One of the most popular facts about the British Industrial Revolution is that more troops were sent to quash the machine-breaking Luddites than were sent to fight Napoleon in the Peninsular War — one finds it endlessly repeated (see here, here, here, etc).
But it’s not true. Not even close.
The total number deployed against the Luddites was 12,000. But at the Peninsular War’s peak in October of 1813, there were 73,000 British troops in Iberia (Linch, p.16) — a vastly higher figure. The total number deployed over the course of the war must have numbered over 100,000. Indeed, the war’s British casualties alone numbered 40,000 (Daly, p.3).
Most economic historians have been careful to cite a comparison that is more precise. One example that comes to mind (among many) is in Lever of Riches (p.257): “During the Luddite outbreaks in 1811–13, the British government deployed 12,000 men against rioters, a force greater in size than Wellington’s original peninsular army in 1808” [emphasis added].
But even this more precise comparison is not true. Recent historians have been misled! Britain initially committed a force in August 1808 of 30,000 — a number more than twice as large as that sent to quell the Luddites (Daly, p.3). And this was reinforced in December of 1808 by a further 10,000.
So where does the factoid come from? Who has been so misleading?
Tracing the references, it was popularised by Eric Hobsbawm in Labouring Men (p.8): “Mr Darvall has done well to remind us that the 12,000 troops deployed against the Luddites greatly exceeded in size the army which Wellington took into the Peninsula in 1808”. So Hobsbawm in turn got it from Frank Ongley Darvall.
But it was Hobsbawm who seemingly added the specifics. Darvall’s Popular Disturbances and Public Order in Regency England (1934, p.260) reads simply: “It was a veritable army, larger than many actual armies with which British Generals had wages and won important foreign campaigns”. No mention there of Wellington or the Peninsular War!
So Hobsbawm was responsible. But where did he go wrong? Well, Wellington did indeed set sail from Cork in July 1808 with a force of 11,000 (Daly, p.44) — slightly smaller than the 12,000 sent against the Luddites. The additional fact, which Hobsbawm failed to notice, is that Wellington’s force was not the only one deployed.
But even if Hobsbawm had been correct on the numbers, he is guilty of cherry-picking to serve his narrative. Presumably the Peninsular War was chosen because it was concurrent with the Luddite riots. But why compare the Peninsular force of 1808 with the anti-Luddite force of four years later? Comparing the relevant figures for 1812, there were 50,000 in the Peninsula versus the 12,000 in the Midlands (Linch, p.4).
And even if Hobsbawm had been correct and hadn’t cherry-picked, the comparison fails. Kevin Linch, in Britain and Wellington’s Army (pp.4–5), explains: “[The comparison] betrays a lack of comprehension of Britain’s military structure. . . . the troops used in the Luddite disturbances were mainly militia regiments that could not be sent overseas. Any comparison between the troops used against the Luddites and the force under Wellington is misleading.”
The force sent against the Luddite was not just quantitatively lower than that under Wellington, it was also qualitatively worse. These were local militia-men, maintained cheaply at home, not soldiers to be sent abroad at great expense.
Regardless, however, the spirit of Hobsbawm’s comparison should not be dismissed. By the early nineteenth century, the British state had without a doubt sided firmly with the industrialists. And it did so using the workers themselves: Linch (pp.90–1) notes that significant proportions of the militia-men raised in the Midlands, had originally been weavers, made unemployed because of the initial strikes of 1807–08. Thus, many of the troops stationed to quell the rioting weavers of 1812 were themselves unemployed weavers!
Joel Mokyr, among many other things, is known for his distinction between macro- and microinventions. Macroinventions are the radical breakthroughs, seemingly coming from nowhere. They create whole new industries, or at least new technological avenues to pursue. Following the macroinventions come the microinventions: these are the incremental improvements, the minor additions and gradual tweaks that are often necessary to bring a macroinvention to its full potential.
At least, that was the distinction he made in Lever of Riches (1990). But the definition has evolved since then (mostly the doing of others), to signify macroinventions as inventions that were impactful.
Macroinvention started out as a theory about innovation’s causes, but now it describes an innovation’s effects. Even Mokyr himself, for example in his paper with Meisenzahl (2011), has moved away from a definition that stresses the “epistemic innovativeness” of macroinventions — that is, the extent to which they were radically new insights — and instead uses the term to refer to inventions that “had a major impact on the economy”.
