The labour market causes and consequences of general purpose technological progress: evidence from steam engines

by Leonardo Ridolfi (University of Siena), Mara Squicciarini (Bocconi University), and Jacob Weisdorf (Sapienza University of Rome)

Steam locomotive running gear. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

Should workers fear technical innovations? Economists have not provided a clear answer to this perennial question. Some believe machines make ‘one man to do the work of many’; that mechanisation will generate cheaper goods, more consumer spending, increased labour demand and thus more jobs. Others, instead, wor­ry that automation will be labour-cheapening, making workers – especially unskilled ones – redundant, and so result in increased unemployment and growing income inequality.

Our research seeks answers from the historical account. We focus on the first Industrial Revolution, when technical innovations became a key component of the production process.

The common understanding is that mechanisation during the early phases of industrialisation allowed firms to replace skilled with unskilled male workers (new technology was deskilling) and also male workers with less expensive female and child labourers. Much of this understanding is inspired by the Luddite movement – bands of nineteenth century workers who destroyed early industrial machinery that they believed was threatening their jobs.

To test these hypotheses, we investigate one of the major technological advancements in human history: the rise and spread of steam engines.

Nineteenth century France provides an exemplary setting to explore the effects. French historical statistics are extraordinarily detailed, and the first two national industry-level censuses – one from the 1840s, when steam power was just beginning to spread; and one from the 1860s, when they were more common – help us to observe the labour market conditions that led to the adoption of steam engines, as well as the effects of adopting the new technology on the demand for male, female and child labour, and on their wages.

Consistent with the argument that steam technology emerged for labour-cheapening purposes, our analysis shows that the adoption of steam technology was significantly higher in districts (arrondissements) where:

  1. industrial labour productivity was low, so that capital-deepening could serve to improve output per worker;
  2. the number of workers was high, so the potential for cutting labour costs by replacing them with machines was large;
  3. the share of male workers was high, so the potential for cutting labour costs by shifting towards women and children was large; and
  4. steam engines had already been installed in other industries, thus lowering the costs of adopting the new technology.

We also find, however, that steam technology, once adopted, was neither labour-saving nor skill-saving. Steam-powered industries did use higher shares of (cheaper) female and child workers than non-steam-powered industries. At the same time, though, since steam-operating industries employed considerably more workers in total, they ended up using also more male workers – and not just more women and children.

We also find that steam-powered industries paid significantly higher wages, both to men and women. In contrast with the traditional narrative of early industrial technologies being deskilling, this result provides novel empirical evidence that steam-use was instead skill-demanding.

Although workers seemed to have gained from the introduction of steam technology, both in terms of employment and payment opportunities, our findings show that labour’s share was lower in steam-run industries. This motivates Engels-Marx-Piketty-inspired concerns that advancing technology leaves workers with a shrinking share of output.

Our findings thus highlight the multi-sided effects of adopting general-purpose technological progress. On the positive side, the steam engine prompted higher wages and a growing demand for both male and female workers. On the negative side, steam-powered industries relied more heavily on child labour and also placed a larger share of output in the hands of capitalist.

How Indian cottons steered British industrialisation

By Alka Raman (LSE)

This blog is part of a series of New Researcher blogs.

“Methods of Conveying Cotton in India to the Ports of Shipment,” from the Illustrated London News, 1861. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

Technological advancements within the British cotton industry have widely been acknowledged as the beginning of industrialisation in eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain. My research reveals that these advances were driven by a desire to match the quality of handmade cotton textiles from India.

I highlight how the introduction of Indian printed cottons into British markets created a frenzy of demand for these exotic goods. This led to immediate imitations by British textile manufacturers, keen to gain footholds in the domestic and world markets where Indian cottons were much desired.

The process of imitation soon revealed that British spinners could not spin the fine cotton yarn required to hand make the fine cotton cloth needed for fine printing. And British printers could not print cloth in the multitudes of colourfast colours that the Indian artisans had mastered over centuries.

These two key limitations in British textile manufacturing spurred demand-induced technological innovations to match the quality of Indian handmade printed cottons.

In order to test this, I chart the quality of English cotton textiles from 1740-1820 and compare them with Indian cottons of the same period. Thread per inch count is used as the measure of quality, and digital microscopy is deployed to establish their yarn composition to determine whether they are all-cotton textiles or mixed linen-cottons.

My findings show that the earliest British ‘cotton’ textiles were mixed linen-cottons and not all-cottons. Technological evolution in the British cotton industry was a pursuit of first the coarse, yet all-cotton cloth, followed by the fine all-cotton cloth such as muslin.

The evidence shows that British cotton cloth quality improved by 60% between 1747 and 1782 during the decades of the famous inventions of James Hargreaves’ spinning jenny, Richard Arkwright’s waterframe and Samuel Crompton’s mule. It further improved by 24% between 1782 and 1816. Overall, cloth quality improved by a staggering 99% between 1747 and 1816.

My research challenges our current understanding of industrialisation as a British and West European phenomenon, commonly explained using rationales such as high wages, availability of local energy sources or access to New World resources. Instead, it reveals that learning from material goods and knowledge brought into Britain and Europe from the East directly and substantially affected the foundations of the modern world as we know it.

The results also pose a more fundamental question: how does technological change take place? Based on my findings, learning from competitor products – especially imitation of novel goods using indigenous processes – may be identified as one crucial pathway for the creation of new ideas that shape technological change.

Baumol, Engel, and Beyond: Accounting for a century of structural transformation in Japan, 1885-1985

by Kyoji Fukao (Hitotsubashi University) and Saumik Paul (Newcastle University and IZA)

The full article from this blog post was published on The Economic History Review, and it is now available on Early View at this link

Bank of Japan, silver convertible yen. Available on Wiki Commons

Over the past two centuries, many industrialized countries have experienced dramatic changes in the sectoral composition of output and employment. The pattern of structural transformation, depicted for most of the developed countries, entails a steady fall in the primary sector, a steady increase in the tertiary sector, and a hump shape in the secondary sector. In the literature, the process of structural transformation is explained through two broad channels: the income effect, driven by the generalization of Engel’s law, and the substitution effect, following the differences in the rate of productivity across sectors, also known as “Baumol’s cost disease effect”.

At the same time, an input-output (I-O) model provides a comprehensive way to study the process of structural transformation. The input-output analysis accounts for intermediate input production by a sector, as many sectors predominantly produce intermediate inputs, and their outputs rarely enter directly into consumer preferences. Moreover, an input-output analysis relies on observed data and a national income identity to handle imports and exports. The input-output analysis has considerable advantages in the context of Japanese structural transformation first from agriculture to manufactured final consumption goods, and then to services, alongside transformations in Japanese exports and imports that have radically changed over time.

We examine the drivers of the long-run structural transformation in Japan over a period of 100 years, from 1885 to 1985. During this period, the value-added share of the primary sector dropped from 60 per cent  to less than 1 per cent, whereas that of the tertiary sector rose from 27 to nearly 60 per cent in Japan (Figure 1). We apply the Chenery, Shishido, and Watanabe framework to examine changes in the composition of sectoral output shares. Chenery, Shishido, and Watanabe used an inter-industry model to explain deviations from proportional growth in output in each sector and decomposed the deviation in sectoral output into two factors: the demand side effect, a combination of the Engel and Baumol effects (discussed above), and  the supply side effect, a change in the technique of production. However, the current input-output framework is unable to uniquely separate the demand side effect into forces labelled under the Engel and Baumol effects.

Figure 1. Structural transformation in Japan, 1874-2008. Source: Fukao and Paul (2017). 
Note: Sectoral shares in GDP are calculated using real GDP in constant 1934-36 prices for 1874-1940 and constant 2000 prices for 1955-2008. In the current study, the pre-WWII era is from 1885 to1935, and the post-WWII era is from 1955 to 1985. 

To conduct the decomposition analysis, we use seven I-O tables (every 10 years) in the prewar era from 1885 to 1935 and six I-O tables (every 5 years) in the postwar era from 1955 to 1985. These seven sectors include: agriculture, forestry, and fishery; commerce and services; construction;  food;  mining and manufacturing (excluding food and textiles); textiles, and  transport, communication, and utilities.

The results show that the annual growth rate of GDP more than doubled in the post-WWII era compared to the pre-WWII era. The real output growth was the highest in the commerce and services sector throughout the period under study, but there was also rapid growth of output in mining and manufacturing, especially in the second half of the 20th century. Sectoral output growth in mining and manufacturing (textile, food, and the other manufacturing), commerce and services, and transport, communications, and utilities outgrew the pace of growth in GDP in most of the periods. Detailed decomposition results show that in most of the sectors (agriculture, commerce and services, food, textiles, and transport, communication, and utilities), changes in private consumption were the dominant force behind the demand-side explanations. The demand-side effect was strongest in the commerce and services sector.

Overall, demand-side factors — a combination of the Baumol and Engel effects, were the main explanatory factors in the pre-WWII period, whereas  supply-side factors were the key driver of structural transformation in the post-WWII period.

To contact the authors:

Kyoji Fukao,

Saumik Paul,, @saumik78267353


Baumol, William J., “Macroeconomics of unbalanced growth: the anatomy of urban crisis”. American Economic Review 57, (1967) 415–426.

Chenery, Hollis B., Shuntaro Shishido and Tsunehiko Watanabe. “The pattern of Japanese growth, 1914−1954”, Econometrica30 (1962), 1, 98−139.

Fukao, Kyoji and Saumik Paul “The Role of Structural Transformation in Regional Convergence in Japan: 1874-2008.” Institute of Economic Research Discussion Paper No. 665. Tokyo: Institute of Economic Research (2017).

The Ruhr’s mining industry and its power struggle with the High Authority of the European Coal and Steel Community

by Juliane Czierpka (Ruhr-University Bochum)


Ruhr mining. Available at Pixabay.

Since the beginning of the Ruhr area’s industrialisation in the second half of the nineteenth century, the local mining industry has always been a powerful player. Controlling vast amounts of coal, the Ruhr’s mining companies held a huge share of the European coal market and were usually able to influence political decisions made by German governments.

One reason for the power of the Ruhr’s mining industry was of course the importance of the energy sector and the country’s dependence on its coal. But the local mining companies also used to present themselves as a unity, speaking with one voice and – even more importantly – selling their coals collectively.

In other words, the mining companies of the Ruhr had built a huge coal cartel, even though it wasn’t called a cartel or syndicate after 1945 – at least within the Ruhr area, everyone was quite keen on finding new names for the sales.

In the early 1950s, the newly constituted German government was desperately trying to reduce the Allies’ control. While Britain and the United States were willing to give the Germans back parts of their sovereignty and started to loosen the regulations on the production of steel and other goods, the French did not like this approach.

Naturally, after 1945 the French government not only felt threatened by the German heavy industry, which was seen as having made the war possible by quickly adapting to the production of arms in order to support Hitler and its troops, but also by the German mining industry’s market power, because the energy sector was closely linked to questions of national autonomy and security. Furthermore, the French steel industry depended on specific qualities of coal from the Ruhr area.

The specific combination of interests in Europe in the aftermath of the war – a French government trying to keep control over the German coal and steel sector and a German government that was trying hard to win back at least parts of its sovereignty from the Allies – led to the foundation of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC).

The ECSC’s principal goal was to merge the coal and steel markets of Germany, France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, thereby leading to a high degree of economic and political cooperation, and peace between the member states. These words were of course mainly tinsel and glitter, as every member state pursued its own national interests.

The High Authority, the ECSC’s supranational executive institution, is usually seen as a failure by historians and political scientists, because it did not succeed in enforcing the ECSC’s treaty against the member states’ national interests.

My research shows that the hypothesis of a weak HA is not generally true. Looking into the HA’s dispute with the Ruhr’s mining industry over the organisation of their coal sales, I show how the HA managed to break up the traditional structures in the Ruhr area, even though the mining industry fought fiercely for their cartel and was supported by the German government – which had initially sold the mining industry out for membership in the ECSC.

My research also sheds light on the relationship between businesses and national governments and shows how this relationship was changed by the emergence of a new player – the supranational HA. My research also shows that there would have been a very early Gerxit, which only was prevented by the pressure of the Allies, which forced the German government to be part of the ECSC regardless to domestic protests.

Spinning the Industrial Revolution

by Jane Humphries (All Souls College, University of Oxford) and Benjamin Schneider (Merton College, University of Oxford)

The full paper is published on The Economic History Review and is available here


The wages of hand spinners have been pushed to the forefront of economic history in recent years by Robert Allen’s ‘high-wage economy’ interpretation of British industrialization. Allen contends that rising earnings of hand spinners in the mid-18th century can explain why the spinning innovations of the industrial revolution were invented and adopted first in Britain. This is an extension of his broader argument that the ratio of wages to capital and energy costs in Britain was higher than in other parts of the world and served as a general spur to innovative activity. However, many gender historians and scholars of women’s work have contended that spinning, like other occupations dominated by women, was systematically underpaid. We set out to resolve this dispute by constructing a large dataset of spinners’ earnings from primary sources.

Spinning is the process by which raw fiber (cotton, flax, wool, or synthetic fibers) is turned into yarn. Hand spinners undertook this work on spinning wheels, imparting twist and draft into the fibers with their fingers. Qualitative sources suggest that spinning was a very common employment in the early modern period, especially for women and children. It was organized along the lines of the putting-out system, with many spinners receiving fiber from yarn merchants, spinning it in their homes, and returning the finished yarn in return for payment.

Fig. 01 Pieter Nys, Woman Spinning, 1652 (Dulwich Picture Gallery)

Allen presents a set of claims regarding spinners’ time rates which are taken from the work of Craig Muldrew and Charles Feinstein. Muldrew brought spinning into the limelight with a 2012 article that presented much larger estimates of the number of women employed in yarn production in the 17th and 18th centuries. However, the primary sources underlying Allen’s composite wage series are mostly claims about earning levels provided by commentators interested in emphasizing the value of Britain’s textile industry or showing the reduction in spinners’ earnings produced by mechanization at the end of the 18th century.

To address the question of spinners’ wages with firmer evidence, we collected more than 2500 observations of hand spinners’ earnings from the late 16th to the early 19th century. Spinners were generally paid by piece rates—payments per weight of yarn—which made constructing their remuneration challenging in many cases. In addition to sources that provided recorded earnings per day or a total amount earned over a known time span, we also collected data on their output per time in order to estimate their productivity. We then combined the productivity estimates with piece rates in primary sources to construct daily wages. These constructed wages supplemented the observed earnings per time and claims about remuneration. Our series incorporates the claims of interested parties, the writings of social commentators, and, more importantly, a very large body of new evidence on direct payments to spinners in the account books of putting-out enterprises, spinning schools, and the writings of putting-out merchants.

Fig 02
Figure 2: Nominal daily wages, decadal averages. Source: See online appendix S4 and table 2 in the paper

Our results show that Allen’s claim for high wages in spinning cannot be supported by the contemporary evidence. Productivity in hand spinning was far below the optimistic claims of social commentators, who wrote that a “sturdy woman” could spin a pound of fiber in a day. Direct evidence of spinners’ output shows that most of them produced less than half of this level each day. Unsurprisingly, we also find that earnings per day (even when discounting the constructed wages that use our productivity estimates with piece rates) were also substantially lower than previously claimed. Spinners barely earned enough to support themselves throughout most of the 17th and 18th centuries, and their wages did not rise precipitously in the middle of the 18th century.

