The Roots of Progress

Highlights from The Industrial Revolution, by T. S. Ashton

The Industrial Revolution, 1760-1830, by Thomas S. Ashton, is classic in the field, published in 1948. Here are some of my highlights from it. (Emphasis in bold added by me.)

The role of chance

What was the role of chance in the inventions of the Industrial Revolution?

It is true that there were inventors—men like Brindley and Murdoch—who were endowed with little learning, but with much native wit. It is true that there were others, such as Crompton and Cort, whose discoveries transformed whole industries, but left them to end their days in relative poverty. It is true that a few new products came into being as the result of accident. But such accounts have done harm by obscuring the fact that systematic thought lay behind most of the innovations in industrial practice, by making it appear that the distribution of awards and penalties in the economic system was wholly irrational, and, above all, by over-stressing the part played by chance in technical progress. “Chance,” as Pasteur said, “favours only the mind which is prepared”: most discoveries are achieved only after repeated trial and error.

The revolution of ideas

Ashton gives weight to both material and intellectual causes of the Industrial Revolution:

The conjuncture of growing supplies of land, labour, and capital made possible the expansion of industry; coal and steam provided the fuel and power for large-scale manufacture; low rates of interest, rising prices, and high expectations of profit offered the incentive. But behind and beyond these material and economic factors lay something more. Trade with foreign parts had widened men’s views of the world, and science their conception of the universe: the industrial revolution was also a revolution of ideas.

What kind of ideas? For example:

The Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, which appeared in 1776, was to serve as a court of appeal on matters of economics and politics for generations to come. Its judgements were the material from which men not given to the study of treatises framed their maxims of conduct for business and government alike. It was under its influence that the idea of a more or less fixed volume of trade and employment, directed and regulated by the State, gave way—gradually and with many setbacks—to thoughts of unlimited progress in a free and expanding economy.

More on Smith’s influence:

In 1776 Adam Smith turned his batteries on a crumbling structure, and through his influence on Pitt and, later, on Huskisson and others, some breaches were made in the ramparts. The Wealth of Nations gave matchless expression to the thoughts that had been raised in men’s minds by the march of events. It gave logic and system to these. In place of the dictates of the State, it set, as the guiding principle, the spontaneous choices and actions of ordinary men. The idea that individuals, each following his own interest, created laws as impersonal, or at least as anonymous, as those of the natural sciences was arresting. And the belief that these must be socially beneficial quickened the spirit of optimism that was a feature of the revolution in industry.

Work hazards

I am continually amazed by the level of risk assumed by individual workers before the 20th century. Mining was especially hazardous:

The chief technical problems of getting coal arose from the presence in the pits of gas and water. The inert gas, chokedamp, might be dispersed by dragging bunches of furze along the galleries, or by other simple devices. But the inflammable firedamp was a more serious matter. It was sometimes dealt with by a fireman, who, clad in leather or wet rags, carried a long pole with a lighted candle at the end, with which, at some personal risk, he exploded the gas.

(!) Another example:

Sometimes the colliers ascended or descended in the baskets [that carried coal]; but more often they thrust a leg through a loop in the winding rope, and, clustered together, rode the shaft, the boys sitting on the knees of the men, or simply clinging to the rope with hands and feet. Accidents, by striking the walls, or falling to the bottom of the shaft, were not infrequent.

Related, see my essay on factory safety.

Worker freedom

Before the Industrial Revolution, many workers had considerable freedom to set their hours, which they used and abused:

In mining absenteeism seems to have been at least as common as it is today, and holidays were numerous and well observed. Many domestic workers were accustomed to give Sunday, Monday, and sometimes Tuesday, to idleness or sport. This meant, however, that they had to work long into the night for the rest of the week; and though the irregularity was not, perhaps, of much consequence for the adult (some writers of books behave in much the same way) it can hardly have been good for the children who helped him.

But others gave up freedom in exchange for job security:

The Scottish colliers and salt-workers were guaranteed subsistence, but they were bound, by custom and law, to work at the same place and the same job for life.

