The Unbound Prometheus
In the eighteenth century, a series of inventions transformed the manufacture of cotton in England and gave rise to a new mode of production—the factory system. During these years, other branches of industry effected comparable advances, and all these together, mutually reinforcing one another, made possible further gains on an ever-widening front. The abundance and variety of these innovations almost defy compilation, but they may be subsumed under three principles: the substitution of machines—rapid, regular, precise, tireless—for human skill and effort; the substitution of inanimate for animate sources of power, in particular, the introduction of engines for converting heat into work, thereby opening to man a new and almost unlimited supply of energy; the use of new and far more abundant raw materials, in particular, the substitution of mineral for vegetable or animal substances.
These improvements constitute the Industrial Revolution. They yielded an unprecedented increase in man's productivity and, with it, a substantial rise in income per head. Moreover, this rapid growth was self-sustaining. Where previously, an amelioration of the conditions of existence, hence of survival, and an increase in economic opportunity had always been followed by a rise in population that eventually consumed the gains achieved, now for the first time in history, both the economy and knowledge were growing fast enough to generate a continuing flow of investment and technological innovation, a flow that lifted beyond visible limits the ceiling of Malthus's positive checks. The Industrial Revolution thereby opened a new age of promise. It also transformed the balance of political power, within nations, between nations, and between civilizations; revolutionized the social order; and as much changed man's way of thinking as his way of doing.
In 1760 Britain imported some 2 1/2 million pounds of raw cotton to feed an industry dispersed for the most part through the countryside of Lancashire and existing in conjunction with the linen manufacture, which supplied it with the tough warp yarn it had not yet learned to produce. All of its work was done by hand, usually (excluding dyeing and finishing) in the homes of the workers, occasionally in the small shops of the master weavers. A generation later, in 1787, the consumption of raw cotton was up to 22 million pounds; the cotton manufacture was second only to wool in numbers employed and value of product; most of the fibre consumed was being cleaned, carded, and spun on machines, some driven by water in large mills, some by hand in smaller shops or even in cottages. A half-century later, consumption had increased to 366 million pounds; the cotton manufacture was the most important in the kingdom in value of product, capital invested, and numbers employed; almost all of its employees, except for the still large number of hand-loom weavers, worked in mills under factory discipline. The price of yarn had fallen to perhaps one twentieth of what it had been, and the cheapest Hindu labour could not compete in either quality or quantity with Lancashire's mules and throstles. British cotton goods sold everywhere in the world: exports, a third larger than home consumption, were worth four times those of woollens and worsteds. The cotton mill was the symbol of Britain's industrial greatness; the cotton hand, of her greatest social problem-the rise of an industrial proletariat.
Why did this revolution in the techniques and organization of manufacture occur first in Britain? A few theoretical considerations may help us to organize the argument. Technological change is never automatic. It means the displacement of established methods, damage to vested interests, often serious human dislocations. Under the circumstances, there usually must be a combination of considerations to call forth such a departure and make it possible: (I) an opportunity for improvement due to inadequacy of prevailing techniques, or a need for improvement created by autonomous increases in factor costs; and (2) a degree of superiority such that the new methods pay sufficiently to cover the costs of the change. Implicit in the latter is the assumption that, however much the users of older, less efficient methods may attempt to survive by compressing the costs of the human factors of production, entrepreneurial or labour, the new techniques are enough of an improvement to enable progressive producers to outprice them and displace them.
The technological changes that we denote as the 'Industrial Revolution' implied a far more drastic break with the past than anything since the invention of the wheel. On the entrepreneurial side, they necessitated a sharp redistribution of investment and a concomitant revision of the concept of risk. Where before, almost all the costs of manufacture had been variable—raw materials and labour primarily—more and more would now have to be sunk in fixed plant. The flexibility of the older system had been very advantageous to the entrepreneur: in time of depression, he was able to halt production at little cost, resuming work only when and in so far as conditions made advisable. Now he was to be a prisoner of his investment, a situation that many of the traditional merchant-manufacturers found very hard, even impossible, to accept.
For the worker, the transformation was even more fundamental, for not only his occupational role, but his very way of life was at stake. For many—though by no means for all—the introduction of machinery implied for the first time a complete separation from the means of production; the worker became a 'hand.' On almost all, however, the machine imposed a new discipline. No longer could the spinner turn her wheel and the weaver throw his shuttle at home, free of supervision, both in their own good time. Now the work had to be done in a factory, at a pace set by tireless, inanimate equipment, as part of a large team that had to begin, pause, and stop in unison—all under the close eye of overseers, enforcing assiduity by moral, pecuniary, occasionally even physical means of compulsion. The factory was a new kind of prison; the clock a new kind of jailer.
