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The First Knowledge Economy: Human Capital and the European Economy, 1750-1850

Author(s):Jacob, Margaret C.
Reviewer(s):Hornung, Erik

Published by EH.Net (September 2015)

Margaret C. Jacob, The First Knowledge Economy: Human Capital and the European Economy, 1750-1850. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. ix + 257 pp. $30 (paperback), ISBN: 978-1-107-61983-8.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Erik Hornung, Max Planck Institute for Tax Law and Public Finance.

Many factors have been identified as causes of the transition to sustained economic growth during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Human capital may be one of the most controversial additions to the long list of causes, not least because the English are not known to have been well educated at the eve of the Industrial Revolution. In The First Knowledge Economy, Margaret C Jacob argues that English knowledge elites were at the heart of the transition. She especially focusses on the marriage between theoretical sciences and applied mechanical knowledge which helped creating many technological innovations during the Industrial Revolution. She, thus, aims at rectifying the prevalent hypothesis that technological progress resulted from tinkering of skilled but science-ignorant engineers. An impressive set of new archival sources supports her argument that English engineers were, indeed, well aware of and heavily influenced by recent advances in natural sciences.

Each of the first four chapter focuses on outstanding entrepreneurs and engineers whose records and transcripts have survived. Available information on technical and scientific knowledge is extracted from correspondence with fellow engineers and businessmen, calculations, lecture notes, thoughts about scientific readings, and involvement in scientific societies. In this manner, the reader learns how scientific content affected mindsets and decisions of famous entrepreneurs and eventually entered the production process. Understanding that their decisions were based on the latest advances in science helps to sort out the misconception that entrepreneurs were uninformed tinkerers who accidentally became successful. When tinkering, they did so with mechanical precision and regard for the known natural laws.

After a rather unstructured introduction, Chapter 1 depicts James Watt and Matthew Boulton, the inventor/entrepreneur duo famed for developing the steam engine. Analyzing a wealth of notebook entries and correspondence, Jacob depicts the views and attitudes towards religion, politics, education and science of the two businessmen and their family members. Although never formal scholars of science at any institute of higher learning, science infused the life and work of both Watt and Boulton.

The second chapter is mainly concerned with the argument that England was first because labor was expensive and coal was cheap, which made the invention of steam engines necessary. Jacob argues that technical knowledge was crucial for technological progress in mining. This claim is substantiated by transcripts which exemplify the technical knowledge of engineers, colliers, and so-called viewers working with steam engines. Clearly the majority of the technical staff in English mining must have been highly literate and capable of doing sophisticated calculations. They needed to estimate the size of engine cylinders, water-pumping potential, and the size and costs of a steam engine to advise mine owners on which steam engines to buy. Their knowledge eventually translated to a wide knowledge base which diffused through publications and public lectures.

Chapters 3 and 4 expand the established concepts to the Manchester cotton spinning industry and the Leeds textile industry. Using the correspondence of cotton barons John Kennedy and James M’Connel, Jacob describes how science and technical knowledge increased in importance during the mechanization of cotton spinning. Cloth manufacturing was arguably less prone to mechanization than spinning. Yet, the notebooks of textile manufacturers John Marshall and Benjamin Gott confirm the established pattern of adoption of scientific knowledge. The chapters conclude that a common language was needed to allow for the interaction between manufacturers and engineers. Once established entrepreneurs were able to mechanize, their businesses and machines became more sophisticated and complex.

Chapters 5 and 6 constitute a geographical change and a methodological break in the book. The center of attention is shifted to France and the “puzzle” why the French lagged behind in industrial development. Although highly interested in the practical uses of the new science, the Ancien Régime failed to create an optimal environment for industrial purposes. Jacob argues that scientific education was almost completely directed toward the aristocracy who entered into military positions. Consequently, technical knowledge was primarily used in military engineering and not for commercial activity. The French Revolution democratized education and increased the scientific content of the curricula, but, this was only a brief episode before the Restoration re-reformed education to replace scientific with religious content subject to harsh supervision by the clergy and police authorities.

Chapter 7 shifts the focus to the Low Countries, comparing Belgium and the Netherlands regarding how French occupying forces managed to instill scientific knowledge in the curricula of secondary schools and universities. Jacob argues that Belgium with its centralized system of education embraced and retained the French reforms towards industrial educational after 1795, which helped them industrialize quickly. Unlike Belgium, the Netherlands with its localized system of education did not embrace French educational reforms and industrialization evolved more slowly.

Jacob argues that we do not know enough about the curriculum in England, since schooling was organized locally. Thus, to understand whether industry benefited from sciences, we have to rely on the scientific knowledge of entrepreneurs and engineers without knowing where it was acquired. Due to the fact that France was more centralized, it can be convincingly established that the French institutional setting did not leave enough room for scientific content in public education. However, it remains unclear whether this argument suffices in contributing to solve the puzzle of continental backwardness. Instead of applying the established concept of relying on biographical information and the personal scientific knowledge of successful entrepreneurs to France (and the Low Countries), Jacob decides to provide a summary of the political economy of schooling and the curriculum during the pre- and post-Revolution. For a suitable comparison we would need to learn more about the adoption of scientific knowledge by continental entrepreneurs and engineers. We might end up finding similar patterns here.  A recent article by Squicciarini and Voigtlaender (2015) focusses on French knowledge elites (subscribers to Diderot’s Encyclopédie), who seem to have been relevant for industrial development during the period from 1750 to 1850.

This book makes an important contribution by showing that English technological development did not occur detached from scientific advances. Jacob carefully avoids drawing strong conclusions and generalizations. She asserts a central role to human capital without making causal claims. A little more structure and clearer statements might have been helpful. If cheap energy and expensive labor made inventing labor-saving technologies profitable, acquisition of scientific knowledge might be considered a proximate factor rather than the ultimate cause.


Mara P. Squicciarini and Nico Voigtländer (2015). “Human Capital and Industrialization: Evidence from the Age of Enlightenment.” Quarterly Journal of Economics (forthcoming)

Erik Hornung ( is Senior Research Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Tax Law and Public Finance. He is author of the paper “Immigration and the Diffusion of Technology: The Huguenot Diaspora in Prussia,” American Economic Review 104-1 (2014): 84-122.

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Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Education and Human Resource Development
History of Technology, including Technological Change
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century