Everything you ever wanted to know about the Industrial Revolution in 15 pages

The Industrial Revolution is the key break in world history, the event that defines our lives. No episode is more important. Yet the timing, location, and cause of the Industrial Revolution are unsolved puzzles. Explaining the Industrial Revolution is the ultimate, elusive prize in economic history. It is a prize that has inspired generations of scholars to lifetimes of, so far, fruitless pursuit.

That is Greg Clark beginning his review of Joel Mokyr’s new book, on how Enlightenment ideas, rather than incentives or demographics, made Britain the first to industrialize.

Greg is not persuaded. His piece is a crisp review and critique of the full Industrial Revolution debate, worth reading for that reason alone.

One thing I am surprised not to hear in the “Why Britain and not China or France?” discussions: maybe it’s all in the error term.

A difference of 50 or 100 or even 200 years is not a great span of time in human technological development. Maybe those first steps happened in Britain first by chance, and inevitably gathered steam (pun intended). If a tree had fallen on the inventor of the steam engine, maybe China would have been the first to industrialize.

I have a feeling the historian’s response would be: but there were several inventors of the steam engine in Britain, implying there was a systemic change larger than one person or event. And China did invent many of these technologies, but for this and that reason they never took off. Fair enough. I would like to see it argued, and ask whether we should think their “test” is high-powered (i.e. compelling in a statistical sense). I suspect there is still much room for chance. But I almost never hear that point made.

One exception is the new Acemoglu and Robinson book, who talk about chance quite candidly. I am still reading and enjoying, and will find time to write about the book on that elusive day when field projects and fundraising do not consume my life. In the meantime, here is a provocative review from Clive Crook.