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

By Jones, P. M. | Canadian Journal of History, Autumn 2013 | Go to article overview

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


Jones, P. M., Canadian Journal of History


Mothers of Innovation." How Expanding Social Networks Gave Birth to the Industrial Revolution, by Leonard Dudley. Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012. xxii, 275 pp. $67.99 US (cloth).

Most studies of the Industrial Revolution are written by historians striving to look backwards with the help of methodological tools borrowed from the social sciences. This book is written by a forward-looking economist with an interest in modern information revolutions who has a point to make about the role of social networks within the gestation of innovative technologies. The historical component of his thesis is a mix of sweeping generalization and folksy anecdote. To this reviewer the broad brush strokes depicting stagnation and change in European states over three centuries seem rather schematic, and a historian of science would no doubt find the stories of individual "inventors" and their collaborators that bring the analysis to life at intervals rather old-fashioned as well. Perhaps this does not matter very much as long as we focus on the fact that the book is not really about the Industrial Revolution as an event in the past, but is rather an extended argument offering "an explanation of the burst of innovation that occurred in a number of regions of Western Europe and North America over the period from 1700 to 1850" (p. 219).

To choose the region as the unit of analysis makes sense even if the author shows a great deal more sensitivity in selecting the zones of Europe and North America that displayed an early and sustained propensity to innovate, than in marking out the territories that do not merit inclusion. Birmingham and Manchester together with their industrial hinterlands pass muster and so do Lyon and Philadelphia, but the whole of Scandinavia, Germany, Belgium, and Switzerland have nothing to contribute, it seems. The analysis is complex and multi-tiered, whether at the level of the sampling (types of innovation) or the conclusions that can reasonably be drawn from the data as various hypotheses are tested Probably the best way for the general-purpose historian to get a grip on the author's social-networks model of innovation is to turn to the end of the book (Chapters eight and nine), for it is here that he recapitulates his findings and confronts them with ongoing debates between and among historians and economists.

On the whole, supply-side explanations of innovation and industrial take-off such as those favoured most recently by Joel Mokyr with his emphasis on the determining role played by useful knowledge fare less well. Demand and price factors cannot be excluded from the story of economic growth through technological achievement as R.C. Allan has always insisted. However, the combination of energy and labour costs will not explain adequately the chronology of technological breakthrough, nor is it an all-embracing argument applicable on its own to every case. …

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