If not Britain, where? The case for a French Industrial Revolution

Anton Howes
May 9, 2017 · 5 min read
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The Montgolfier balloon, one of many French Industrial Revolution-era innovations

Tyler Cowen asks whether the world would have seen an Industrial Revolution if Britain had failed to have one. I’m going to take “Industrial Revolution” to really mean a sustained acceleration of innovation, which is, after all, the underlying source of sustained economic growth.

So let’s assume that Britain had no innovators whatsoever — every single one of the 1,452 individuals whose biographies I lovingly reconstructed over the past few years simply never became innovators. Thomas Newcomen remained an unremarkable iron merchant. Josiah Wedgwood merely copied the tried and tested methods of making ceramics. Sarah Guppy took no interest in her husband’s business affairs. Britain in the eighteenth century might have remained an unremarkable, relatively impoverished nation.

But innovation would almost certainly have accelerated elsewhere, probably within the space of a few decades. Britain might have had more innovators, but it did not have a monopoly on them. In fact, we don’t actually know for sure if Britain did have more innovators. It’s possible that an equal number of Dutch and French and German and other countries’ innovators were simply engaged in improving industries that would prove to be less productive. French and Italian innovators mechanised silk-throwing long before the British mechanised cotton-spinning, but cotton for a number of reasons had all the makings of a mass-consumption item (its demand elasticity was much higher). The truth, is we don’t know for sure — nobody, to my knowledge, has yet attempted to put together samples of innovators comparable to those assembled for Britain (don’t worry, I’m working on it..)

Soon after I completed my PhD thesis I actually began to compile an equivalent French list (this has recently been on hold, and a Dutch list will also soon be in the works). We know that there were plenty of French innovators — Jacquard, Girard, Montgolfier, Lavoisier, Daguerre all immediately spring to mind — but I didn’t realise quite how many there were until I started to list them. Even my cursory look suggests that Britain may not have been quite as dominant an innovator as we assume. As Joel Mokyr has suggested, Britain’s advantage may have been in adopting and adapting the innovations of others, not necessarily in originating them. (For what it’s worth, I still suspect Britain had more innovators, just not that many more; but again, we don’t yet have the evidence to confirm this suspicion).

So if not Britain, probably France. Or the Low Countries, or Switzerland, or the United States. These countries were, after all, the first to experience their own accelerations of innovation either contemporaneously with Britain, or only a few decades after. The raw materials were there. France for example had access to the Atlantic economy, and Belgium had plenty of coal (which France could have imported, or perhaps even conquered). Indeed, as demonstrated by Leonardo Ridolfi’s astonishingly thorough doctoral thesis, the French were a lot richer before 1789 that we had thought.

What’s more, France certainly had the scientific knowledge-creation necessary to some of the major technological developments. Denis Papin first became interested with using vacuums to produce motive power during his time in Paris, working with Christiaan Huygens (pronounced like this) and Gottfried Leibniz. These experiments, along with his later work in Germany, eventually led to the first atmospheric steam engines.

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Squicciarini and Voigtländer’s map

Such Enlightened thinkers and makers were not just concentrated in Paris, but were spread across the country, as indicated by the work of Squicciarini and Voigtländer. See their map, left, which shows the density of subscriptions (per 1,000 of population) to the famous Encyclopédie (they also showed, controlling for prior development and for mass education, that places with more subscribers tended to develop faster).

But this isn’t to say that France (as well as the other countries I’ve mentioned) would have experienced an acceleration of innovation that was quite as fast as that in Britain. There were a number of factors that may have slowed France’s acceleration (but crucially not stopped it):

  1. France’s educated, learned types — the savants — had slightly different interests. Although the French Académie des Sciences (1666) was founded only a few years later than England’s Royal Society (1660), French scientists were said to be rather more concerned with abstract theorising than with applying their knowledge.
  2. France may not have had quite as prominent a commitment to spreading innovations further, to evangelising innovation. Britain’s major society for promoting improvements in general, the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (founded in 1754, now the Royal Society of Arts), was founded about half a century earlier than its French counterpart, the Société d’Encouragement pour l’Industrie Nationale (1801). [Then again, the French organised public exhibitions of their innovations about half a century before the British — their l’Exposition des Produits de l’Industrie Française began in Paris in 1798; Britain’s Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace was in 1851].
  3. French religious intolerance didn’t help. The revocation of the Edict of Nantes, in 1685, put an end to religious tolerance. People like the early steam engine innovator Denis Papin, a Huguenot (French Protestant), were forced to leave (in his particular case, rendered unable to return). I found many first or second generation immigrant Huguenots among my sample of innovators in Britain.
  4. France suffered some major political instability: the 1789 French Revolution, the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, the 1830 July Revolution, the 1848 February Revolution. All harmed innovation. The inventor Marc Isambard Brunel (also father of the famous civil engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel), fled the French Revolution for the United States, before eventually settling in Britain. The great chemist Antoine Lavoisier was rather less fortunate — in 1794 he lost his head to guillotine. [Note, again, that this only slowed innovation rather than stopping it. The Massachusetts-born Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, who had fought for the British in the American Revolution, had no misgivings about settling in Paris in 1804 (and marrying Lavoisier’s widow)]

So without the British acceleration of innovation, the Industrial Revolution would likely have happened elsewhere within a few decades. France and the Low Countries and Switzerland and the United States were by the eighteenth century well on their way towards sustained modern economic growth. The growth would probably have been slower, it may have been delayed. The path that technology took may have been a little more winding. But the improving mentality was already spreading rapidly throughout Europe, as was the commitment to spreading it further. The steam locomotive had already bolted.

*Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed it, please do check out my other posts about the history of innovation. And please share!

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