool or linen. And so there could be this connection then that basically what was happening, the British were taking over much of India. They were developing a trade with India. They're importing all of these cotton cloths, their high value, and it creates this opening.
And then at the same time, the Americans are developing the slave system in the south and are improving enormously the efficiency with which they can produce cotton that reduces the cost of the material to consumers in Britain. And so, I mean, as I say, there are all of these elements that are in some sense may help explain why the innovation occurred at that time and also may explain why it had such a huge impact and where you could see in some sense, this just a kind of historical chance element, right?
Yeah, it was this important chance element that the South was a good place to grow cotton. It was important chance. Elements of Britain had opened up this substantial trade in cotton goods with India. But again, we just we just don't know for sure. Another thing I should say is we did the industrial revolution, as I say, from 70, say 70, because of the that's the period when you start getting sustained growth of efficiency. The people first.
Mechanized spinning were actually the Italians in the 17th century, but the mechanized silk spinning and they couldn't generalize that to and silk, it turns out, is the easiest of all to do this because it has very long strands of silk. So it's actually relatively easy to spin, but it's a very limited market, is a luxury product. And actually, interestingly, the Italians had these silk mills. They were trying to protect their technology. The British actually sent spies who had technology in the early 18th century from the Italians.
And so, again, it's another element that comes into the story in Britain. When you mechanized cotton spinning, they actually already had a model of this and about. And in fact, the first attempt to mechanized cotton spinning occurred within 10 years of that Italian technology, stolen Italian technology actually arriving in Britain. And so, again, as it has these tantalising elements of saying, well, maybe it really was this kind of European wide thing, the industrial revolution.
But what happens is the British, because of their imperial activity, because of the particular location, because of the strength of their navy, are able to take this kind of upturn that's going on in technology all across Europe and to transform their economy through that. And so there's going to always then be this issue of what is the precise timing. And the other thing I should say is the timing at 1770 in Britain makes it very, very difficult to explain the industrial revolution.
And the reason for that is that Britain at that time was institutionally a very stable society and had essentially had very little institutional change in the previous 80 years. And so when you're trying to explain this event, it's occurring against the kind of an unchanged background of a society that's relatively commercial, still kind of at least half agricultural stable institutions, a very small government that mainly exists to fight wars abroad. You have very stable wages within the society. They're really not changing.
The cost of capital is not changing. And as it's in the economic environment, which just looks very flat, and that's suddenly in the middle of all of this, you've got this transforming event occurring. And so that's why I see, you know, in some sense, if we could push back the industrial revolution to the 17th century, it would be more plausible to marry it then with the intellectual and scientific advances that were going on in this time.
And also we could find that it wasn't just a British phenomenon. It was also shared that, you know, the Italians were doing their part. Again, it would make it easier to kind of marry with the idea that there really was this kind of intellectual scientific advance that that's pushing underneath the industrial revolution.
So does that mean that the two main theories or categories of theory that are consistent with this pattern of stability, stability, stability than power are either accident or some kind of, as you were saying, subterranean variable that was, in fact building on itself below our ability to observe it until it reached some tipping point and set things off?
Yes. I mean, so basically, those are the two ideas that they really this is a cosmic accident or that there really is something that's actually changing about the society that we're just not particularly good at observing and that a measure is not capturing. Now, in my own book, I have an argument that it may be people who are actually changing. And the idea here is that pre-industrial demography in a lot of Europe had this interesting feature that it's the wealthy and the successful who are producing most of the children in the society, that fertility is very strongly balanced in favour of the upper classes.
And that that's actually and it turns out I have a letter book which looks at this. It turns out that social status is very strongly inherited. And also there's a lot of genetics involved in that inheritance as well.
Right. And to clarify, when when we talk about it being inherited, we aren't necessarily talking about genetic influence. It could be. We're just talking about a correlation between the social status of the later generation and the previous one.
So so it turns out that, yes, there could be many different mechanisms of inheritance. We do observe it strongly inherited. But it's also the case that there's actually good evidence from a variety of sources that the. You already have people's social status is actually genetically determined, right? And so the debate really is about is it 50 percent or 100 percent? Because I mean, twin studies, studies of adoption's studies of the pattern of correlation amongst relatives in terms of their social outcomes.
