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The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective

Author(s):Allen, Robert C.
Reviewer(s):Leunig, Tim

Published by EH.Net (February 2011)

Robert C. Allen, The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.? xi + 331 pp. $28 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-521-68785-0.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Tim Leunig, Department of Economic History, London School of Economics.

We all teach topics that are outside the narrow confines of our own research. Textbooks are designed to fill these gaps, but textbooks are balanced by design, and that is not what academia is about. Think of Crafts and McCloskey on whether Victorian Britain failed, or Williamson and Feinstein on inequality. The nature of academia is to argue, and getting that over to students — who have been brought up on a bland diet of textbooks and apparent ?truth? in schools — is one of our jobs.

In this context Robert C Allen?s The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective is a triumph. It is comprehensive, as textbooks should be. But it is not a textbook, even though it looks like one. This is Allen?s view of why it happened, in accessible format. It is easier to follow than Crafts? 1985 classic British Economic Growth during the Industrial Revolution, with which I struggled as a first year undergraduate (and which, looking back, I suspect my teachers understood little better!). And Allen?s book has fewer than half as many words as Mokyr?s The Enlightened Economy, which helps to get students to actually read it.

The Allen view of ?Why Britain?? is well- known, and is essentially the Rothbarth-Habakkuk view: ?wages were remarkably high, and energy was remarkably cheap? (p. 2). Hence the industrial revolution was ?uniquely profitable? in Britain.

Chapter one is a two page summary of the Allen view, followed by a page or so on other approaches — culture, consumerism, property rights, etc. These are seen as necessary, but insufficient — with Europe as evidence.

Chapters 2 to 5 cover the pre-industrial economy. Chapter 2 contains evidence that eighteenth century British workers were rich by international standards. Everyone except Greg Clark will broadly accept this chapter.

It also sets out the Allen approach: lots of tables, numbers, and details. Pages 36-37, for example, contain just four lines of text, with the rest devoted to tables. One has 16 lines of notes, including the grams of protein per egg, given to two decimal places. It is good that students realize the tedium of working things out properly!

Chapter 3 tells the story of agriculture, reversing the standard story that rises in productivity allowed people to leave for the cities: instead high city wages led people to leave, which then led productivity to rise.

Chapter 4 explains the cheap energy economy, in comparative context. It ?was a foundation of Britain?s economic success? and compensated for high wages in international markets.

Chapter 5 brings chapters 2-4 together, in a model of the pre-industrial economy. The model is described in words in the text, with equations in an appendix. Allen has done a good job of being accessible, but it is not an easy read, and — my students tell me — it is only partially successful. To Allen ?0.40 LNTL? where ?LNTL is the logarithm of the land-labour ratio? is straightforward, but this will not be true for all readers. The main text description of how rising demand and population leave wages unchanged will not be easy for straight history students (not helped by the description being on page 113, and the figure overleaf, on page 114), and will be beyond most school students.

Chapters 6 to 11 explain the industrial revolution. Chapter 6 (?Why Was the Industrial Revolution British??) is the core. Just 16 pages (plus an appendix with isoquants, no less) are sufficient to set out the ?prices matter? approach, and apply them briefly to Britain versus China and Britain versus France. If students read only one chapter, it should be this one, and it is a particularly well-written chapter.

Chapters 7, 8 and 9 apply ?prices matter? to steam, cotton and iron respectively. Allen?s genuine understanding of technology stands out. He is not an economist who thinks prices are important and inventions automatic given price ratios. He understands that prices create incentives, but also understands and appreciates — as an historian should — that the hard work of invention and refining is interesting, and is what history is made of. But we expect nothing less of someone who aspires to build a Meccano model of a spinning wheel. There are good descriptions of how inventions and improvements actually came about, and good photographs and schematic diagrams as well.

Chapter 10 is a slightly odd chapter, and is really ?What Bob Allen Thinks of Joel Mokyr?s Ideas,? i.e. that the enlightened economy was necessary, but arguing — using European evidence — that it was insufficient. Chapter 11 is a four page conclusion.

Unfortunately, Cambridge University Press have done a shoddy job in quite a few places: time series charts with no dates on the axis, for example.

Robert Allen, and the Economic History Society that commissioned him, can be proud of this book. It is a good effort and achieves something difficult: being comprehensive and opinionated and readable.

Tim Leunig is co-editor of Explorations in Economic History.? He has written on living standards, the cotton industry and railways in the British industrial revolution.

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Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):17th Century
18th Century
19th Century