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  • Print publication year: 2015
  • Online publication date: May 2018

6 - Knowledge, technology transfer and convergence


Industrial Revolution, Industrious Revolution and Industrial Enlightenment

The pre-industrial era witnessed a number of ground-breaking innovations and improvements, but they were typically generated by learning by doing. Producers learned that things worked, but had limited understanding of why things worked. From the seventeenth century, decisive efforts were directed towards gaining more and better knowledge of the ‘laws of nature’. However, it is wrong to believe that the British Industrial Revolution, the period 1770–1830, was based on scientific discoveries. Decisive steps were taken in that period towards a more profound understanding of nature, but these accomplishments had little immediate impact on production technologies. The iconic invention of the eighteenth century, the steam engine, is the exception that confirms this rule. The steam engine developed by Thomas Newcomen (1663–1729) relied on the results of scientific inquiry from the preceding century by the Italians Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) and Evangelista Torricelli (1608–97), the Dutchman Christiaan Huygens (1629–95), and Otto von Guericke (1602–86), a German, regarding atmospheric pressure, the weight of air and the nature of a vacuum. Contemporaries of Newcomen made significant contributions, in particular the French inventor Denis Papin (1647–1712?), who invented the piston. In the first generation of steam engines, the steam was condensed in a cylinder, which created a vacuum, and then the piston was pushed into the cylinder by atmospheric pressure.

The massive breakthrough of technologies, which sprang out of abstract theoretical inquiry coupled with empirical testing, did not arrive until the second half of the nineteenth century and mostly in the closing decades of that century. There is no denying, however, that systematic experiments, often combined with limited or flawed theoretical knowledge, became more common before and during the Industrial Revolution.

These misconceptions regarding the role of science contributed to very optimistic assessments of economic growth in the traditional historical narrative of what made Britain ‘the first industrial nation’.

A very useful source of historical national accounts is available at Groningen University, search on
Differences in American and European technology were explored by H. J., Habakkuk, American and British Technology in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge University Press, 1962), and by N., Rosenberg: see the Introduction to The American System of Manufactures (Edinburgh University Press, 1969).
S. N., Broadberry has written extensively on productivity measurements and productivity comparisons. A good overview of his work is provided in The Productivity Race: British Manufacturing in International Perspective, 1850–1990 (Cambridge University Press, 1997). His homepage is useful to visit for updates of long-run comparative GDP estimates.
Joel, Mokyr provides an innovative and influential view of technology and economic development. His ideas were first developed in The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990). For a more recent elaboration consult The Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy (Princeton University Press, 2002).
An encyclopaedic survey of the technology of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is provided by Vaclav, Smil in Creating the Twentieth Century: Technological Innovations of 1867–1914 and Their Lasting Impact (Cambridge University Press, 2005) and Transforming the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations and Their Consequences (Cambridge University Press, 2006).
The changes in consumer behaviour and market involvement preceding the Industrial Revolution are explored in Jan de, Vries, The Industrious Revolution: Consumer Behavior and the Household Economy 1650 to the Present (Cambridge University Press, 2008).
N. F. R., Crafts has changed our view of the Industrial Revolution: see his British Economic Growth during the Industrial Revolution (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985).
R. C., Allen provides a new look at the same subject and suggests that one unique characteristic explaining the Industrial Revolution was the fact that Britain was a high-wage economy. See his The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective (Cambridge University Press, 2009). Allen's hypothesis has come under critical scrutiny by Morgan, Kelly, Joel, Mokyr and Cormac Ó, Gráda in ‘Precocious Albion: a New Interpretation of the British Industrial Revolution’ in Annual Review of Economics 6 (2014), 363–389.
The forces that generated convergence and rapid economic growth in the so-called Golden Age (1950–73) have been intensively discussed. A recent article which provides a representative list of references as well as new insights is Tamás, Vonyö, ‘Post-war reconstruction and the Golden Age of economic growth’, European Review of Economic History 12(1) (2008), 221–41.
A classic is A., Gerschenkron, Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962).
M., Abramovitz, ‘Catching up, forging ahead and falling behind’, Journal of Economic History 46(2) (1986), 385–406, helped us start thinking about the conditions and mechanisms of catching up.
N. F. R., Crafts and G., Toniolo edited a very useful collection of country-specific studies with a well-considered introduction in Economic Growth in Europe since 1945 (Cambridge University Press, 1996). Additional insight on Spain is offered in L., Prados de la Escosura and J., Roses, ‘The sources of long-run growth in Spain, 1850–2000’, CEPR Discussion Paper 6189, 2007 and forthcoming in Journal of Economic History 69(4) (2009).
The problem of bias in estimating inflation when there are quality improvements is discussed by William, Nordhaus: ‘Quality change in price indexes’ in Journal of Economic Literature, 12(1) 1998, 59–68.
The USA-Europe productivity differences are discussed in two recent monographs: Marcel P., Timmer et al., Economic Growth in Europe, A Comparative Industry Perspective (Cambridge University Press, 2010); Stephen. N., Broadberry, Market Services and the Productivity Race 1850–2000: British Performance in International Perspective (Cambridge University Press, 2006).