But novelty and impact are two entirely different things. The confusion in macroinvention’s adoption as a term probably stems from the use of “macro-”, which conveys magnitude more than it does novelty. Yet confusion also arises from trying to identify macroinventions. Instead of stressing the extent to which an invention is radically new, most people have taken radical to mean the extent to which it changed things. So people who look for macroinventions now focus only on those inventions that became successful, or were disruptive, neglecting whether or not they were actually all that original.
In the course of this drift of definitions, another of Mokyr’s important points is lost: macroinventions depend upon succeeding microinventions for their eventual importance. Impact is a remarkably slippery term, and attempts to pinpoint any particular invention as being important are likely to become biased towards those that have simply achieved fame. As Mokyr puts it, “asking whether the major breakthroughs are more important that the marginal improvements is like asking whether generals or privates win a battle” (1990, p.14).
Moreover, technologies that were radically novel sometimes ended up having no impact whatsoever. Take Francis Whishaw’s 1838 invention of a hydraulic telegraph: by pressing or raising the water on one end, the water level would instantaneously be raised or dropped on the other end, with each level signifying different codes. The device was highly original, with no obvious predecessors (the Romans had a hydraulic signalling system, but it operated on an entirely different principle). It was also a promising avenue for technological development, which could have benefited from tweaks to the code, the pipes, insulation against freezing, and so on. In other words, it was no technological dead end; it was just a road never taken. People, including Whishaw himself, simply became more interested in improving the electric telegraph.
So it is only by mere coincidence that Whishaw never appears in the pantheon of supposed macroinventors. And it is only by virtue of the paths taken that far less original inventors get all the attention: Richard Arkwright, John Kay, Josiah Wedgwood, Edmund Cartwright, James Watt. All essentially made tweaks to older processes.
This observation about the pantheon of supposed macroinventors raises a deeper problem, even when we stick with Mokyr’s original definition of macroinventions as inventions that were the most novel. Take a closer look at any of the famous macroinventions and they tend to disintegrate into a multitude of more marginal improvements. Like trying to measure a rugged coastline, the closer you look, the longer it gets. Let’s zoom in on a few that are commonly mentioned as macroinventions:
Mokyr’s original aim in coining macroinvention was to identify breakthroughs that, unlike microinventions, were independent of the ordinary movements of market forces. They were such radical discontinuities that they could not be explained by mere changes in supply or demand, instead relying on developments in people’s knowledge and understanding, or on the unpredictable combination of previously disparate ideas. Because of this, their timing was almost impossible to explain.
I agree with this assessment, that technological change is highly unpredictable. But where I differ from Mokyr is that I think it applies to all innovation. As such, there seems little reason to create a special class of inventions. Kay, Wedgwood, and Watt were revolutionary, and they were more successful than most other inventors. But their contributions were still tweaks, or at least bundles of tweaks. We should call their inventions any more ingenious, or any less predictable, than those of other inventors. Some improvements involve greater leaps than others, or more knowledge (what Mokyr calls “a wider epistemic base”). And some improvements are bundled together by a single inventor, or by a series of inventors. Ultimately, however, there is no hard dichotomy between the discontinuous and the incremental; there is only a scale.
So the distinction between macro- and microinvention was initially developed to tell us something about a given invention’s causes, but is now used to signify the size of its effects. Because of this definition-drift, both terms, macroinvention and microinvention, have started to be used interchangeably with other terms that are actually quite distinct.
Macroinvention, for example, has become closely associated with the idea of a General Purpose Technology (coined in 1992 by Bresnahan and Trajtenberg). Both terms, after all, refer to technologies with huge effects. But there are differences: a GPT must have wide applicability to other technologies, whereas a macroinvention, at least as the term has evolved, need only bring about great changes in general. Thus, a macroinvention might be Edward Jenner’s smallpox vaccination — an innovation with huge economic and social effects, but limited wider applicability. A classic GPT, on the other hand, is the overall concept of getting rotary motion from steam power, applicable to factories, to railway locomotives, to early tractors, and so on. (“Steam power” is also a concept, if ever there was one, that contains multitudes of incremental improvements!)
At the same time, microinvention has become closely associated with another concept: learning-by-doing. The term is used to refer to gradual increases in the productivity of an industry, without there being any noticeable inventions. As the very name learning-by-doing suggests, the increasing productivity comes from people getting better at using technologies through practice. It’s like teaching someone to touch-type: at first, you tap each letter slowly, occasionally needing to check and remind yourself of the placement of the keys. After a while, however, your productivity improves to the extent that you no longer need to stop to check their placement. And eventually, you’re able to type without looking at the keyboard at all, getting faster and faster until you’re able to type about as fast as you can think.
