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BPR Interviews: Anton Howes on the Industrial Revolution

Anton Howes is an economic historian studying the industrial revolution. He is currently the in-house historian at the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. Previously, he was a postdoc at Brown’s Political Theory Project and a lecturer at King’s College London. He recently launched a newsletter, The Age of Invention.

Nick:  Some have called the industrial revolution the most important event in human history. Do you agree?

Anton: Yes, absolutely. Before I started doing work on the industrial revolution, I was originally just curious about where economic growth comes from in a general sense. You have certain societies, like the Soviet Union, which were very technologically advanced at their inception. But, while there was a bit of advancement in technologies that were important to the regime — military and space technology for example — there was very little technological progress beyond that. So puzzles like that were a big part of my original interest – What leads to stalls in technological progress, but also, where it comes from originally.

As I began to look more deeply into these questions, I couldn’t help but wonder why the British Industrial Revolution, this massive acceleration of growth, took place. It happens, for some reason, in the 18th century on this small island on the periphery of Europe. Something special happened there. So, though I originally didn’t go into my research thinking the British industrial solution was the thing to look at, as I began to look more in-depth at it, I became increasingly obsessed by it. 

Nick: Do you see the world as fundamentally Malthusian before the Industrial Revolution? Does the Industrial Revolution constitute the first time that we escaped the Malthusian Trap?

Anton: That’s a good question. I think that’s one way of looking at it. I have a lot of time for the Malthusian model of what growth looks like before the Industrial Revolution, with these ups and downs. You do occasionally get technological advancements beforehand, but those advancements tend to be eaten up by extra mouths to feed. 

Still, I’m not sure if that was always the case. There may have been another model at play, where there were certain societies that have some technological advancement that doesn’t necessarily result in an increase in the number of mouths to feed. Luxury technologies, you might call them, rather than technologies that lead to an agricultural productivity increase. But even with these technologies there is still, in a sort of similar way, a negative feedback loop. Rather than the possibility of famine or overpopulation, there is the risk of attracting predator states. Examples might be barbarians attacking the Roman Empire, or Mongols attacking Song Dynasty China. These might need to be explained by that second model, as they seem to have been quite good at producing technologies that increased living standards without necessarily improving the capacity of their societies to have large populations.

Nick: People often seem to see the post-industrial revolution world the way Engels saw industrial London, thinking of the world beforehand as pleasant and parochial, and the new one as ugly, full of hardship and terrible factory positions. Do you think that there was a transitionary period where the world became worse in real terms? Are there ways in which the industrial made the world permanently worse?

Anton: I would say that on the whole, what you see is that the first generation of industrialization-adopters adopts voluntarily. There’s a great statistic I like to look at here: If you look at the early factories, their labor turnover is extremely high. In some cases, it’s more than a hundred percent of the workforce per year in the very early years. So, what that’s suggesting is that most people work in factories for a bit, decide it’s not for them, and then move on to something else or return to their older trades. But, over time, you cycle through enough people that eventually a few people stick around and they think, “OK, wage labor is for me.” This would be instead of piece rates, doing a certain amount of work and then being paid for that work, which was the more predominant way of being paid before the rise of factories.

So I think for the generation that adopts, it’s fairly certain that they adopted out of choice. There are advantages to factory work over piece rates, significant ones. I suppose a good modern analog to piece work would be driving an Uber. You’re very much dependent on market demand from day to day for how much you’re going to make. You’re responsible for your own costs, to a large extent. You can be left without a regularity of income. 

So, the economy for most people before the rise of factories – and this isn’t even talking about industrialization in general but, just factory organization, which is really a later stage of things — it’s like going from being an Uber driver to salaried work. 

Paying salaries becomes the most sensible way to structure compensation when you have a very capital intensive industry, such as a factory – one big machine and lots of people working. It’s very difficult to see who’s actually doing what, how much output each person produces. 

Some in later generations may regret the transition, especially if opportunities for piece-rate work is limited. There is a similar discussion with regard to the rise of agriculture. Some people argue that hunter-gatherer lifestyles were superior in certain respects, and agriculture gives rise to property and states and inequality and so on and so forth. There’s a debate over each of those stages there. Yet for the first adopters of agriculture, it must have seemed like a pretty good deal. 

For the later generations who were born into a system of agriculture, that’s not necessarily the case. They may see more downsides to it, and may want to return to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. But once you’ve made a transition like that, it’s hard to go back.

