Notes: The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective

Buy it, Cambridge University Press, Robert C. Allen

When you stop to think about it, the idea of using the past to help predict the future of technological development seems kind of self-contradictory. But there is obvious value in understanding the path of development. Below are some interesting insights from renowned historian Robert C. Allen on the British Industrial revolution that I think can be translated to the present, with the goal of shedding light on the highest potential that exists today for company builders. 

    • 7: "Turning scientific knowledge into working technology was an expensive proposition, and it was a worthwhile investment only in Britain where the large coal industry created a high demand for drainage and an unlimited supply of virtually free fuel"
    • 15: "This book explores how Britain's high wages and cheap energy increased the demand for technology by giving British businesses an exceptional incentive to invent techniques that substituted capital and energy for labor."
    • 42: "In the mid-eighteenth century it was the high wages in Britain...that played the important role of imparting a labor-saving bias to technical change"
    • 57: "Greater food production and lower farm employment led to an expanded urban population. The result was greater manufacturing production and economic growth"
    • 79: "London and the proto-industrial sectors were the engines of growth. Their expansion raised wage rates and drew labor out of agriculture. Small farmers either sold out and moved to the city or improved their methods and raised their yields in order to keep up with urban incomes and participate in the consumer revolution"
    • 82: "Abundant coal [in Northern England] made energy very cheap. Coal was also important...for its technological spin-offs, the steam engine and the railway."
    • 92: "Copying and elaborating innovations was the way the coal burning house evolved. In this model, which is called 'collective innovation', the rate of experimentation depended crucially on the rate of house building"
    • 105: "One of the puzzling features of the high wage economy was how British firms could pay more for their labor than French firms...One reason is that cheap energy offset the burden of high wages"
    • 128: "The intercontinental trade boom was a key development that propelled northwestern Europe forward."
    • 137: "Any theory that explains British success by positing a British genius for invention is immediately suspect."
    • 141: "A change in the relative prices of the factors of production is itself a spur to innovation and to inventions of a particular kind - directed at economizing the use of a factor which has become relatively expensive."
    • 149: "The French shifted to mineral fuel smelting very quickly: a 'tipping point' was reached. The French jumped directly to the most advanced blast furnace technology and skipped all the intermediate stages through which the British progressed. Britain's competitive advantage had been based on the invention of technology that benefited it differentially. It is ironic that the success of Britain's engineers in perfecting that technology destroyed the country's competitive advantage."
    • 151: "Macro-inventions are characterized by a radical change in factor proportions"
    • 173: "The real cost of rotary power in the mid-1840's was about one-third what it had been...while the real cost of pumping power dropped by about half. The efficiency of the pumping engine had doubled and that of the rotary engine tripled"
    • 190: "Most macro-inventions were inspired by knowledge or practice from outside the industry"
    • 199: "The real issues involved in 'inventing' mechanical spinning...was not in thinking up the roller; rather, the challenges were the practical issues of making the roller work in the application."
    • 225: "In the early 1730s, he proposed to expand the business by producing cast iron parts for steam engines, which he anticipated would be a growing business after the expiration of the Savery-Newcomen patent in 1733."
    • 241: "The third aspect of the Industrial Revolution is the application of the scientific method to the study of technology through experimentation. The 'legitimization of systematic experimentation'."
    • 255: "Experimentation was, therefore, the common feature that characterized eighteenth century inventions"
    • 273: "Steam technology accounted for close to half of the growth in labor productivity in Britain in the second half of the eighteenth century"
    • 273: "The steam engine was invented to drain coal mines"
    • 275: "The British were simply luckier in their geology"

    Questions that arose after reading and reviewing:

    1. What is the 'bias' in today's technological change? What factor of production are we economizing for? Does it depend on industry? Energy/labor/materials/attention/human creativity?
    2. Should we look to China as the leader in the AI revolution? China skipped PC and straight to (superior?) mobile platform. What does this mean in terms of leadership position in the future? What are they doing now? Specifically in consumer driven companies? Perspectives from Mike Moritz (FT), Dan Grover, Facebook