The Industrial Revolution and the Atlantic Economy: Selected Essays

By Brinley Thomas | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

It is now fashionable for economic historians to play down the Industrial Revolution as an uneventful process of gradual change with nothing ‘revolutionary’ about it. Typical of this view is Nicholas Crafts’ statement that ‘a “cataclysmic” interpretation of economic change in the late eighteenth century is inappropriate. On the whole, recent research has been tending to stress the gradualness of change when seen from a macroeconomic standpoint’ (Crafts 1985:6). This line is made to appear plausible by revised aggregate estimates of Britain’s economic growth in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (Crafts 1983). Some of the revisionists do not lack enthusiasm. Here is an example from a textbook intended to summarize the results of the new economic history.

Compared to its successors…the British industrial revolution was a very modest affair which emerged slowly from the past as part of a long evolutionary process, not as a sharp, instantly recognisable break from traditional experience; its technology was small-scale and comparatively primitive; it needed relatively little additional investment capital.

(Tranter 1981:226)

In the ten years 1790-1800 Britain’s annual output of pig iron went up 100 per cent (from 90,000 to 180,000 tons) and that of coal by 47 per cent (from 7.5 million to 11 million tons). If the 1750-85 trend had continued, the output of pig iron in 1830 would have been 200,000 tons whereas in fact it was 678,000 tons, and the output of coal would have been 12.5 million tons whereas in fact it was 22.5 million tons (see Figure 5.2). In the face of this sharp break with the past, one has to be hopelessly addicted to

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