Nick: Before we get into your understanding of the causes of the industrial revolution, I would like to ask about the question itself. It seems like there are two dimensions at play: First, why England, rather than somewhere else? Second, why did it happen when it happened, rather than sometime earlier or later? How do you think about approaching these questions and what makes them difficult to answer?

Anton: There’s so much going on all at the same time. There are really two main reasons it’s so difficult. One is that every big event will generate a lot of theorization and provide few opportunities to test hypotheses. The fall of the Roman Empire would be an example of this problem. The other reason is that the importance of an event like the Industrial Revolution leads you to get a lot of people looking for explanations, trying to discern what the causes were. The incentives of academia push you to come up with your own explanation. I suppose in some ways I, myself, am guilty of this, adding to the number of theories as to what the causes were. 

But, just from a practical perspective, there’s a lot going on in the 18th century, and there’s certainly a lot going on in the 17th century. A lot of those things can appear to be important simply because they happened. It can be hard to discern which are actually important. Economic historians prefer to use counterfactual reasoning, where they try to figure out what would have been the alternative had a certain thing not happened. But other historians sometimes see that the fact that a thing happened as suggesting that it was important.

Nick: What’s interesting to me about your work is that we often think of the Industrial Revolution as beginning in the 18th century, and look for something which happened around the beginning of the 18th century to understand its cause. But, you call the period from the 1550s to the 1650s the “crucial century.” Why do you see the inception of the Industrial Revolution as beginning so much earlier? How do we explain the lag between the 1650s and 18th century Industrial Revolution?

Anton: I’m sort of a late convert to this point of view. I suppose a few people have voiced it before, but yes, I think 1550 to 1650 really was the crucial century when it comes to understanding the Industrial Revolution. 

Now there’s a few reasons for that. One is that by 1700, when you look at how the English talk about England and when you look at how foreigners talk about England, they already describe the English as having a reputation for improvement. The classic saying was, “If you want something invented go to France, but if you want something perfected, you go to England.” People were already looking around them and seeing machinery, seeing some elements of mechanization. You had stuff like clock making and watchmaking. There were small devices being used. All of this points to something having occurred even earlier.

Funnily enough, when I did my PhD thesis, I started my study in 1651, the reason for that being that I started from The Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in 1851, when the Industrial Revolution in Britain seems to have been very much in full swing and went back 200 years earlier. 

Now, I think you really have to go even further back, to 1551. If you look at the 1650s, a lot of the key things were already in place, particularly if you want to focus on there being a hub of innovators in England.

The Royal Society is famously set up in 1660, but really to set up the institution there must have already been a critical mass of inventors. It is very obvious from the correspondence between various thinkers that we have that there was already a community. Samuel Hatlib is the famous one here talking of there being an “invisible college” already of people talking to one another, exchanging correspondence and so on. So what really needs to be explained is how that group comes to be in the first place.

Nick: If we are explaining how this kind of cohort of inventors in the 1650s led to the growth we start to see in the 1750s, do you think it is important to think in terms of first-round inventors and later-round innovators, or tinkerers, as they are sometimes distinguished? Could it be that the tinkerers are ultimately the more important drivers of growth, figuring out how to apply inventions in economically useful ways?

Anton: I must say that I actually use the two terms, invention and innovation, quite interchangeably. I wouldn’t say that there’s a very hard and fast distinction between the two. The reason I tend to use the term innovation is because, when we say invention, we almost always mean machinery. If I say I’m an inventor, people would think I’m an engineer of some sort. Whereas, if I say I’m an innovator, the notion is much broader. So I just think it’s a more helpful term to use, even if it does start to get a bit broad. 

The reason I use the broader term is also that when we think about the Industrial Revolution, we really need to see that it’s not just the classic “wave of gadgets” and machinery. It’s really about everything, including how it is that you should lay your seeds to what kinds of seeds you plant. That is not an invention in the sense of it being machinery. There’s also hygienic “inventions,” like to wash your hands before and after surgery and before delivering a baby. These seem like basic things to do, but they actually had to be invented.

So, I don’t really like these distinctions between great inventors and tinkerers. Every major leap forward, every major invention, is actually just a bundle of smaller improvements. Sometimes those small improvements happen to have been done by a single person. Sometimes they’re done by a team. Sometimes you have cases where someone at the time was known as a great inventor, very famous for a particular invention, but over time that invention has been superseded many times (or has been displaced entirely by a completely different kind of technology) and now their name is lost to us. 

