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Mothers of Innovation: How Expanding Social Networks Gave Birth to the Industrial Revolution

Author(s):Dudley, Leonard
Reviewer(s):Jones, Eric

Published by EH.Net (June 2013)

Leonard Dudley, Mothers of Innovation: How Expanding Social Networks Gave Birth to the Industrial Revolution.? Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012.? xxi + 275 pp. $68 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-4438-4096-5.
Reviewed for EH.Net by Eric Jones, La Trobe University.

The author, professor of economics at the University of Montreal, is a creative synthesizer with an adamantine belief in the importance of literacy and linguistic standardization.? In his latest book, Leonard Dudley enlists this interest in trying to explain why innovation accelerated sharply between 1700 and 1850, doing so in certain regions of Britain, France and the United States but not in other conceivable candidates such as the German states or the Netherlands.? In the course of his argument he denies or restricts the force of currently influential interpretations such as factor proportions or the appositeness of British institutions coupled with the Enlightenment.? He points out that neither can account for the timing of innovation nor cope with the strangely neglected fact that change was regional rather than national.? Either may have been necessary ? or may not, since innovation was not confined to nor especially rapid in Britain ? but neither can have been sufficient.?

Emphasis on the region is one of the tools in Dudley?s kit.? His model concentrates, though, on the new opportunities for cooperative innovation once language was standardized and networks of inventors who could trust one another arose; their conjunction fostered collisions of unrelated schema, the way Arthur Koestler said jokes are generated.? The book is intricate, filled with computations, and ultimately draws in other factors.? Typologies of discovery are elaborated, networks are modeled, informative biographies of inventors appear, tips are offered to policy-makers, and personal experiences enliven much of the text.? (Any exception comes with the testing of the model, which no one could turn into a barrel of laughs.)? There is some repetition and a little seeming self-contradiction but Mothers of Innovation is more pleasurable to read than the bulk of the industrial revolution genre.

Some findings may surprise.? Dudley is thoroughly unimpressed by the standard view that British institutions were somehow programmed for growth: individual rights and empiricism were on the rise throughout north-western Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.? Before the industrial revolution the prices of factors of production had been high for a century.? Among British regions the correlation between coal production and innovation was negative from 1700 to 1850 except in what he calls the center ? negative in the north-east, in Scotland, in Yorkshire and throughout the remainder of England.? And in the ?center? (which he calls the Midlands though meaning the West Midlands, Lancashire and Wales) the presence of coal may just happen to have coincided with an appropriate type of society.? This would seem, therefore, to let attitudes and institutions return via preternatural enterprise in Birmingham and the lack of borough rigidities.? One can also see that he comes back to half-approving the factor proportions argument, getting over the fact that relative prices never guarantee a response by finding that Brummagem zest was putting cheap factors to work.

Problems come with the explicandum, where Dudley is partly a prisoner of conventional wisdoms.? His is a work that treats invention rather than innovation, with purely market explanations figuring as little as they do in so many industrial revolution studies.? The assumption is that inventions will be used, which is akin to thinking that adjustments to factor proportions must be automatic.? There is no point, in any case, in saying of resources that a substitute for charcoal was needed because Europe?s forests had been destroyed.? Charcoal comes from trees and trees are a crop.? Similarly, Dudley accepts the nostrum that the Glorious Revolution of 1688 ?marked a major change from custom toward contract.?? If so, which I do not believe, it was agonizingly slow.

The case that cooperation could take place among disparate inventors because language had become standardized is surely a red herring, and dated too late.? Language cohesion is too far in the background to explain much.? Differences were overcome.? Consider the paper in Semiotica (1975) called, ?On the Non-Fatal Nature of Trouble: Sense-Making and Trouble-Making in lingua franca Talk.?? Even Defoe and the ?dexterous dunce? with the Somerset accent could get by.? But Dudley also makes much of the Baptists and Quakers.? Their circles, he ultimately implies, may be where the emphasis should lie.? The non-conformist sects aided cooperation; contact within them was a given and trust was assured.

The sample of inventions seems limited and arbitrary, as the author also eventually admits, and their distributions are sometimes inexact, as when Cort?s puddling of iron near Portsmouth is assigned to London.? Geography is a difficulty on several counts.? For example, Dudley insists on the inventive vacuum of the Netherlands.? Dutch institutions did not cut it, he says.? Yet why should people with high incomes from trade bother to invent?? They could not be expected to predict what the future might hold and in the meantime allocated their talent rationally.

The industrial revolution was English, not British, and I have used ?Britain? hitherto only because Dudley does.? Indeed, the book is really about England, with little about France or the United States.? Of innovations between 1800 and 1849 only two percent ? a single invention ? surfaced in Scotland.? The Scots took the high road to England, while Wales did not figure.? Moreover the author?s enthusiasm for Birmingham and relegation of Lancashire to a late phase of development leads him to miss the inspired, early watch-makers of south Lancashire, recruited to develop cotton machinery.? Finally, we may be discussing an industrial revolution but it was one that grew from a broad base.? Omitting agriculture means missing its close connections with other sectors and truncating the map of inventiveness.? Leonard Dudley answers his own sharp questions about ?where? and ?when? in terms of cooperative networks, language standardization, the availability of resources, the absence of borough restrictions, the protection of property rights, and local path dependence.? His is an engaging and challenging book that deserves to spark plenty of further research among the open-minded.

Eric Jones, Emeritus Professor, La Trobe University, and former Professor, Melbourne Business School, is the author of Locating the Industrial Revolution: Inducement and Response (World Scientific, 2010), The Fabric of Society and How It Creates Wealth (Arley Hall Press, 2013) (with Charles Foster), and Revealed Biodiversity: An Economic History of the Human Impact (World Scientific, in press).

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Subject(s):History of Technology, including Technological Change
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century