How the Industrial Revolution happened remains a major question. Robert Fogel’s End of Hunger and Greg Clark’s Farewell to Alms try to explain the dramatic change.
Beginning around 1700-1750, there were a series of major economic changes. A “Consumer Revolution” in Britain and the American Colonies happened as the Middle Class grew. At the same time, the Second Agricultural Revolution began, which massively expanded food production. A health care revolution, beginning with Germ Theory rapidly improved medical care. The Industrial Revolution began at the start of the 19th century with the invention of the coal-powered steam engine.
The population skyrocketed, as did the pace of technological inventions. There was a cultural revolution too, as 10,000 years of agricultural lifestyles and traditions were replaced.
Gary Walton’s History of Human Progress describes what societies needed to make this transformation:
-specialization and division of labor;
-economies of scale;
-organization and resource allocation; and
-human capital (education and health).
Greg Clark offers the most innovative hypothesis, to say the least. He downplays the importance of structures and institutions and shows how labor quality mattered the most. The Industrial Revolution produced by technology or science on their own – rather something else provided the foundation for both. There was a major shift in the biological and cultural quality of laborers prior to Industialism. Workers in England were more productive than Continental workers in the same type factories, were more patient, and were more willing to save for the long term.
Clark provides substantial evidence that at least one cause in this sudden rise in labor quality was a result of downward mobility. The wealthier upper class of England outbred and outlived the lower classes. Their younger children and grandchildren filled the vacuum in the Middle and Lower classes. This downward mobility made sure that upper class values, such as literacy, education, work ethics, contracts, and property rights spread throughout society.
From the 1650s to 1800, there was a demographic shift amongst the working class. This overlaps with the structural and legal changes. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 secured property rights and provided the Constitutional structure for the civil societies.
The Enlightenment and Consumer Revolution
The printing press placed more minds into contact, allowing new ideas and technologies to spread rapidly. The Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution were facilitated by this sharing of information. This also enabled the creation of volunteer civic associations which replaced traditional extended families and states.
Professionals, artisans, merchants, and others in the urban society grew wealthier and began to buy some of the luxuries of the aristocracy. They could not afford the entire estates and all the luxuries, so instead they purchased luxuries incrementally. Businesses expanded. A new word had to be invented to describe this “middling class.”
The new Middle Class had more “social capital” in terms of education and productivity than the older peasant class. When combined with the Enlightenment, this helps reinforce Greg Clark’s hypothesis that a radical revolution changed the quality of laborers in societies immediately prior to the Industrial Revolution.
Second Agricultural Revolution
Eric Fogel and Greg Clark agree that agricultural civilizations faced some kind of Malthusian upper limit on population growth.
Before 1600, centuries elapsed between vital discoveries. Improvements and the spread of the use of the plow, for example, first introduced in the Mesopotamian Valley around 4000 B.C., changed very little over the next 5000 years… Before 1750, chronic hunger and malnutrition, disease, illness, and early death were the norm, and it was not just the masses who ate poorly.
Here’s a rough population estimate.
The Second Agricultural Revolution created a glut of food that outpaced the population growth. This had a few causes.
1) New Crops: American crops, like the potato and corn produced higher calories per acre than European crops like Wheat and oats. This had other advantages. Corn and potatoes could grow on harsh stony or sandy lands that wheat could not grow on. Potatoes are easy to grow – farmers can plant them and forget about them. Farmers could grow larger yields in smaller plots of land.
Calories per 2.5 acres of land:
Potatoes- 7.5million, Corn- 7.3 million.
Wheat- 4.2million, Oats- 5.5 million.
2) Mechanization. Steel Plows and better tools, like the reaper and cotton gin, increased production while minimizing labor.
3) Knowledge. Farming methods improved – crop rotation replaced fallow. There were better land management techniques. They also grew to understand plant nutrition better, so fertilization improved.
The Second Agricultural Revolution ended hunger and famine in advanced societies. It did more than that – it opened many laborers to specialize in different sectors of the economy. Fewer farmers could produce more. In the past, 90% of population worked farmers in past to achieve minimum dietary needs. This continued until the situation today where where 3% of the population can feed the other 97%. This opened up whole new opportunities and professions for farmers.
Eric Fogel thinks that “calories per capita” is the best method of judging wealth in pre-industrial societies.
Often badly malnourished. Calories eaten were bare minimum and mostly cereals like wheat, oats, barley, and rice. Mostly carb diet, very little animal protein, little fruit & few vegetables. For serfs & peasants, most meals were soup. Boil water mixed with various vegetables & some oats or barley.
He estimated the calories per capita in Britain and France
1700 – Britain 2,095; France 1,675
1800 – Britain 2,237; France 1,846
1900 – Britain 2,857; France 2,975
The pre-1750s diet was not just short on calories, but often lacked vital nutrients. Scurvy was common amongst the poor because there were few fresh fruits in the diet. Calories came mostly from cereals like wheat, oats, barley, and rice. It was a mostly carb diet, very little animal protein, little fruit & few vegetables.
Nutrition improved health and mental capabilities. Improved nutrition led to larger people. Average height and body mass greatly increased since the pre-1750s. The Flynn Effect suggests that cognitive capabilities rose as well.
The earlier invention of the printing press greatly facilitated communications in Europe. Europeans published more books than the rest of the world combined.
The Steam Engine led to great improvements in transportation. The spread of railroads. Steam ships greatly increased the speed of overseas trading.
The Transportation ‘revolution’ created a much larger economy of scale by linking many people of the world together. This allowed greater specialization. Continually improvements reinforced the transportation and communication changes.
Mechanization in factories allowed greatly improved manufacturing production.
This greatly improved living standards. Eric Fogel looked at the proportion of family income spent on basic necessities. For most of history, nearly the entire income was spent on food/clothing/shelter. Industrialization provided for necessities. People spent a greater portion of their income on education/luxuries/healthcare.
Poverty declined dramatically and Humanity stopped dying like flies.
This produced a drastic cultural change. Today, people are much more migratory than agricultural societies. Many agricultural cultures and traditions – like arranged marriage, slavery, debt bondage, monarchies – are being discarded as antiquated.
Culturally, we accept the Industrial Revolution like it was nothing significant. Our minds normalized incredible changes like they meant little. Just a new set of tools really. People forgot how miserable humanity lived just one century beforehand. Some, like the Marxists and romanticists, viewed these changes as bad things for segments of society. The Romantics were accused of “romanticizing the mud” of menial farm labor.
The second point is more profound. Technology produces accelerating change. Each inventions has a positive second derivative which facilitates future inventions, even if indirectly. The printing press spread knowledge which led to a great outburst of progress in mathematics and science. Today’s computers help researchers build even faster computers.
Technology feeds on itself and actually speeds up.