That, I think, is the most intuitive definition of learning-by-doing, and the most useful one. It tells us something about productivity’s causes, showing us that when a new technology is introduced, like the typewriter, it can take a while for it to realise its full productive potential. Such a definition of learning-by-doing tells us that for a technology to be used successfully, it requires skill, education, and time: investment in human capital. (And it is this function of human capital, by the way, that Mokyr, along with Morgan Kelly and Cormac Ó Gráda, have stressed as the cause of Britain’s ability to adopt innovations faster than the rest of Europe during the Industrial Revolution).
But increasingly, learning-by-doing has come to mean more than just productivity through practice, becoming conflated with gradual and seemingly imperceptible tweaks to technologies: microinventions. This is despite the fact that practice and innovation are very different things. Just about anyone who types is a practitioner, but only a handful of people design new keyboard arrangements (i.e. QWERTY), or come up with entirely new techniques (i.e. touch-typing, as opposed to single-finger typing). [There may be some cases where the distinction between practice and innovation is unclear, but that’s a topic for another time].
What has happened to the definition of learning-by-doing is that, just like the term macroinvention, it increasingly refers to effects, not to causes. Learning-by-doing has thus come simply to mean any increases in productivity, the sources of which are imperceptible. One hears talk of “anonymous tinkerers”, for example. And yet a closer look often yields a few names, and even a few major breakthroughs (take watch-making, where such near-universally-applied breakthroughs as Mudge’s detached lever escapement have been considered tweaks worthy of nary a mention). Essentially, because it takes some effort to identify lesser-known innovators and their innovations, they have been lumped in together with improvements that occur through sheer practice. Rather than providing analytical clarity of productivity’s causes, the definition-creep of learning-by-doing has created a black box.
In sum, if we are to better understand innovation, it helps to have clearly distinct terms to refer to innovation’s causes, and to its effects. Unfortunately, macro- and microinvention have both attained widespread meanings that blur the crucial distinction.
I am grateful to Pseudoerasmus for providing some “non-anonymous but pseudonymous peer review” comments.
One of the key findings from my research into the British Industrial Revolution is that most innovators, before they started tinkering with things, had first known other innovators. In other words, innovators inspired those around them, inculcating their apprentices, colleagues, students, and families, with an improving mentality: the very idea of innovating.
But where did this start? Who was the original thinker to come up with the improving mentality?
Well, we will probably never know — I strongly suspect that the improving mentality has been spreading from person to person for millennia. Innovation as an idea might even have been independently thought-up by a handful of people in various different cultures (although as I’ve argued elsewhere, it does not seem that innovation, without prior inspiration, is an activity that tends to come naturally to people). It might even be that no single person could ever have invented the idea of inventing, and that it instead emerged from the interactions of a group — the sort of idea that starts to develop during a conversation, gradually taking shape as previously disparate concepts come together from the various interlocutors. Again, we will probably never know.
Nonetheless, we might know who first brought the improving mentality to the British Isles, at least in the sense of getting the ball rolling for the Industrial Revolution. One excellent candidate for this was a young man straight out of university: John Dee.
John Dee is today best known for being Elizabeth I’s astrologer — an association with the occult that has inspired countless representations in fiction. But in 1547, just a few months after the death of Henry VIII, the 19-year-old Dee traveled to the University of Leuven, in Brabant (then part of the Hapsburg Netherlands, and today in present-day Belgium). There, he fell in with a crowd of “some learned men, and chiefly Mathematicians, as Gemma Frisius, Gerardus Mercator, Gaspar à Mirica.”
I was particularly taken with this description of Leuven’s intellectual climate: “Under Frisius’s influence, Louvain had become caught up in a rapture of scientific measurement, a mood reflected in the Flemish picture The Measurers, which was painted by an unknown artist around the time Dee was there”. Frisius, born Jemme Reinerszoon, invented triangulation — the fundamental principle of surveying, and consequently of accurate map-making. And he improved numerous instruments used in navigation. Gaspar à Mirica (aka Amyricius, born Gaspar van der Heyden) was the practical man, trained as a goldsmith, helping Frisius to realise his innovative designs. And Gerardus Mercator (born Geert De Kremer), was chief among Frisius’s protégés, to whom Dee would become the closest. Mercator by 1547 was already constructing exceptional new globes, and had even recently endured seven months in prison at the hands of the Inquisition. In 1569 he would develop the map projection that bears his name, which corrected for the curvature of the earth to depict sailing courses as straight lines.