They do suggest that there is actually has to be a significant genetic component. And so anyway, so the idea of my book then was that will maybe what's actually happening is that the society by kind of demographic means, is essentially becoming a more middle class society and that a lot of these middle class people are eventually forced down into the laboring classes because there's only so many upper class and middle class jobs available in the society, but that essentially you have the kind of demographic imperative change, the kind of the structure of your society, and changed even at the lower level that people working in the society changed towards different kinds of imperatives.
I mean, that the thing that made people successful in business is now being transmitted into a wider class of society, and that that's the kind of the subterranean force that's operating. Right. So, I mean, that seems to help at the timing question of why we see that pattern, but why why England and not other, say, other European countries just to keep the comparison.
Yeah, and I'm afraid that that doesn't help that much because these other societies, northern Germany, the Netherlands, they all seem to have had the same pattern. China also had this pattern in Japan also had this pattern. And and so so it is an interesting feature, though, that a lot of discussion about the industrial revolution assumes that basically the people in eighteen hundred who have the industrial revolution are essentially exactly the same people as in one Ayda or 5000 B.C. genetically at the same rate.
Right. And have the same capacities that nothing will be different. Now, the interesting thing is all the animals that people are associated with in domesticated animals have all changed dramatically, but the people are assumed to be the one remaining wild animal in society. And if you could. But there's actually beginning to accumulate some good evidence that people did actually adapt genetically towards the new environments that they had created for themselves through the earlier Neolithic Revolution, which established agriculture.
And for example, it's now known that genetically northern Europeans are somewhat taller than southern Europeans and that that's actually a change that occurred within the past five thousand years, driven by some kind of selective survival. So it's just kind of interesting side issue. But another kind of element in the story is that it's not obvious that, you know, that when you're trying to explain the industrial revolution, you can take what economists normally like to take as a given, which is everyone's the same everywhere.
It's just a matter of the incentives and the interactions and the knowledge that they have, what the outcome is going to be. But it turns out I think it's another it's on the table at least another question that sits there, which is is part of the dilemma of the industrial revolution, because people in some sense had to evolve to adapt to the new world they had created. Are we actually, you know, evolved capitalists? And that actually helps explain why we behave differently.
I mean, one interesting feature of modern people is that since the Industrial Revolution, we're about 20 times wealthier than we used to be. We could have consumed a lot of that wealth in the form of more leisure. We could have more poetry, more art. Right. Instead, we chose to consume it all as material consumption. We were almost as much as we did in eighteen hundred. We live in impossibly big houses. We drive impossibly big cars.
Right. It is really interesting to look at some of the science fiction or, you know, speculative visions of what the future would be like when we had all this incredibly productive new technology. And the story is usually involve tons of leisure. The others are all or all just assumed like, well, of course, if we can be incredibly productive, why would we keep working? And yet somehow we keep working.
Yes. And so, as I say, there is some kind of possibility that that's not a natural behavior. So if you actually it's interesting, if you look across different animal species, a lot of them are sedentary. For most of the time, they're just doing nothing. And if. You go to hunter gatherer societies, people spend a lot more time just doing nothing in those societies, but somehow within the pre-industrial period, by the time you get to eighteen hundred, the average British male is working about three thousand hours a year and they don't do any domestic work in that period.
But, you know, and if we look at modern males and stuff that we work less in the workplace, but we do more commuting, we do more childcare, we do more home care. And so, as I said, it's a very high labor input society, the the industrial revolution. And again, that's something that marks it out as being pretty different from the earliest Hunter-Gatherer societies. And again, raises this issue about, well, you know, was there significant change in terms of the way people behaved as we move towards this new world?
Can we maybe start to to explain why this happened in England or why, if this demographic change were happening across all of Europe, say, or, you know, all of the world to some extent, why we saw the striking results of that change in England, but not elsewhere, maybe we can start to close that gap by bringing in some second factor like you need both changed demographics or culture and some kind of geographic feature or institutional feature or something.
Maybe you need lots of call, which England had, or maybe you need a certain kind of, you know, patent law or bank system or something like that. And so that sort of has to be there as a prerequisite. And then once your, you know, culture, your demographics change sufficiently, then if you have that prerequisite, then you get the industrial revolution. Does that general template make sense? And if so, what are some of the features that could play that second, that like prerequisite role?