Elaborating on this later, Ashton writes:

In the coal industry of Scotland all classes of workers were literally serfs, bound by law and custom to a laird, and subject to purchase and sale with the pits; and in Northumberland and Durham, and some other English coalfields, the men were still engaged at annual hirings under bonds which ran just short of the year. One of the biggest problems that confronted the employers of the early years of the industrial revolution was that of selecting men capable of learning the new techniques and susceptible to the discipline that the new forms of industry imposed. When time and energy had been given to this it was only prudent to ensure that the trainee would not be enticed away. Boulton and Watt made their engine-erectors enter into agreements to serve for three or five years; the Earl of Dundonald contracted with one of his chemical workers for twenty-five years; and some of the iron-founders in South Wales were tied for the term of their natural lives.

Worker skill

Did the Industrial Revolution destroy the skill of workers? Ashton claims there was a net increase in skill as workers were trained on new, technically demanding projects like canal construction and engine-making:

Brindley had been obliged to begin his task with the aid of miners and common labourers, but in the process of constructing his canals he created new classes of tunnellers and navvies of high skill. In his early days Watt had to make shift with the millwrightsmen who could turn from one job to another and were willing to work alike in wood, metal, or stone, but were hide-bound by tradition: before he died there had come into being specialized fitters, turners, pattern-makers, and other grades of engineers. The first generation of cotton-spinners had themselves employed “clock-makers” to construct and repair their frames and mules; but gradually these were replaced by highly trained textile machinists and maintenance men. … The statement, sometimes made, that the industrial revolution was destructive of skill is not only untrue, but the exact reverse of the truth.

Problems with pay

One of the ways that work has improved is that pay is more regular and consistent:

Except in agriculture most of the workers were paid by the piece. In many industries it was usual for them to receive a round sum weekly or fortnightly to cover subsistence, and the balance of their earnings (if any) at the end of a period of six, eight, or twelve weeks. In the Midlands and South Wales the miners were engaged, not only to hew and draw the coal, but also to deliver it to the customer: they were entitled to payment only when it had been sold, and a delay in transport or the closing of a market might mean that they were deprived of their earnings for many weeks or even months. Such an arrangement threw the risks of production on to the shoulders of those least able to bear them; and, in all industries in which the “long pay” existed, the workers tended to spend freely, even lavishly, for a few days after the pay, and to live for the rest of the time at a level of comfort far below that which a more rational distribution of resources would have afforded. It was not until after the industrial revolution, when the employers assumed fully the function of providing capital and bearing risks, that regularity of wage payment and, with it, regularity of expenditure were attained.

We take our banking and currency system for granted, but consider some of the problems we just don’t have today:

The payment of wages at more or less regular intervals meant that the employer had not only to find funds, but find them in a form acceptable to the wage-earner. Gold guineas, or even half-guineas, were of a value too high to be of much use for the purpose; and, since the currency reforms of 1697 and 1717 had left silver undervalued in terms of gold, there was a tendency for it to leave the circulation. During the course of the century very little silver came into Britain: only small quantities were minted, and large amounts of coin were melted down and sent abroad, by the East India Company in particular. The dearth of coin of small denomination was a serious matter for manufacturers with wages to pay. Many of them spent days riding from place to place in search of shillings. Some effected economies by taking over from the earlier form of industry the practice of the “long-pay.” And at least one cotton-spinner of the early nineteenth century met the situation by staggering the payment of wages. Early in the morning a third of the employees were paid and sent off to make their household purchases; within an hour or two the money had passed through the hands of the shopkeepers and was back at the factory ready for a second group of workers to be paid and sent off; and in this way before the day was over all had received their wages and done their buying-in.

The situation was so bad that industrialists created their own banks:

As manufacture increased, many industrialists—the Arkwrights, Wilkinsons, Walkers, and the firm of Boulton and Watt among them—established banks of their own, partly, no doubt, as a means of obtaining cash for wages and bills for remittances, but partly as an outlet for their growing capital. It was from manufacturing sources that Lloyds, Barclays, and other well-known concerns came into being.

Worker disharmony

Truly awful behavior on the part of both employers and workers:

Some employers used false weights in giving out yarn or iron, and demanded from the workers more cloth or nails than the material would run to. Others gave out faulty raw material or were irregular in their payments. … On the other hand, the spinners, weavers, knitters, nail-makers, and so on were often unpunctual in returning their work; textile workers mixed butter and grease with the fabric to increase the weight, and nail-makers substituted inferior iron for the rods they had received from the warehouse.

(“Quiet quitting” seems extremely tame by comparison.)