In short, only the strongest incentives could have persuaded entrepreneurs to undertake and accept these changes; and only major advances could have overcome the dogged resistance of labour to the very principle of mechanization.
The origins of the entrepreneurial interest in machines and factory production must be sought in the growing inadequacy of the older modes of production, an inadequacy rooted in internal contradictions, themselves aggravated by external forces.
Of these pre-factory forms of organization, the oldest was the independent craft shop, with master often assisted by one or more journeymen or apprentices. Fairly early, however—as far back as the thirteenth century—this independence broke down in many areas, and the artisan found himself bound to the merchant who supplied his raw materials and sold his finished work. This subordination of the producer to the intermediary (or, less often, of weak producers to strong ones) was a consequence of the growth of the market. Where once the artisan worked for a local clientele, a small but fairly stable group that was bound to him personally as well as by pecuniary interest, he now came to depend on sales through a middleman in distant, competitive markets. He was ill-equipped to cope with the fluctuations inherent in this arrangement. In bad times he might be completely idle, with no one to sell to; and when business improved, he usually had to borrow from his merchant the materials needed to get started again. Once caught on a treadmill of debt—his finished work mortgaged in advance to his creditor—the craftsman rarely regained his independence; his work sufficed to support him—no more—and he was in fact if not in principle a proletarian, selling not a commodity, but labour.
Aside from his pecuniary difficulties, the local artisan was in no position to know and exploit the needs of distant consumers. Only the merchant could respond to the ebb and flow of demand, calling for changes in the nature of the final product to meet consumer tastes, recruiting additional labour when necessary, supplying tools as well as materials to potential artisans. It was largely in this way that the rural population was drawn into the productive circuit. Very early, urban merchants came to realize that the countryside was a reservoir of cheap labour: peasants eager to eke out the meagre income of the land by working in the off-season, wives and children with free time to prepare the man's work and assist him in his task. And though the country weaver, nail-maker, or cutler was less skilled than the guildsman or journeyman of the town, he was less expensive, for the marginal utility of his free time was, initially at least, low, and his agricultural resources, however modest, enabled him to get by on that much less additional income. Furthermore, rural putting-out was free of guild restrictions on the nature of the product, the techniques of manufacture, and the size of enterprise.
The above description of a long and complex historical process inevitably oversimplifies. If it seems reasonable to assert that, taking Europe as a whole, most putters-out came from the mercantile side, it is important to note the many exceptions: the weavers who became clothiers by hiring their less enterprising neighbours; the fullers and dyers who had accumulated capital in the finishing processes and integrated backwards by contracting directly for yarn and cloth. In some areas, most notably the region around Leeds in the West Riding of Yorkshire, rural artisans organized their own small weaving sheds, joined when necessary to create common facilities, and sold their pieces as independent clothiers in the weekly cloth halls. But even in Yorkshire, this fragmentation of enterprise was characteristic primarily of the woollen trade; in the worsted manufacture, where capital requirements were greater, the productive unit was larger and the merchant putter-out more important.
The English textile industry built its fortune in the late medieval and early modern periods on rural manufacture. No centre of production, except perhaps Flanders, was so quick to turn from the towns to the countryside; it is estimated that as early as 1400 over half the output of wool cloth was accounted for in this manner. The trend continued: by the mid-eighteenth century, the great preponderance of the British wool manufacture was cottage industry; of all the towns immemorially associated with the wool trade, only Norwich remained as an important urban centre, and it was rapidly declining in relative importance. Allowing for such regional variations, moreover, and for occasional pauses, the industry as a whole had prospered impressively. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, at a time when the Italian manufacture was a shadow of its former self, when Dutch cloth output was shrinking steadily, and when France was in the throes of a prolonged depression, British consumption of raw wool was growing at the rate of about 8 per cent a decade; and from about 1740 to 1770, the decennial increase was 13 or 14 per cent.
