Articles, Blog

Bob Allen: Why Britain industrialised when others did not

November 7, 2019


Hi, I’m Bob Allen. I’m Professor of Economic
History at Oxford University. I study technical change and technological revolutions, and
I want to talk to you today about one of the greatest technological revolutions of all
time, the Industrial Revolution. The big question about the Industrial Revolution is why did
it happen in England, why did it happen in the 18th century? I’m going to tell you why. To understand
the Industrial Revolution you have to know what it really consisted of and these two
pictures capture the change that took place. But it didn’t start out with elaborate factories
like the one on the right. The first machines that were invented to spin cotton fibers were
quite simple. This is Hargreaves’ spinning jenny; this is a model made from his patent
specification in the 1760s. There are no new ideas, instead you have one wheel which
you see on the left and a whole row of vertical spindles across the front of the machine.
The woman spins the wheel on the left that’s hooked up to the spindles and she has the wooden clamp
device in her left hand that does the pulling of the yarn away from the spindles. The important
point about that is that new technology didn’t involve fantastically new creative ideas,
it was all about doing practical engineering to make simple ideas work. So, the question
is why did Hargreaves go through five years of effort and hundreds of pounds of expenses
in 1760s to make this machine work. And the answer is, I think, because it paid to do
that in 1760s whereas it would not have paid to use that machine earlier. This is the main
reason why. This is a graph that shows the earnings of a spinner relative to a man’s
and you can see that in the 16th and early 17th century a woman only earned 35 percent
of what a men did, but by the 18th century it was up to 70 percent. The reason a woman’s
earnings rose in spinning so much was because the textile industry expanded very rapidly
in the 17th century to supply Britain’s growing commercial empire. With that increase it remained
much more profitable to use capital intensive technology in the 18th century than it had
been in the 17th. In my research I’ve tried to work this out by computing the rates of
return that would have been realised had spinning jennies been made in the 16th, 17th and early
18th century. But the implication, if we go back, of all of these calculations is that
the rise of the wage of women made the spinning jenny profitable in the 18th century whereas
it would have not have been in the 17th. Here you see in the graph of profitability that
in the 17th century spinning jennies would have realised a return of maybe 2 or 3 percent,
which is not very much, and wouldn’t have led people to want to invest in them. But with
the rise in the cost of labour that the spinning jenny saved the rate of return rises to 30,
35, or 40 percent in the 18th century. So, spinning jennies suddenly become profitable
because of the expansion of textiles due to Britain’s commercial empire. And this happened
in Britain but it didn’t happen in other countries where the rate of return of using jennies
was still very low in the 18th century. So, the answer to the big question, the reason
that machinery was invented in Britain at the end of the 18th century, is because Britain
was a high wage economy then, and it was a high wage economy because of the economic
expansion induced by her successful imperialism.

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