It was from this crowd of mathematicians and surveyors that Dee brought back the idea of invention — and, indeed, their very inventions: “I returned home, and brought with me the first Astronomer’s staff in brass, that was made of Gemma Frisius’s devising, the two great Globes of Gerardus Mercator’s making, and the Astronomer’s ring of brass, as Gemma Frisius had newly framed it”.
Dee, as far as I can tell, was the earliest to bring such inventions to the British Isles — an area that, in 1547, was one of Europe’s scientific and technological backwaters. Thony Christie (who really knows his stuff on such matters) has called Dee’s England a “mathematical desert”. And many other industries were just as parched. Glass-makers, for example, were said to be almost entirely lacking. Even England’s textiles (its main export at the time) were hampered by shoddy dyes: “no man almost wyll meddle with any coullours of clothe touchinge wodde and mader [woad and madder] … that is dyed within this realme”.
England’s backwardness is confirmed by a cursory look at the very earliest grants and patents (which came before the patent system), which reveals that most of them were given to foreigners bringing existing practices from the rest of Europe: to two Brabant weavers to settle in York in 1336; to three Delft clockmakers to come over for a short period in 1368; to three Bohemian miners to bring their knowledge of minerals in 1452. And this trend persisted for at least a century: the earliest innovators in my sample (which is from 1547–1851) tended to be foreigners bringing technology that already existed elsewhere.
So Dee’s return in 1547 from Leuven, laden with the cutting edge instruments of his time, was a momentous event in the history of English technology. He introduced the needed instruments, and more importantly the mindset to improve them. The author who damned English textile dyes in 1553 ascribed the country’s technological retardation not to “the inhabilitie of oure wyttes”, but rather “to oure beastly blyndnesse, which wyll not suffer us to searche for that knowledge which our wyttes are able enough to attayne”. The English in other words had the smarts for innovation, but not the improving mentality. Dee’s return was the cure to that “beastly blyndnesse”.
It should be noted that Dee’s personal contributions as a mathematician were rather modest, and I’m not even certain that he can be classed as an innovator. But as a vector for the spread of the idea of innovation, he was highly influential, affecting many of the late 16th century innovators in my sample. The sailor and privateer John Davis seems to have known Dee before he invented the backstaff — a quadrant that allowed sailors to measure the height of the sun in the sky without having to stare directly at it. And Leonard Digges, who developed the theodolite, was a close friend: upon Digges’s death, his son Thomas (yet another inventor of navigational instruments) was placed under Dee’s foster care.
Dee’s direct influence was also long-lasting, extending well into the 17th century. Dee’s patron the 1st Earl of Leicester had a son, Sir Robert Dudley, who would go on to design an azimuth dial, propose new ship designs, and complete the first English sea atlas to use the Mercator projection. And Dee was an influence upon the polymath Hugh Plat, whose inventions took an entire book to catalogue (they range from pasta-making machines and sweet-smelling oils, to methods of preserving food and rain-proofing garments). Dee and Plat were introduced by Plat’s father-in-law, an acquaintance that might have had particularly far-reaching consequences (Hugh Plat has been floated by some as a more influential figure than even Sir Francis Bacon.
So 1547, famous as the year of Henry VIII’s death, should perhaps also be seen as the symbolic turning point in the technological and economic fortunes of the British Isles. Dee’s return from Leuven was one of the initial trickles in the barren desert, which grew into a stream, a river, and eventually a deluge.
To most people, the terms are synonymous, but to many economists, there is a distinction (one that, as far as I know, goes back to Schumpeter): invention is the technological development, and innovation is its application to the market. Invention is building the machines, and innovation is selling them.
I think these definitions are confusing, and even unhelpful.
Innovation, as a term, can be put to better uses, bringing with it connotations that are not quite covered by just invention. Invention brings to mind tinkering with machines, or at most the development of technologies that are physical. When we think of inventions, we think of steam engines, or of cotton gins. Innovation, on the other hand, is commonly used to cover anything from new machines, to new medical technologies, to advertising techniques: innovation therefore provides a useful catch-all term for improvements that are both tangible and intangible. It seems a little off, for example, to speak of the practice of washing hands before surgical operations as an invention, but fine to describe it as an innovation.