When they got particularly upset, to blow off steam, workers might engage in some light-hearted rioting:

Throughout the eighteenth century, riots had been endemic: again and again the pitmen and sailors, shipwrights and dockers, and the journeymen of the varied trades of London downed tools, smashed windows, and burnt effigies of those with whom they were at variance. About many such incidents there had been something of the light-heartedness of the May Day demonstration.

Was 18th-century Britain individualistic?

Not in a narrow sense:

In the eighteenth century the characteristic instrument of social purpose was not the individual or the State, but the club. Men grew up in an environment of institutions which ranged from the cock-and-hen club of the tavern to the literary group of the coffee-house, from the “box” of the village inn to the Stock Exchange and Lloyd’s, from the Hell Fire Club of the blasphemers to the Holy Club of the Wesleys, and from the local association for the prosecution of felons to the national Society for the Reformation of the Manners among the Lower Orders and the Society of Universal Good Will. Every interest, tradition, or aspiration found expression in corporate form. The idea that, somehow or other, men had become self-centered, avaricious, and anti-social is the strangest of all the legends by which the story of the industrial revolution has been obscured.

But it was laissez-faire:

If it cannot be held that the period of the industrial revolution was one of individualism—at least in the narrow sense of the term—it may with some justice be maintained that it was an age of laissez-faire. This unhappy phrase has been used as a missile in so many political controversies that it now appears battered and shabby. But there was a time when it was employed, not as an epithet of abuse, but as an inscription on the banners of progress.

And now, the question you’ve all been waiting for

Why did we wait so long for the industrial revolution?

To the question why the industrial revolution did not come earlier many answers can be given. In the first half of the eighteenth century there was much ingenuity and contrivance, but time was needed for this to reach fruition. Some of the early inventions failed because of incomplete thought, others because the right material was not to hand, because of lack of skill or adaptability on the part of the workers, or because of social resistance to change. Industry had to await the coming of capital in quantities large enough, and at a price low enough, to make possible the creation of the “infrastructure”—of roads, bridges, harbours, docks, canals, waterworks and so on—which is a prerequisite of a large manufacturing community. It had to wait until the idea of progress—as an ideal and as a process at work in society—spread from the minds of the few to those of the many. But, such large considerations apart, in each of the major industries there was some obstacle—some bottle-neck, to use the current phrase—which had to be removed before expansion could go far. In agriculture it was the common rights and the lack of winter fodder; in mining the want of an efficient device to deal with flood water; in iron making the shortage of suitable fuel; in the metal trades a consequent shortage of material; and in textiles an inadequate supply of yarn. Transport, trade, and credit alike suffered from the dead hand of monopolistic organization, and the arrested development of these services had adverse effects on industry in general. Thus it was that, though there was growth in every field of human endeavour, change was never so rapid as to endanger the stability of existing institutions.


… the barriers imposed by the shortages of food, fuel, iron, yarn, and transport were being thrown down at a speed which makes it difficult to determine where the priority lay. And just as an obstacle in the path of any one industry had led to congestion in that of others, so now its removal produced a widespread liberation. Innovation is a process which, once under way, tends to accelerate.

All of this is consistent with my flywheels model. Further, to my mind, the breadth of Ashton’s answer is evidence against narrow explanations based on material/economic factors, such as the price of coal.

Related, interest rates were important: investing in infrastructure and other projects required sufficiently low rates. War raised rates and thus slowed progress—just one of many ways in which war is (mostly) anti-progress:

In 1798, when Britain was at peace, the yield on Consols had been 3.3: five years later it had reached 5.9. Many projects set on foot when money could be obtained at, or near, the first of these rates could not be continued when the cost of borrowing was raised. Capital was deflected from private to public uses, and some of the developments of the industrial revolution were once more brought to a halt. Expenditure on men-of-war, munitions, and uniforms gave a stimulus to shipbuilding, to the manufacture of iron, copper, and chemicals, and to some branches of the woollen industry. But the progress of the cotton, hardware, pottery, and other trades suffered a check.


Apparently people have been talking about “late capitalism” for a long time (remember, this book was published in 1948):

It used to be commonly asserted that the existence of a supply of labour in excess of the demand was the result of “the exhaustion of investment opportunities” which was said to be a feature of “a late stage of capitalism.”

(I looked it up; the term was coined in the early 20th century, and “began to be used by socialists in continental Europe towards the end of the 1930s and in the 1940s, when many economists believed capitalism was doomed.”)

Comment: Progress Forum, LessWrong, Reddit

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