There are also some people who are extremely lucky perhaps, or have great business acumen or great promotional abilities, who are able to build up a cult of celebrity around themselves. They can generate this myth of the great inventor, sort of similar to the Great Man Theory of history But I think the myth of the great invention is unhelpful when it comes to actually understanding inventions, both big leaps forwards and small tinkerings. In fact, they’re really all tinkerers. 

Nick: How do you think about the gap between this “invisible college” of inventors beginning of economic growth? 

Anton: Well, there’s always a delay. GDP per capita doesn’t necessarily measure all of the advancement. I would say that it radically underestimates some of the improvements. The problem is that GDP often assumes that the basket of goods is the same in quality. In actual fact, there were vast qualitative improvements that these measures miss.

You’ll also have new inventions that are only used in certain industries, but if that industry only accounts for 0.5 to 1% of the total economy, then the impact on GDP will be minuscule, though the impact on a few individuals may be massive.  Perhaps it will only show up later, if that invention is applied in other industries or if the original industry itself starts to grow in size. 

I think there’s a risk when we look at these big aggregate figures that we kind of miss a lot of the details. The growth of GDP per capita will primarily occur with large-scale shifts from agriculture to manufacturing, manufacturing to services and so on. Yet, even before that, there was a substantial improvement in living standards between 1650 and 1750 for the average English person? When foreign commentators come to Britain and they say, “Oh, wow, look how healthy these people are. They’re fatter. They’re taller.” By the 1740s, a lot of the nationalistic stereotypes start to come into play. There’s a reason that the British are called the roast beefs, by the French. And, there’s a reason that the British talk about the French as eating frogs.

William Hogarth has a print called the Gates of Calais where he depicts the meeting of cultures, English and French. The French priest is all fat there with this big hunk of roast beef, but the rest of society are kind of emaciated and thin. The idea of the frog thing really comes from the idea that the French had to resorts to small game, rather than having nice meat from cattle. There’s a political message going on in the print as well, this idea that constitutional monarchy in Britain is better than the absolute monarchy in France for the people. But even if we ignore that bit, it’s clear there are significant economic cultural differences already.

The Gates of Calais

Nick: There seems to have been invention in France around the same time. Do do you think that there was just less invention there, or do you think the inventions in France had less economic impact?

Anton: I suspect it’s the latter, but there hasn’t actually been any concerted effort to compare the types of innovation between the two countries. But, yes, I think that it’s just the fact that you do have a lot of inventions, but they’re just not necessarily affecting big chunks of the economy. There’s a reason everyone looks at cotton in Britain. It’s because it’s one of these major parts of the economy by the late 18th century and certainly in the early 19th century. But, one thing that’s striking about it is that actually a lot of the invention that gets applied to cotton is initially meant for linen, silk, or for wool, and wool is really the big industry in Britain, or certainly in England, right back into the middle ages.

In France, a lot of the inventions are either not fully applied, like canned food, which was originally a French idea. They figured out large parts of the preservation process like sealing off the food, sanitizing the containers. 

But the French were doing it with glass jars. It’s in England that people like Brian Donkin take that process much further and start mechanizing it. Likewise, the Jacquard Loom is something that allows you to very easily, effectively, to program a pattern using punch cards. It’s the origin of binary in many respects. 

Even into the late 19th century, French textile design is considered superior to that of the British, but it’s the small, high-end industry. It’s not like the mass production of cheap cotton cloth that started to become a major part of the economy for Britain, and a major driver of its growth. 

Some of the French inventions can seem a bit more toy-like, or the applications aren’t fully explored. Think of hot air balloons. That’s a French invention. The Montgolfier brothers are very famous for it. It’s something that is applied very quickly in Britain, but it’s not an invention where there’s an important, big, or obvious application.

Nick: Gregory Clark has discussed love as a possible explanation for the industrial revolution and that the English had a unique love for invention and technology that others didn’t. Could this be part of the story?

Anton: I think you have to be careful with those sorts of explanations. Given that you mentioned Gregory Clark, I thought you were going to make a joke about fertility when you said “love”. I’d have characterized maybe Deirdre McCloskey or someone as being the one who would talk about love in that kind of more direct sense. But I think we have to be careful about that. 

Well, let’s explore the counterfactual. If Britain hadn’t existed, would the Industrial Revolution have happened somewhere in Europe, given what was happening in places like France? I think it’s pretty likely. It probably would have been slower. It may have looked different. Different industries may have driven the growth. But I still suspect it would have happened anyway. 

