“Why didn’t the Roman Empire have an industrial revolution?” [and why Britain did]


 For my money, Bret Devereaux might be the most interesting long form blogger working today. His writing is sharp, his arguments are well reasoned and placed into context, and everything is supported by a carefully constructed framework of evidence.

This post starts with the kind of question that too often takes some minor historical fact like Heron inventing a (thoroughly impractical) steam engine and quickly devolves into a bad Turtledove imitation. Instead of going down that tiresome route, Devereaux explores the economic, technological, and social conditions necessary for an industrial revolution and shows how late eighteenth century Britain was both the right time and the right place. 

And now, at last, the pieces in place the revolution in production arrives. There a machine (the spinning jenny) which needs more power in rotational motion and already encourages the machines to be centralized into a single location; the design is such that in theory one could put an infinite number of spools in a line if you had sufficient rotational energy to spin them all. Realizing this, textile manufacturers (we’re talking about factory owners, at this point) first use watermills, but there are only so many places in Great Britain suitable for a watermill and a windmill won’t do – the power needs to be steady and regular, things which the wind is not. But the developments of increasingly efficient steam engines used in the coal mines now collide with the developments in textiles: a sophisticated steam engine like the Watt (Read more...)