At the same time, we know that cloth production expanded substantially in early modern England. We present several possible explanations to resolve this apparent paradox of rising labor demand and stagnant wages. First, we know that the geographical extent of spinning grew in the 18th century. Flax spinning, for example, spread further into the Scottish Highlands. We also provide extensive documentation regarding the involvement of the Poor Law and charitable enterprises in spinning. These entities allowed production to expand while taking advantage of the low wage demands of impoverished families, particularly in the countryside. Finally, we present evidence from contemporary descriptive sources that suggest most spinners faced monopsony power: the putters-out could act as a cartel and hold down spinners’ wages.

The growth of hand spinning provided modest but valuable household earnings for a growing number of poor families in 18th century Britain. However, spinning wages did not rise in the 18th century and therefore they cannot explain the invention of the spinning machines of the Industrial Revolution.


To contact the authors:

Benjamin Schneider ( 

War, shortage and Thailand’s industrialisation, 1932-57

by Panarat Anamwathana (University of Oxford)

This study was awarded the prize for the best conference paper by a new researcher at the Economic History Society’s 2019 annual conference in Belfast.


1954 Bangkok street. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

Thailand fell under Japanese occupation during the Second World War. The small agrarian country relied on imports from the West for consumer and industrial goods, and suffered shortages of everything from clothes to machinery between 1941 and 1945.

After the Japanese surrender, the Thai government learned from its trauma, adapted its economic approach and began domestic production of its own consumer goods – although at the cost of inefficiencies and rent-seeking.

Economic historians have expressed different perspectives on Thailand’s immediate post-war economic development and state-led industrialisation programme. Some, such as Hewison (1989) and Ingram (1971), mention the expansion of manufacturing capacity, despite government inefficiencies. Others, such as Suehiro (1989) and Phongpaichit and Baker (1995), are more critical of state involvement, saying that rent-seeking and corruption hindered any real progress.

Anyone familiar with state-operated enterprises might be suspicious of Thailand’s state-led industrialisation approach. To protect many of the country’s new industries, import tariffs and quotas were introduced. At the same time, a new class of capitalists emerged from an alliance of politicians and entrepreneurs. These people benefitted from favourable concessions, state-sponsored monopolies or being granted lucrative import licences. The question is: did anything come out of all this?

Since Thailand had no industrial census for the period, it is difficult to measure changes in the kingdom’s manufacturing capacity from before the war to after the war. To address this challenge, I have gathered statistical data on three industries: sugar, textiles and gunny bags (which are essential for transporting rice, Thailand’s most important export crop). These goods were three of Thailand’s most important pre-war imports, key to the wellbeing of the population and rationed during the war.

My data come from a variety of primary sources from the National Archives of Thailand, the National Archives at Kew, and the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, DC. I also read previously unused qualitative sources, such as government reports, correspondence and old newspapers to build a more complete picture of wartime Thailand.

I find that Thailand was able to produce more of its sugar, textiles and gunny bags after 1945, and continued to substitute for imports as the decade progressed. This was achievable in part because the shortage of goods during the war reinforced the drive to diversify the economy. Government systems and infrastructure established under the Japanese occupation but hindered by wartime circumstances could then make use of importing machinery and international credit.

Finally, machines and facilities abandoned by the Japanese army could be used by the post-war Thai government and their capitalist allies. I also find that per capita consumption either plateaued or increased during this period, suggesting that Thais were not deprived of these products because of the government’s industrialisation programme.

Corruption and rent-seeking, however, were common and can easily arise from state-led industrialisation programmes with little transparency, like that in Thailand.

For example, the Sugar Organisation, the most important state-operated enterprise in this industry, played a large role in transporting sugar from both private and government mills to shops. Unfortunately, this organisation was completely corrupt. It embezzled, cheated farmers, sold sugar to fake agents and distributors, and was extremely permissive on check-ups and regulation. Although the state did revoke some of the privileges of the organisation, it continued to operate throughout all the scandals.

My study not only contributes to the historiography of Thai economic development, but also engages with studies of various models of economic growth, the efficiency and costs of state-operated enterprises, and the legacies of the Second World War in occupied territories.