Well, in terms of explaining why England that that's actually something that's very difficult. Right. It's easier to explain why somewhere in northern Europe would have an industrial revolution than it is specifically located in England. One thing we can say is, I mean, England did have this relatively unique position in the world and some of that actually helped to magnify the effects of the technological changes that were occurring. And so one of the things we can't explain why the industrial revolution was so dramatic, because one feature of Britain was that it had used almost all its available land prior to the Industrial Revolution, and it was going through a massive population boom in the period of the industrial revolution to the British population, practically quadrupled between, say, seventeen hundred and 1860.
And what that meant then was that Britain had to export manufactured goods and import raw materials and food to to supply and feed itself. And that meant that things like the cotton industry grew to be two or three times the size they would have been had they actually just been supplying Britain alone. And that magnified the effect of all those productivity advances because, you know, so much of the output was being exported. And it also meant that the whole world actually gained from the industrial revolution in the form of cheaper product coming from Britain and in the Napoleonic War period, there was this desperate struggle for mastery in Europe.
If the French had won and had driven the British from the seas, they would have ended all of these export trade and it would actually have meant a much more constricted industrial revolution within Britain. And so there is this interesting marriage between British naval power and prowess and the size and force of the industrial revolution, the British exported by power, and at the end of being it the goods of the Industrial Revolution. I mean, they opened up India by force.
They opened up China, and it magnified then the effect of the industrial revolution and so on. And so there are these, again, interesting elements where the story is part so dramatic because of that intermingling of British ability elsewhere and in the industrial revolution. Now, a second very interesting feature of this is it is interesting that Britain was a much smaller nation than France, but defeated France for mastery of Europe. And what is interesting is that Britain just seemed to have a very high level of competence in this period at almost all the things it had endeavoured.
And so with less resources than the French just developed a mastery at naval warfare. And it was quite a brutal mastery as well, the British actually, in this period executed an admirable for failing to be vigorous enough in battle. Wow. So it wasn't even that he deserved it or lost the battle. He just succeeded less vigorously than he should have.
Yes, he was. He was executed for failing to attack strongly enough. And, you know, and and so SCV, they had a kind of remarkable discipline. The government, again, in the Industrial Revolution period, showed a remarkable solidity and lack of fear, of dramatic changes, of revolution, of trouble from below. And so all of these new innovations inevitably provoke riots, attacks on the innovators, destruction of factories. The government just called out the troops.
Yes. And it had to do to defend these enterprises.
I could have sworn that I had read about some of these great inventors who kicked off the industrial revolution in the textile industry, dying, broke, essentially because of machine breakers, had had set upon their their homes and their factories.
Yes. No, no. It is the case that this machine makers did actually result in some of them losing out. But what I'm saying is where the government could as soon as they could, it would bring in people who would hang the rioters. Whereas in other countries, for example, India were on after independence. The factory textile industry there was threatening the surviving handloom industry in India, then just closed down a bunch of the factory industry and subsidised the handloom industry.
And so the thing about as the British government is that it was innovative to be very bold. It enclosed the common fields that covered about a quarter of Britain in the late 18th century, again, often with significant local opposition. It created a whole new system of paid roads where people had been able to freely walk up the roads before. When the railways came in, it changed property law so that they could run in a straight line between any two cities.
And so you actually, as I say, you see in Britain in this period that the industrial revolution is allied with what seems like, you know, quite significant administrative competence within the society in that period. And so that kind of pushes you towards the idea that that there's just some general kind of energising force that sometimes strikes societies.
It sounds like you're saying there are these examples of strong competence on the part of inventors in Britain, and there was also this competence on the part of the government. And so this is just a general factor of competence. But couldn't those two just be causally related and therefore not require some general sector explanation? Like couldn't you say that the fact that we saw these examples of general competence on the part of, you know, private citizens inventing things was a result of the government creating conditions that protected inventors by like, you know, sending in troops to protect them with machine breakers came to their house, that kind of thing.
