All Commentary
Friday, October 22, 2010

The Industrial Revolutionaries: The Making of the Modern World, 1776–1914

For anyone interested in technology, the Industrial Revolution, or technical progress more broadly, this is a wonderful book. When I compare how people lived, say, in 1809 to how we live today, I am continually stunned by all that has happened. From horse-drawn carriages to iPhones in two centuries. It is hard to be an economist, or perhaps even a human being, without an intense curiosity about how all this came about.

The Industrial Revolutionaries doesn’t answer that fundamental puzzle, but it puts a lot of interesting pieces on the table. It is marvelous reading as well. This is not a dry account of innovation and technological progress, but a living, breathing history of the people who made that progress happen. Some of them (for example, Samuel Morse) you will have heard of before—although perhaps not quite in the light portrayed in this book. Others are scarcely household names.

For me much of the mystery isn’t so much in how innovation takes place, but in how it is adopted, spread, improved, and made to work. That discovery process is the soul of this book.

Many of the protagonists of this story believed that their ideas might be stolen, sometimes taking elaborate measures to preserve their secrets and obtaining patents. It is hard to read this book and conclude that this is anything but a mistake. Technology is difficult to transfer. Those who succeeded the best are those who helped the world learn of their ideas and took advantage of others to improve their ideas and make them practical. Little progress has ever been made by putting ideas under lock and key, whether in the form of patents or trade secrecy.

Let me quote Weightman, discussing the Arkwright water frames. “If you glance at a diagram of the first of Arkwright’s water frames, it is immediately apparent that copying it would be no easy task. . . . [T]here was no substitute for finding someone who had spent time in the Mill.” Hard practical knowledge—that’s what innovation is all about—is not so easily stolen.

Most of the book discusses the less well-known inventions that were every bit as integral a part of the Industrial Revolution as the steam engine. Weightman is careful to explain just how essential these “lesser” (but in fact merely less well-known) inventions were. The entire Industrial Revolution centered not on an idea or invention or two, but on interlocking sets of inventions and ideas. Take the improved iron produced first by Wilkinson. Did you know that railroad tracks in the United States were originally made of wood? You can imagine the success of railroads that ran on rotted and broken wooden tracks. Yet until the demand for transportation increased and the Wilkinson methods were successfully recreated in the United States, we lagged behind England in railroads.

How did England get such an edge on France in the Industrial Revolution? I can’t say that Weightman has entirely solved that puzzle, but he convinces me that the French Revolution played an enormous role. Just as the United States leapfrogged past Germany when Hitler drove out his scientists, so England and the rest of the world advanced past France when France executed or drove into exile its innovators. The tale of French innovators during the revolution is fascinating, and it’s good for the rest of us that many managed to escape.

Speaking of unsung heroes, how about the English “navvies,” the all-around workmen who built everything from railroads to tunnels? You wouldn’t think that “unskilled” labor was so important, but having workmen with basic technical skills and a decent diet made all the difference—so much so that to build railroads in France, the English used their own workmen.

The book is full of speculators, revolutionaries, and heroes. How did Japan catch up to Western Europe, going from medieval technology to the modern era in mere decades? Read the story of the Choshu samurai who remade their country. Or in the other direction, read the pathetic story of Samuel Morse, a man far more interested in taking credit for other people’s work than in advancing the cutting edge of technology. Do you know of Justis Liebig, the pioneer of organic chemistry, and the role organic chemistry played in the late stages of the Industrial Revolution? I did not. The book is full of romance as well. I wouldn’t have imagined that the invention of the torpedo was directly responsible for The Sound of Music. Not the movie—the real life story the movie was based on.

Innovation, for whatever else it may be, is fun. Weightman manages to convey this while laying out a wealth of information about how it really takes place.