The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective
In one of his most recent publications The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective, Robert C. Allen, over the course of 11 chapters and two sections, argues that the high cost of labor and the abundance of coal in northern and western Britain provided the requisite circumstances for an industrial revolution.
His argument comes with some subtle niceties, like the importance of Britain’s "not too big" "not too small population," which he glosses over, but on the whole, he puts forth his argument clearly and in astute detail.
In part one of this book, Allen demonstrates the medieval origins of the Industrial Revolution. He posits that the Black Death freed up more and better grazing land for sheep, thereby fattening them and subsequently lengthening their undercoats. Britain’s then mercantilist approach to economics resulted in the placement of a heavy tax on wool exports. This tax helped guarantee that Britons would reap the then greater rewards of selling finished product. Accordingly, the emergence of long-haired sheep in Britain led to a lucrative textile trade between Britons and their continental counterparts.
Once the textile industry took off, Britons had reason to move to London. Emigration from the countryside, to work in the textile business, raised the nation’s level of urbanization. And greater urbanization meant greater demand for produce, finally goading farmers to improve their age-old practices and innovate on the land.
At this point, Londoners were making more than subsistence, and this demographic could afford luxury goods now. Creating a market for new goods, clocks, tobacco, sugar, etc., British affluence had prompted a consumer revolution.
Yeomen who wanted to participate in this consumer revolution were faced with two options: give up and move to the city or improve agricultural yields. Many chose the former, but some stuck it out. And those farmers who did endure accomplished improvements in yield by reducing labor or increasing the productivity of the land.
Eventually, not only Londoners but everyone in Britain was earning more than mere subsistence, and participation in the consumer revolution, further fueled by raw materials and finished products flowing out of colonial acquisitions, exploded.
Then in part two, Allen explains that the high cost of labor and the proliferation of coal in Britain made it profitable to undertake R&D, which sought to eliminate labor, usually replacing it with coal.
From the R&D stage, Britain then moved to another phase, in industrial innovation, that Allen calls “local learning.” “Local learning,” a process where inventions were improved by the sharing of innovations among the members of communities across Great Britain, eventually improved technology invented by high dollar R&D projects with low dollar daily business operations.
In the end, Allen explains, the technology invented to circumvent British economic biases was improved past a “tipping point” in which the technology was so improved that its implementation was made profitable on the continent and overseas.