Yes, except that the government didn't do that much very directly to help these innovators. Right. And so so, I mean, it wasn't the French government was much more interventionist in terms of rewarding innovators, trying to stimulate and encourage innovation. I mean, another kind of accident factor also that I should mention here is that a country like France actually had significant numbers of innovations in the Industrial Revolution, period. What happened? It just turned out that they didn't have big economic consequences.
So the French invented the hot air balloon. The French the French made the first parachute jump from the hot air balloon ride. They invented an optical telegraph that transmitted stock prices. This is around about eighteen hundred between Paris and Marseilles. But it just turns out that in the end, they could only transmit very limited quantity of information using this kind of system and and the development and gas lighting and food preservation in textiles. They invented the Jacquard loom, which is more sophisticated than any of the British textile innovations, but it's used very much in the high end of the textile market.
The Jaccard involved the idea of the punch card, which was later used to program computers, computers. Yeah. And so conceptually it was actually very significant innovation. And so, as I say again, you're always kind of pushed back and forth between, you know, this idea of, well, you know, well, the French just unlucky. The Germans in the 18th century made tremendous advancement in classical music where they just, you know, in the wrong area.
The British did nothing in terms of music in this period, and so as they get again, you get kind of tossed back and forth. You know, one thing we could say is, you know, the industrial revolution wasn't just one innovation or one industry. There were significant advances in iron and steel in agriculture. There were some significant improvements in textiles in lots of areas of the economy. And so that seemed to suggest, well, there's got to be some general factor in Britain is not just one lucky strike.
But I say, on the other hand, there's there's it's very hard to pick out stuff that kind of uniquely identifies Britain. And I say the other great candidate, the one it is surprising that there wasn't an industrial revolution in the Netherlands in the 17th century as it is that there was one in England in the 18th century. Right. Right. And the Netherlands in the 17th century was a very commercial society, very stable government, very low rates of interest on capital trading society.
Again, militarily, surprisingly powerful in that period. It actually beat Britain in the middle of the 17th century, the number of naval battles. And so, again, you know, the puzzle is, is that if we try and say here's something that's unique about Britain, we can find other places that look pretty good or even venis. If you go back a little bit further in the 14th and 15th centuries, again, looks like a very good candidate to have these kind of breakthroughs.
And so so one thing I will say is I still, you know, moved on a little bit in terms of the kind of centre of my research interests. And I'm actually much more interested in social mobility, the nature of social mobility. But I still sometimes wake very early in the morning and think there must be some way of figuring out exactly what created the Industrial Revolution. But honestly, I now I'm realistic enough to say that I fully expect to go to my deathbed without having anyone have solved the problem of the Industrial Revolution, because once you set you set up the parameters, you just think it's really going to be impossible to find any satisfying information.
I mean, one more factor I should add in this period is modern economists have focused a lot on the idea that the human agent was changed by the adoption of much smaller family sizes. And the amount of care and attention that goes into children now is so much greater than in the pre-industrial world. And that that really has been very significant in changing the human agent. Another mystery about Britain and the industrial revolution is that average family sizes were actually bigger in Britain in the industrial revolution than in any period in the previous 600 years.
And because of this population boom and because of somewhat better survival of children. And it turned out that later recently we've been looking at very detailed histories, lineages of families in England go back through the Industrial Revolution period. And the interesting thing in those lineages is that large families have no effect in terms of the outcomes of the children, in terms of their occupational status, the chance of getting educated and stuff like that. And so, again, you know, something that economists have kind of focused on the idea, well, could it be that it's this transformation towards the modern family that really drives technological advance?
It's very hard to find anything in the data in the Industrial Revolution period that would explain that we can also measure rates of social mobility in the Industrial Revolution period. And you would think that, well, maybe this is a kind of disruptive element in the society, a whole new class of people that emerges. There's no change in measured rates of social mobility in the course of the industrial revolution. It's still occurring at very slow rates that were occurring prior to that and that have occurred since then.
And so if you look at things like data on social mobility, you can see an industrial revolution. If you look at things like the average family size, you would see something change written around about 100 years after the Industrial Revolution.