Further reading

Hewison, Kevin (1989) Bankers and Bureaucrats Capital and the Role of the State in Thailand, New Haven.

Ingram, James C (1971) Economic Change in Thailand, 1850-1970, Stanford University Press.

Phongpaichit, Pasuk, and Chris Baker (1995). Thailand: Economy and Politics, Oxford University Press.

Suehiro, Akira (1989) Capital Accumulation in Thailand, Tokyo.

Cotton, industrialisation and a missing piece of the puzzle

by Alka Raman (London School of Economics)

This study was awarded the prize for the best new researcher poster at the EHS Annual Conference 2019 in Belfast. The poster can be viewed here.


Cotton merchant, taken by Francis Frith between 1850 and 1870. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

The first Industrial Revolution has long been seen as the beacon of modernity, heralding unprecedented economic growth and the biggest uplift of living standards in human history. Its prominence amid themes in economic history is such that it dwarfs all others in comparison, including the fact that the British cotton industry – the nucleus of industrialisation – was not the world’s first cotton manufacturing industry serving a global demand for cotton goods.

Handmade cotton fabrics were exported from India to the rest of the world as early as the twelfth century. Indeed every textbook on economic history, when charting the growth of the British cotton industry, precedes its achievements with a dutiful narration of the introduction of cotton goods into England by the English East India Company in 1699 and the ‘frenzy’ for these cottons within the domestic and overseas markets.

But a passing reference to imitations quickly gives way to an impressive series of mechanisations and illustrious British inventors associated with them. Any connection to the preceding handmade Indian product is effectively lost.

Consequently, a crucial piece of the puzzle – how the seat of cotton manufacturing went from the Indian subcontinent to the heart of England – has remained inadequately explained. Learning from pre-existing products has been mentioned, but what this learning contained, how it may have been transferred and with what kind of outcomes are concepts that have been under-explored.

Hence the question at the heart of my research: did the pre-existing, handmade and globally demanded Indian cottons influence the growth and technological trajectory of the nascent British cotton industry?

Central to my thesis is the idea that the pre-industrial Indian cotton textiles contained the material knowledge required for their successful imitation and reproduction. These handmade Indian cottons embodied the cloth quality, print, design and product finish that the machine-made goods sought to imitate. Did learning from these pre-existing market-approved products contribute to the growth of early British cotton manufacturing?

My research identifies learning from the benchmark product, as well as competition with it, as two simultaneous stimuli shaping the British cotton industry during its initial phase. In terms of methodology, the thesis tests these two stimuli against historical textual and material evidence.

The writings of manufacturers, traders and historians/commentators of the period show that both manufacturers and innovators recognised that there was a knowledge problem or a ‘skills gap’: British spinners could not spin cotton warp to match Indian hand-spun warp’s quality. Entrepreneurs identified matching the quality of Indian hand-spun warp as a key motivation for innovation. Their language of quality comparisons with reference to Indian cottons is crucial and highlights comparative quality-related learning from Indian cotton goods.

Does the material evidence corroborate this textual finding? To establish if cloth quality improved over time, I study the material evidence (surviving cotton textiles from the period) under a digital microscope and thread counter to chart the quality of these fabrics over the key decades of mechanisation. I use thread count to establish the comparative quality of the machine-made cotton fabrics vis-à-vis the handmade Indian cottons.

My findings show that early British ‘cottons’ were, in reality, mixed fabrics using linen warp and cotton weft. In addition, the results show a marked increase in cloth quality between 1746 and 1820.

Assessed together, the textual and material evidence demonstrate that mechanisation in the early British cotton industry was geared towards overcoming specific sequential quality-related bottlenecks, associated first with the ability to make the all-cotton cloth, followed by the ability to make the fine all-cotton cloth.

Imitation of benchmark Indian cottons steered the growth of the British cotton industry on a specific path of technological evolution – a trajectory that was shaped by the quest to match the quality of the handmade Indian cotton textiles.