One of the things we’re trying to explain here is why is it faster for Britain? Why is it ahead is also part of the question, and it’s very difficult to separate that from the more fundamental causes, in the sense of, “Absent this, it just would not have happened whatsoever.”

Nick: You’ve written about how invention is not intrinsic to humanity, but rather is something that needs to be spread from person to person. I could envision two distinct mechanisms at play here: One would be that a passion for invention is spreading. The other is that an understanding that invention is profitable and worthwhile is spreading. Do you see one of those as more prominent than the other for you and your research?

Anton: Yes, I think it was the passion. The pursuit of profit isn’t always that obvious. Some of the great inventors were either so bad at making a profit out of their work, and others just seem to ignore that aspect of invention entirely. And, the work of those inventors is often extremely important, just as important, I think, as the work of inventors who had the business acumen and were very good at creating more widely adopted products. 

To give you an example, there were naval officers coming up with new techniques for signaling to other ships, or others inventing early forms of semaphore, which are extremely valuable in many ways. But, that wasn’t the sort of thing that could have given them much in the way of the profit.

Nick: You’ve written on a “pro-sharing” mindset in England, where people were often willing to share their inventions and knowledge with each other. Do you see this as a manifestation of a love for invention?

Anton: Yes. That’s a large part of what I think is important and special about Britain in particular. I think that invention has always spread from person to person. You see this dynamic, I’m sure, in Renaissance Italy, China, and other early hubs of innovation.

But what I think makes Britain special is the fact that the inventors were evangelists for invention, so people who were interested in invention, even if they weren’t necessarily doing it themselves, these people were creating institutions to share it further. I must say one thing that I found very striking just in the past few weeks of research and the process of writing up my book on this is actually how early along those attempts are. It’s just that the success of such attempts come much later.

Nick: If the spirit of innovation is spread from person to person, might we think of the industrial revolution as a tipping point where a critical mass of people shared that spirit of innovation?

Anton: Yes. I think that’s a very good way of looking at it. You’ve always had inventors, but they haven’t always been in sufficient numbers to pass on the passion for invention to a whole new and larger generation. So I think that a tipping point is a good way of seeing it and it’s also one of the reasons why the Industrial Revolution is still going. We’re still riding this self-perpetuating wave.

There has been some recent discussion of maybe a slight slowdown since around 1980. That’s a debatable topic. I don’t know quite as much about the 20th century. But, on the whole, it seems as though there hasn’t been a kind of point where a whole generation of inventors suddenly became absent or was killed off or something like that. I suspect there are cases of that occurring in other times in human history.

Nick: So, then, should we think of 18th century England as being similar to something like Silicon Valley, in that it benefited from agglomeration effects?

Anton: Yes, I think that’s very much the case. Indeed the original Silicon Valley is late 16th century London, or early 18th century Edinburgh, or mid-18th century Birmingham. They’re a series of clusters with similar agglomeration effects. 

When it comes to invention, I think some people might be surprised to hear London, given people always think of the North of England as being where a lot of industrialization takes place. But actually there’s often a difference between sites of production and sites of invention. It’s striking that a lot of the invention is still coming out of London, but then it’s being applied more profitably elsewhere. But you do get the appearance of other hubs in the North of course as well. One of the things that you see, if you look at it geographically, is that in the 16th century it’s very concentrated on certain places like London, but by the 18th century it’s become a lot more geographically dispersed.

And that continues into the 19th century as well. How would you look at it today? I guess you could look at patent data, which would give you a rough idea of it. I suspect, I haven’t looked at it recently, but I suspect that you’re still gonna see similar concentrations on the major urban centers, but that actually, on the whole, it’s pretty dispersed throughout the country with a major concentration on the big cities like London. 

Nick: How do your culture explanations differ from those of Deirdre McCloskey, with her concept of the bourgeois virtues? 

Anton: Well, one way to see it is that I give the inventors a lot more agency. But in some ways, this is just a matter of emphasis. 

McCloskey, in her Bourgeois Dignity thesis, argues that cultural changes made commerce in general, but also invention, more reputable and dignified. These cultural changes encourage more people to have a go at it.

In a sense, we can think of her arguing that a burden has been lifted. The rock has been lifted off the lawn, so the grass can now grow. I suppose that my version would be, to use that analogy, inventors are more like weeds who will grow under the rock anyway, until eventually they shift the rock out of the way. So I think a lot of both the cultural and institutional change that you see comes from a cohort of inventors being very careful throughout this period. 