So I've been trying to think about how we could I share your pessimism in general about our ability to definitively pin down the one cause of this of this one off event that we can't repeat with different parameters changed. But it seems like we still might be able to get a little bit more clarity in testing these theories. Just in the form of looking at new data, and it could either be, you know, data that we didn't have before, that we've only just collected about the past or data in the present or going forward in the future that somehow bears on the causal theories that we developed with respect to the industrial revolution.
So, for example, I was just reading a paper the other day that sort of collected this very comprehensive data set of rates of industrialization in countries outside of Western Europe and Asia and Africa in the Middle East. And so I was, you know, these this data wouldn't necessarily tell you much about why there were there was innovation in England because the data is about adoption of pre-existing inventions. But it could tell you about if you know, if you thought that education was the key causal factor in in England taking off first, then maybe you could look at whether education rates correlate with times of industrialization, etc.
. So I guess I'm wondering if there is data that you think we could still collect or that we haven't tested these theories on yet that would help us help us disambiguate between them?
That's a good question. I mean, in terms of what what could feasibly be discovered that would actually throw some light on this. Now, one thing is, if it was the case that there really was recent human evolution and that that played any role in the kind of the timing or the occurrence of something like the industrial revolution that we will discover eventually, because we will actually be able to observe that and we'll be able to observe what what changed and what happened.
Right. If we're talking about cultural changes, if we're talking about modes of behaviour, things like that. My problem is it's very hard to think about what type of evidence could really illuminate this process. Right. I mean, one thing might be, for example, suppose we discovered that all of the innovators in the Industrial Revolution were actually descended from very educated people three or four generations before. That might be some kind of interesting revelation that that it turns out that there's a family history to the people who are actually doing this innovation and that maybe that shows that they had acquired much more sophistication than we would expect in terms of thinking about scientific problems and thinking about advancing technique.
And so it might be possible that we would actually find some hidden or unexpected fact about the background of the innovators in the Industrial Revolution. And people have looked at this before where they've noticed that innovators tended to be more often from religious dissenting backgrounds and from kind of also from from maybe groups of people who are somewhat marginal in the rest of the society. And so as and could be I mean, if we had a complete social inventory here, maybe we could then see something systematic.
And the other thing, for example, in the textile industry, we know that famous innovators, the initial people, most of the efficiency advance was then made by subsequent non famous followers who vastly improved these initial techniques. And so if we had some kind of comprehensive inventory of all of these people and their history and their background, then maybe, who knows, we could find that there's some unexpected feature that that differentiates Britain from other societies. Right. That there was some pattern here that that really you're not going to observe within another society in terms of the formation of this class of people.
And another thing that I've actually been and this is maybe only tangentially related, but I just yesterday gave a talk at Stanford on a new paper we've been working on, which is actually trying to talk about why did the north of England after and experience the heart of the industrial revolution, go into almost immediate decline and become an economic backwater? Because, as I say, since 1910, it's been kind of a depressed area of England with less education, lower life expectancy, lower output per person.
And it is a puzzle about why would this area have flourished roughly for 100 years before going into this terminal decline. And one thing that shows up, interestingly, is that the North actually had very significant outmigration of. Educated people, and so it really suggests that there may be a kind of a strong role to play in economic advance of the kind of the underlying level of education or ability some kind of human capital. Yeah. And so maybe there was something special about the demography or the immigration into the north or something like that beforehand that led to some kind of critical mass of people, but that you you create these areas.
So now we see it in things like Silicon Valley and the London area where everyone comes and where things work and where they're kind of their incubators of innovation. And so that's another kind of interesting possible idea that that you really can have these kind of external benefits from being around a certain type of person, being in a certain type of market.
But where were the innovators at the beginning of the industrial revolution in touch with each other, or were they isolated? Surely we have some info on that.
See, for example, in textile innovation, the successful ones come from a relatively limited area and see, you know, of the country. And so what's surprising is that the textile industry in general is kind of spread out over Britain. But the innovations are tending to occur in the Lancashire area and then the whole industry moves to that area. And so you do see this kind of concentration and the decline then of the various other peripheral areas. And so, you know, again, it has this tantalising idea.
Well, maybe earlier innovation couldn't occur because industries were too spread out. There's not enough of that fertilisation that goes on for people talking to each other, meeting each other. You know, as I mentioned, that, you know, Reverend Cartwright, who developed the parallel, had allegedly never seen it one week before. He decided to do that. But he was in a community where everyone's interested in textiles and people say, hey, you're an educated guy, you should do something about this.