This growth merits detailed attention, for it was the principal precipitant of the changes we denote by the Industrial Revolution, and understanding it may help us understand the reasons for British precedence in technological and economic development. In part the wool industry grew because of favourable conditions of production. Thus no country had so abundant a supply of raw wool, particularly the long wool required for the lighter, harder, worsted fabrics. And rural manufacture, largely unhampered by guild restrictions or government regulation, was in a position to make the most of this resource advantage by suiting its product to demand and changes in demand. In particular, it was free to develop cheaper fabrics, perhaps less sturdy than the traditional broadcloths and stuffs, but usable and often more comfortable. This freedom to adjust and innovate is particularly important in light industry, where resources and similar material considerations often are less important as locational factors than entrepreneurship. A good example from within the British wool industry is the rapid growth of the Yorkshire worsted trade, to the point where it passed the older centre of East Anglia in the course of the eighteenth century; compare Clapham's explanation: 'the ordinary case of a pushing, hardworking locality with certain slight advantages, attacking the lower grades of an expanding industry.' We shall have occasion to remark comparable examples of the advantages of entrepreneurial freedom when we turn to the continental countries. In the meantime, we may note that the British wool manufacture profited the more from its liberty because some of its most dangerous competitors across the Channel were being subjected in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries to increasing regulation and control.
Finally, one should cite the relative freedom of British industry from the disturbance and destruction of war, the uneven but long and often rich inflow of skilled foreign artisans, and the access of the producing centres to water transport, hence distant markets—all factors conducive to lower costs of manufacture and distribution.
On the demand side, the British wool manufacture was comparably favoured. The population of the kingdom was not large, but it was growing, faster probably by the middle of the eighteenth century than that of any of the countries across the Channel. From not quite 6 millions around 1700, it rose to almost 9 millions in 1800; 70-90 per cent of the gain came in the second half of the period. What is more, the absence of internal customs barriers or feudal tolls created in Britain the largest coherent market in Europe. This political unity was confirmed by the geography of the island: the land mass was small; the topography, easy; the coastline, deeply indented. By contrast, a country like France, with more than three times as many people, was cut up by internal customs barriers into three major trade areas, and by informal custom, obsolete tolls and charges, and, above all, poor communications into a mosaic of semi-autarkic cells.
Moreover, what nature bestowed, man improved. From the midseventeenth century on, there was a continuous and growing investment of both public and private resources in the extension of the river system and the construction of new roads and bridges. By 1750 there were over a thousand miles of navigable streams in Britain; and Parliament had been passing turnpike acts at the rate of eight a year for half a century. Impressive as this development was, it was inadequate to the needs of the economy, and the pace of investment increased markedly in the fifties and sixties. These years saw the first canals (Sankey Navigation, 1755-9; Duke of Bridgewater's canal, 1759-61) and turnpike acts at the rate of forty a year. In two decades (1760-80), navigable water and solid roads linked the major industrial centres of the North to those of the Midlands, the Midlands to London, and London to the Severn basin and the Atlantic.
Within the market of Britain, purchasing power per head and standard of living were significantly higher than on the Continent. We have no precise measures of national income for the eighteenth century, but there is an abundance of impressionistic testimony by travellers from both sides of the Channel to the greater equality of wealth, higher wages, and greater abundance to be found in Britain. Thus one of the best signs of comfort in Europe is the consumption of white bread; in the nineteenth century, one can almost follow the rise in per capita income and the diffusion of higher living standards among the poorer sections of the population, into rural areas, and into central and eastern Europe by the wheat frontier. In the eighteenth century England was known as the country of the wheaten loaf. This was an exaggeration: in large areas, particularly in the Midlands and North, rye and barley were the staple grains, especially in the early part of the century. Even there, however, the bread grew whiter over the years, and nowhere was there anything like the reliance one found across the Channel on coarser cereals like buckwheat and oats. Similarly, there was much myth in the image of John Bull, beefeater. Yet when Arthur Young sat down to soup in the Pays Basque—'what we should call the farmer's ordinary' —he received 'ample provision of cabbage, grease, and water, and about as much meat for some scores of people, as half a dozen English farmers would have eaten, and grumbled at their host for short commons.' Even workhouse menus, hardly designed to make life agreeable for the residents, provided for meat daily or at least several times a week.
The English labourer not only ate better; he spent less of his income on food than his continental counterpart, and in most areas this portion was shrinking, whereas across the Channel it may well have risen during much of the eighteenth century. As a result, he had more to spare for other things, including manufactures. The Englishman was reputed for wearing leather shoes where the Fleming or Frenchman wore clogs. He was dressed in wool where the French or German peasant often shivered in linen, a noble fabric for table or bed, but a poor shield against the European winter.