When most people speak of innovation, they don’t just refer to the selling of new technologies or techniques. They use it to refer to all stages of the creative process: the initial insight, its development, and its implementation on ever greater scales, from initial drafts or models and onwards. Selling is just one step that comes under implementation, and one that is not always there. Washing hands before operations was not a technique that needed to be sold for money, but was merely adopted and then diffused (Schumpeter, to his credit, does usefully distinguish invention/innovation from diffusion — the spread of a technique or technology without further improvements).
There is another historically important distinction, which is lost when referring to innovators as sellers: not all innovators were entrepreneurs. Many were employees, particularly of the state, and many were simply amateurs, uninterested in interacting with the market or even in making money. Even of those who did respond to monetary inducements, they did not always interact with the market — cash prizes, for example, do not involve selling, but do involve pecuniary reward.
So for greater clarity in the study of technological development, my plea to economists is this: let’s stop using innovation as per Schumpeter, and use clearer terms that avoid all ambiguity: the selling of new technologies, or their commercialisation. Let’s use innovation as everyone else uses it: a useful catch-all term for improvements that are both tangible and intangible, and that covers all of the stages of technological development.
The Industrial Revolution was caused by an acceleration of innovation. But how was that acceleration caused? Most theories of the acceleration’s causes assume that innovation is in human nature, that it has always been around.
So, they might argue:
And so on.. All of these arguments assume the same thing — that innovation is a part of human nature, a choice that has always been recognised. Their implicit claim is that, other than in mid-eighteenth century Britain, save for a few short-lived cases, choosing innovation was simply just not worth it.
The more I study the lives of British innovators, the more convinced I am that innovation is not in human nature, but is instead received. People innovate because they are inspired to do so — it is an idea that is transmitted. And when people do not innovate, it is often simply because it never occurs to them to do so. Incentives matter too, of course. But a person needs to at least have the idea of innovation — an improving mentality — before they can choose to innovate, before they can even take the costs and benefits of innovation into account.
An illustration: at a conference I was at last month the attendees wore lanyards with name tags, which listed their names on one side. Over the course of the conference the tags would inevitably flip over, hiding the names. People would, when introducing themselves, periodically check each other’s tags, flipping them the right way around. But only one person — one single person, of attendees in the hundreds, had the ingenuity to write their name on the other side. To my shame, it wasn’t me.
Everyone at that conference had an incentive to do that innovation. Everyone was there to meet one another, so the innovation helped achieve that goal. And the cost of the innovation was negligible. It took a couple of seconds to whip out a pen and scribble a name. It simply did not occur to them to innovate. Innovation can be extraordinarily rare — despite the opportunities, despite the incentives.
And I find the same old story during the British Industrial Revolution. My favourite example is John Kay’s flying shuttle. It was an improvement to the loom, which radically increased the productivity of weaving, and which finds a place in every textbook. A shuttle is the thing that weavers pass from side to side, drawing a thread, the weft, under and over the threads facing away from them, called the warp. Weavers would lift every other warp thread and pass the shuttle from hand to hand, hence passing the weft under the warp threads that were lifted, and over the ones that were not lifted. Under and over, under and over.
Kay’s innovation was to use two wooden boxes on either side to catch the shuttle. And he attached a string, with a little handle called a picker, so that the shuttle could be jerked across the loom, at great speed. Here’s a video of it in action.
Kay’s innovation was extraordinary in its simplicity. As the inventor Bennet Woodcroft put it, weaving with an ordinary shuttle had been “performed for upwards of five thousand years, by millions of skilled workmen, without any improvement being made to expedite the operation, until the year 1733”. All Kay added was some wood and some string. And he applied it to weaving wool, which had been England’s main industry since the middle ages. He had no special skill, he required no special understanding of science for it, and he faced no special incentive to do it. As for institutions, the flying shuttle was technically illegal because it saved labour, the patent was immediately pirated by competitors to little avail, and Kay was forced to move to France, hounded out of the country by angry weavers who threatened his property and even his life. Kay faced no special incentives — he even innovated despite some formidable social and legal barriers.
Kay’s flying shuttle is just one example, but it is illustrative of many more innovations that were low-hanging fruit, ripe for the plucking for centuries. So the usual, natural state is the state of those millions of weavers who preceded Kay, who never knew another innovator and so never even received the idea of innovating. As the agricultural innovator Arthur Young put it, the natural state is not innovation, but “that dronish, sleepy, and stupid indifference, that lazy negligence, which enchains men in the exact paths of their forefathers, without enquiry, without thought”.
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