And so, as I say, there is these kind of other we're talking about. Is there anything that could come up that might help disambiguate? So so, as I say, one of these is kind of interesting possibilities, is are you getting these kind of unique gatherings of people with certain types of interests, certain types of talent, and that this is just very significant in terms of kind of propelling forward the society? Right. And certainly I've had some interest in, well, why didn't the industrial revolution spread to the rest of the world very quickly?
So the British were running India. They had a free market philosophy. The they allowed anyone with capital and talent to come to India and set up production and, you know, to the Bombay textile industry around about 1900, I think a tenth of the mills are actually owned by a Jewish family from Baghdad. And a bunch of them, those are owned by refugees from Iran. The prices and there's Zoroastrians, I believe. And so so one possibility is that it has so little effect on India in the issue of so little sign of development under this benign British rule of kind of not a lot of help, but not a lot of intervention either, you know, just keep the markets going, keep property rights.
And so there again, it's got to be something about the social interactions of people and the reinforcement that you're getting from being in a particular type of society. And then what happens is, of course, when people are removed from that society, they behave very, very differently. And so that would be another kind of interesting possibility for an industrial revolution is that there are just different types of social equilibrium. You know, you just behave in certain ways and interact in certain ways within certain societies.
And if you move them to a different group, you can actually immediately kind of change how you how you operate. OK, another idea that I've had is that we'll look at maybe the British maybe the Industrial Revolution is about love. You say about love, love, love. Right? That's what I thought you said. Yeah. Because in this early industries, it's very hard to actually make money by innovating because it's too easy to have machines pirated and to get them broken.
But could it be just that the British fell in love with innovation and for them it became romantic? It became. Something to be admired, isn't this, Joel? Am I pronouncing that correctly, John McCain? Yeah, John McCain is and this is his thesis. And I thought I think he's also more also about the development of capacities as well. Right. OK, so as opposed to just to kind of as opposed to just inclination, this ideology would just be that, look, the Germans were in love with music and they developed music.
They didn't care so much about technology. The British just loved for a period technology in a way that we don't even do in modern society right now. I mean, every society has certain things that it promotes and praises. And so, for example, now in Silicon Valley, where I am near here, coding is now regarded as a high art form that it can, in fact, be one of the most boring activities in the world. But it's acquired a certain romance in this society and it's attracted a lot of talented people.
Sure. Although part of the reason it has that romance is that you can earn so much money doing it. And absolutely true. But could it just be that the British what was unique about what would be very hard to to document or again explain would be that for some reason they just got entranced by mechanical and other innovations. And it seemed to them just the most fantastic thing in the world in a way that military honor was what mattered in other societies or poetry or literature, and that, you know, and that that was enough to get you through this phase of industrialization where the market couldn't supply the incentive, and that once we were through that crucial breakthrough, then we had large firms and professional innovators and patent systems that worked.
And then we were into the business of innovation. There had to be this phase of romance like in a real relationship. Right. Is that where you're going? I heard that implication. Yeah. And, you know, the Dutch were just too practical. They just weren't that interested in innovation in the same way. And they will be interesting to know, is there any way that you could actually document this? I mean, because you think A in the society you do.
Yeah, I mean, I don't know.
You could look at like percent of books published that are that were about science or innovation versus other things like religion or just percent of total books published. Or you could look at I don't know, you could look at the number of events that were held like public events and coffeehouses or something like that and or like break that down by the topic of the event or something. None of these feel all that central to measuring a nation's passion. But that made that kind of thing might be the best we can do.
And, you know, it turned out to be interesting that we know the names of a lot of these innovators of the Industrial Revolution and a little bit of their history. If you go back to the Middle Ages, there were significant innovations even then. Some example, the button was invented in the European Middle Ages. It was actually unknown to the ancient world. It was unknown in Asia. And it is actually a significant innovation in terms of clothing. We have no idea who the inventor of the button was.
And do you think this might suggests that we place a certain prestige in the process of innovation now such that we want to credit the person who came up with it?
