The Industrial Revolution: capabilities and institutions


In my previous post, I summarised a demand-side explanation of the British Industrial Revolution. In this post, I will outline a supply-side explanation put forward by economic historians Margaret Jacob and Joel Mokyr. According to the supporters of the supply-side explanation, Britain had a supply of human capital who were capable of using science and engineering knowledge to solve practical problems. Besides having a comparative advantage in human capital over continental Europe, by the eighteenth century, Britain had the necessary institutional environment that promoted the principles of the market economy. Interaction between the forces of market economy and science made the practical applications of scientific discoveries more successful in Britain. This did not happen in continental Europe, because, for centuries, the political and religious establishment had been restricting the advancement of science if it conflicted with their political agenda and Western Europe was politically fragmented.

Nevertheless, European scientists were able to exchange ideas and share new knowledge with the British. With the establishment of the Royal Society in the seventeenth century, scientists from around the world were able to present their discoveries in London and receive recognition in return. Soon enough, new associational and scientific societies were founded across Britain in various forms; some were informal societies, which had regular meetings in coffee houses and other public places. The growth of scientific culture attracted industrialists, landowners, entrepreneurs and the political elite with liberal mind-set. For the business-minded, the scientific societies provided networking opportunities, and for others, the societies provided opportunity to publicise their discoveries and to demonstrate the use of science in solving practical problems.

A critical few scientists who were not British made major scientific advances and inventions (macro-inventions) which were publicised in scientific societies and became the basis of innovations of the Industrial Revolution. The inventions made difference only in Britain – British industrialists exploited the scientific discoveries in pursuit of profit opportunities. The scientific discoveries would not have had transformative effects in Britain without the entrepreneurial tweakers who tinkered with the inventions. There was a further group of people who were implementers capable of building, installing, operating and maintaining technologies. Both the tweakers and the implementers were capable and skilled people who constituted the skilled human capital base of Britain and gave it the comparative advantage.

Britain’s tweakers adapted, improved and put scientific discoveries to work. In so doing, the tweakers relied on knowledge sharing with scientists through formal and informal communication networks. In some cases, scientists, engineers, chemists and innovators formed partnerships with entrepreneurial tweakers to work on business projects that were to become successful enterprises. For example, James Watt’s tinkering with steam technology, his development and production of industrial bleaching and industrial alkalies owe much to his connections with the scientists who attended meetings at the Lunar Society of Birmingham, the Manchester Philosophical Society, and the Royal Society.

Figure 1. New fellows of the Royal Society by decade, 1663-1919. Source: The Royal Society Archive

Entrepreneurial success required comprehension of scientific discoveries and a good deal of replication of experimental research. Neither the British government nor firms maintained research departments or funded R&D projects that helped facilitate experimentation. Also, the private costs of acquiring knowledge were not negligible. Therefore, it would seem to be an impossible undertaking to acquire a formal education that would enable a person to understand advanced scientific research in the eighteenth century. This could also explain why innovative tinkering was confined to small workshops of craftsmen prior to the Industrial Revolution. However, the cost of acquiring useful knowledge began to decline after the emergence of the associational societies, which facilitated the dissemination and the diffusion of scientific knowledge among ordinary people.

One such institution, founded in 1663 to promote scientific culture in the spirit of Baconian philosophy, was the Royal Society (RS). The society offered fellowships to individuals who contributed to the advancement of science and technology and their practical application in the industry. The RS encouraged its members to engage in scientific R&D. In return, the inventors received status-oriented rewards that raised their profile as distinguished scientists and engineers. Between 1826 and 1914, the RS, for example, awarded 173 medals, 67 of which were given for research in mathematics, astronomy and experimental physics, and two to engineers. As shown in figure 1, RS’s fellowship grew rapidly in numbers in the eighteenth century. However, the interest in RS among scientists and engineers seems to have subsided by the mid-nineteenth century. This is partly because of the growth of specialised and provincial societies. Nevertheless, RS functioned as a clearing-house for natural knowledge throughout the eighteenth century; the RS developed as a legitimating body, a review board, for scientific reports.

More general enthusiasm for natural science was manifest in the rapid growth of less-eminent scientific and natural philosophy societies, whose number increased from fewer than fifty at the end of the eighteenth century, to over 1,000 by the 1880s. The new societies not only provided networking and knowledge sharing opportunities, but also offered research grants to their members to encourage inventive efforts. Membership to scientific societies and associations reached approximately 200,000 members by 1850. Some of the prominent societies include the Society of Improvers in the Knowledge of Agriculture in Scotland (1723), the Literary Society (1752), the Lunar Society of Birmingham founded (1765), the Society of Civil Engineers (1771), the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society (1781), the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1783), the Royal Institution (1799), the Institute of Civil Engineers (1818), the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1831) and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (1847). These societies actively facilitated the diffusion of scientific knowledge and helped reduce knowledge access costs.

The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts (RSA), founded in 1754, incentivised its fellows to innovate in various areas including agriculture, manufacture, chemistry and mechanics. The society awarded prizes for technological innovations, and published scientific  research in its journal. Other societies such as the British Association for the Advancement of  Sciences (BAAS) were pivotal for the diffusion of knowledge through the provision of public lectures and large gatherings in British cities and towns, and abroad. The BAAS organised annual meetings that provided platforms for local and foreign scientists to present their papers and exchange ideas. Figure 2 shows the time series of attendance in the annual meetings of the BAAS. Large swings in the attendance reflect the influence of the cost of the trip (and accommodation) to the locations where annual meetings were held. Nevertheless, the secular rise in the trend until the 1890s indicates the growing interest in science, engineering and technology among ordinary people in Britain. In particular, the drastic rise in attendance in the second half of the nineteenth century coincides with the age of the widespread application of science in the industry.

Figure 2. Attendance in annual meeting of BAAS, 1830-1914. Source: Report of the Eighty-Seventh Meeting of the BAAS (1920).

Besides associational societies, public libraries, academies, coffee houses, masonic lodges, universities and other similar institutions and venues actively involved in the strengthening of science and industry. The printing press also played a role in this process; scientific journals and books published technological advances, which provided impetus for the industrial innovations. Above all, the role of early scientific societies, especially that of the RS, was central to the establishment and strengthening of the links between the Scientific Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. Determination and dexterity of the fellows of the Royal Society appears to have laid the foundations for the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution.

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