It’s 300 years with mixed success, but I think in Britain inventors were particularly successful at building a coalition behind invention and eventually building institutions that promote invention. They were able to change existing institutions so as to allow innovation to flourish.

If you look at the patent system, for example, a lot of the key changes come from the inventors themselves. So part of the way the Industrial Revolution became self-perpetuating was by inventors passing on better institutions to the next generation of inventors. 

Nick: I’m curious about these other sort of institutional changes relate to the cultural changes that you are interested in. The invention of the joint-stock corporation, for example. Do these have any causal role in the story of how invention flourished? Or, were they mostly the results of earlier cultural changes?

Anton: Stock markets and joint-stock companies are interesting cases. You obviously see corporations much, much earlier. Most of the guilds are, in some sense, corporations. The first major joint-stock company is what would become the Muscovy Company.

Originally, they were something like the Society for adventuring or finding new lands. A lot of them are not necessarily inventors, but they were closely involved with inventors when it came to navigation, as they were trying to find new trade routes. 

Also, bear in mind that this is a period where the Latin word “inventio” as Bacon would use it in the early 1600s translates as both “discovery” and “invention.” So actually the difference between the two is blurred quite significantly. You can see a lot of the explorers and discovers as being potential inventors or innovators. They don’t feature into my own work to quite that extent, or at least not insofar as they weren’t innovators as well. But I think there’s something interesting to explore there. The other thing to bear in mind is that after the 1720s, or as a result of what takes place in the early 1720s, it’s extremely difficult for a company to have more than just a handful of partners. It’s not until the 1850s that things like limited liability corporations are created. It’s not until the mid-1840s that the limit on the number of partners is lifted. It’s quite striking that both of those reforms in the 19th century are driven by inventors and their friends as well.

Nick: In terms of a culture of innovation, if you wanted to inspire a culture of innovation today, how would you think about going about it? 

Anton: I think there are some lessons to be learned from the past. There are certain institutions and forms of organization that I think have worked pretty well. Exhibitions are one of them. We don’t see it as much today, things similar to the Great Exhibition of 1851. The World Fairs were their successors, but over the course of the 20th century, they went from being exhibitions of industry, invention and better design to being national branding exercises. So I think they lost a really important part of their original spirit, but potentially there’s something to draw upon there. 

I think it’s also important for modern-day inventors and their cheerleaders to take seriously concerns about the direction of invention, which a lot of people voice. One thing that inventors in the past were very skilled at doing was taking control of the narratives around invention rather than letting others control them. A great example of this would be Brian Donkin, an inventor of tinned food. There’s a case of a steamboat engine accident in the early 19th century, where it explodes and kills quite a lot of people on board. Donkin and a bunch of his London engineer friends, none of whom, as far as I can tell, were directly involved in the steamboat engine industry, gathered themselves upon hearing the news. They rushed to the scene, went to their local MP, and lobbied him to set up an official inquiry. And, who would’ve thought, they ended up being the expert witnesses for the inquiry. They were expert engineers, so I think it’s fair enough that they were chosen, but the fact that they were the ones to push for the inquiry looked very good. The fact that they kind of took control of the process also allows them to make sure that the regulations introduced weren’t harmful and to avoid the possibility of steamboat engines being banned outright.

Nick: But didn’t the government also send the army in to protect the inventors from Luddites?

Anton: Yes, but you can see that as just the protection of private property, not necessarily protection of invention. The government is protecting existing machinery that had already been invented. It was also a time when the French Revolution was taking place, so the British Government, throughout the late 1810s through to the 1820s, was extremely repressive of anything that seemed revolutionary. So, I think we need to be careful not to read in too much to the government’s actions. 

Nick: You recently launched a newsletter, the Age of Invention. What are your goals for the newsletter over the coming months? 

Anton: It’s been about a month of the newsletter. People seem to be fairly interested in it, which is very nice. I’ve had just over 800 people sign up now. It’s a really good way for me to write my book because it means that I’ve got to write something for public consumption at least once a week. And, it allows me to air all of my hypotheses in public before they end up in print, which is helpful and interesting. I get suggestions, I get people reading it kind of as the work’s in progress and I’ve found that quite rewarding so far. The plan is to expand that further, hopefully get more and more people interested. It’s a way to share my research. It’s ongoing.