Yes. Yes. No. Yeah. Clearly in that time that the the innovators who died in poverty in the Industrial Revolution still had statues built to them later. Right. And their names are still found. And they're known in a way that earlier innovators just no one paid any attention to. So this was one of the last questions that I wanted to ask you before I let you go, thinking about implications of the industrial revolution for how we should be doing things now.
Do you think that one of the implications is that maybe we don't need as strong of an intellectual property regime because we have this amazing example or series of examples of people who didn't really profit from their inventions and and didn't really have reason to expect that they would profit from their inventions. And yet at least not not proportionately with the amount of value that they added to the world.
Well, this is actually a very hot issue now in economics, the issue about whether the patent system is the friend or the foe of innovation. Yeah, and what I would say is there's actually not in historical examples, there's not that much evidence that patent systems really do that much towards fostering innovation even when they're being enforced.
Or is this with regular use or officially proper use, you know, even when they're being enforced?
Because we have. Do you have examples of countries that didn't deliberately chose not to have intellectual property and so I think in the 19th century, maybe the Netherlands or Switzerland, I could be wrong about the exact countries. But it turns out that they had innovations as well. And you know that. And and it's also amazing, though, in a world how much innovation is just done for free by people. It's amazing how much people are willing to supply in the form of just free goods.
I mean, when I go and look up something on Wikipedia, it's amazing the amount of detail that people are doing or, you know, there's a statistical package that we use called ah, which is entirely constructed. Proof pro bono, but is amazingly well done, is amazingly detailed, is amazingly good. And so I actually think that there's there's you know, there's certainly an argument for experimenting. I mean, we don't need to do it wholesale, but we could try with some areas.
Right. So, for example, now, you know, copyright has been extended for incredible length of time, I think, because Mickey Mouse is in danger of being out of copyright. So it would certainly be worthwhile experiment if, for example, in literature arts without having much, much shorter periods of copyright or making these rights much, much more limited and just seeing what these effects would be. But it's certainly the case that the industrial revolution does not provide any strong argument for saying that you only get technological advance when you have strong and effective copyright and intellectual rights protection, because it would not very little was protected in this period.
One example is that the first steam engine was patented and the patent was extended. But that actually meant that the person who actually invented the first effective steam engine was never able to get patent rights to it because the first one didn't work. But it was protected. But it blocked the second person who actually produced a working steam engine then from getting access. And so, yeah. So as I say, I think, you know, it's certainly something that we should significantly examine, whether we have just moved too far in terms of granting intellectual rights within modern society and whether those are as destructive of innovation as they are productive.
Well, from your mouth to the government there, or maybe charter cities will pin our hopes on charters. It is an experiment with IP regimes. I will let you go in just a minute. But before I do, I wanted to invite you to recommend the rationally speaking pick of the episode, which is a book or article or blog or something that has influenced your thinking in some way. What would your pick be for this episode? Well, it turns out in writing my book, I got the pleasure of reading a lot of ethnography by anthropologists and some of these accounts of Hunter-Gatherer societies and shifting cultivation side is just fascinating in terms of just how different humans can be in one culture from another.
And so my favorites in this area is a book called Achey Life History by Kim Hill and Magdalena Hurtado, which is about a Hunter-Gatherer group from South America who have the most amazing social arrangement and the most interesting kind of social structure. And I think it's all been obliterated now, but it's it's a very readable, kind of fascinating insight into a very different world. And so I recommend it to your listeners. Excellent.
That's one of my one of my favorite things to get out of anthropology and in some cases, history as well. There is no single data points, but sometimes a single data point is so far outside your model of, you know, how you thought the world worked, that it can still be a very meaningful update to that model, despite being one data point. Yes, no, I agree. If you read about the achey, you'll see that they really are a unique, organized and uniquely organized society.
Excellent. Well, that sounds like a very good teaser. I will link to your pic on the website as well as to your website. And Greg, thank you so much for joining us. It was a fascinating conversation and I I will probably eventually end up accepting the fact that we will never know for sure what happened in the Industrial Revolution. But I'm not quite emotionally at that point yet.
Well, thank you very much for inviting me. And it was a great pleasure to interact with you. Thank you.
Likewise. This concludes another episode of Rationally Speaking. Join us next time for more explorations on the borderlands between reason and nonsense.