British engineering skills in the age of steam

by Harry Kitsikopoulos (academic director, Unbound Prometheus)

Wiki Commons. The side-lever Engine, 1849 ca.


Engineering skills in Britain improved during the eighteenth century but progress was not linear. My research uses a novel approach to quantifying the trends from the first appearance of the technology of steam power (1706) through to the last quarter of the century (the Watt era), using a large amount of data on fuel consumption rates.

Britain was a very unlikely candidate for the invention of steam engines, as I argue in my 2016 book, Innovation and Technological Diffusion: An Economic History of the Early Steam Engines. It was French and Italians who first rediscovered, translated and published the ancient texts of Hero of Alexandria on steam power; they also discovered the existence of vacuum in nature, the main principle of a steam engine’s working mechanism.

But Britain had two advantages: first, a divorce-obsessed king who detached the island from the Catholic dogma and its alliance with the Cartesian epistemological paradigm, both denying the existence of vacuum in nature. The same king also brought a seismic institutional transformation by passing monastic properties under the ownership of lay landlords, a class far more keen on solving the water drainage problem plaguing the mining industry in its drive to exploit mineral wealth.

Britain was also fortunate in another respect: it was relatively backward in terms of mining technology! That proved to be a good thing. While mining districts in Germany and Liège used a technology that resolved the drainage problem, Britain failed to imitate them, hence forcing itself to seek alternative solutions, thereby leading to the invention of the steam engine.

Grand inventions earn glorious references in school textbooks, but it is the diffusion of a technology that contributes to economic growth, a process that relies on the development of relevant human capital.

The records reveal that there were not much more than a dozen engineers who were active in erecting engines during the period 1706-75, including Thomas Newcomen, the obscure ironmonger from Devon who came up with the first working model. The figure increased to at least 60 during the last quarter of the century through the action of the invisible hand: the initial scarcity of such skills raised wages, which, in turn, acted as stimuli transferring talent from related engineering occupations.

My new study traces the production and marketing strategies of this group, which ranged from the narrow horizons of certain figures concentrating on the erection of engines in one locality, a single model, or focusing on one industry all the way to the global outlook of the Boulton and Watt firm.

The last question I pose is perhaps the most interesting: did British engineers get better during the eighteenth century in managing these engines?

Measuring skill is not a straightforward affair. Two well-respected experts at the time came up with tables that specified what the ideal fuel rates ought to have been for engines of different hp. When plotted in a graph these two variables depict a curve of ideal rates.

My analysis uses two distinct datasets with 111 fuel rate observations recorded in working engines – one for the older Newcomen model and another for the newer Watt engines. These actual fuel rates were plotted as bullet points around the respective ‘ideal’ curves. A progressively narrower distance between the curves and the bullet points would indicate higher efficiency and improved engineering skills.

The results reveal that for the first 25 years following the appearance of both models, there was no consistent trend: the bullet points alternated coming closer and moving away from the ideal curves. But the data also reveal that these initial patterns gave way to trends revealing consistent progress.

In an era of practical tinkerers lacking a formal educational system when it comes to this particular skill, British engineers did get better through a classic process of ‘learning-by-doing’, But this only happened after an initial stage of adjustment, of getting used to models with different working mechanisms.

Industrialisation and the origins of modern prosperity: evidence from the United States in the 19th century

by Ori Katz (Tel Aviv University)

Wiki Commons. Market scene by Pieter Aertsen, c.1550


The largest economic mystery is the modern prosperity of humankind. For thousands of years since the Neolithic revolution, most humans lived in small communities, working as farmers, and their average standard of living did not change much.

But in the nineteenth century, things changed: large parts of the world become industrialised. In those parts, people moved to live in huge cities, where they worked in manufacturing and commerce, had fewer children, invested more in schooling, and their standard of living began to rise, and then to rise dramatically, and it has never stopped since. Whether you look at life expectancy, birth fatality, income per person or any other measure, the trend is the same. And we don’t really know why.

We have a lot of theories. Some believe that this dramatic change has something to do with a geopolitical environment that encouraged competition and maintained stability in property rights. Others talk about a change in human preferences, maybe even in human biology. But in every theory, two of the main ingredients are the dramatic reduction in fertility and the increasing investment in human capital during the late nineteenth century.

This research examines the effect of industrialisation on human capital and fertility in the United States during the period from 1850 to 1900. This effect is hard to identify, for example because human capital also affects industrialisation, or because other variables such as ‘culture’ may affect both.

To deal with those problems, the study uses the westward expansion of the country as a ‘natural experiment’. The appearance of new large cities such as Chicago and Buffalo led to the development of new transport routes, and the study looks at counties that happened to be close to those new routes.

Those counties experienced industrialisation only because of their geographical location, and not because of the human capital of the local population or other variables. This means that analysing them is similar to a laboratory experiment, where it is possible to change only one parameter and leave the others intact.

Results show a very large effect of industrialisation on both fertility and human capital. These results are in contrast with an old theory according to which industrialisation was a ‘de-skilling’ process that increased the demand for unskilled labour. It seems that industrialisation was conducive to human capital.

They also find that the effects of industrialisation on both fertility and human capital were larger in counties that were already more developed in the first place. This led to a divergence between them and less developed counties. Indeed, when we look at the country level, we see increasing gaps between the industrialised countries and the rest of the world, starting in the nineteenth century, just like the gaps shown at the county level.

The modern period of growth is still a mystery, but these research results tell us that the effects of industrialisation on fertility and human capital are an important piece of the puzzle. These effects might be the reason for the great divergence between nineteenth century economies that created the modern wealth gaps between nations.

From VOX – British wellbeing 1780-1850: Measuring the impact of industrialisation on wages, health, inequality, and working time

by Daniel Gallardo Albarrán, appeared on 22nd May 2016


From VOX – Service labour market: The engine of growth and inequality

Economic historians tend to explain US geographical development gaps in terms of industrialisation. But by the end of the 20th century, the richest counties had become specialised in services, rather than in manufacturing. This column evaluates how the service economy triggered this evident contrast between the urban and rural US. Market size causes localisation of non-agricultural activity, with the effect being stronger for services, especially knowledge services. Local policymakers can thus foster growth by attracting high-skilled workers to a region, with the multiplier effect eventually increasing the local market.

by Alexandra Lopez-Cermeño, 12 July 2015

Article here: