The Quest for the Industrial Revolution

Tue 12 Nov 2002, 00:00

The modern world of steadily rising real incomes is the product of the industrial revolution. Before the industrial revolution no community could provide much more than the four basic necessities of food, housing, clothing, and fuel to the bulk of its inhabitants. At times, the least fortunate were often desperately short even of food. Yet the fundamental nature of the changes which occurred were not evident to most contemporaries during the conventional period of the industrial revolution (say, 1760-1830), and recent attempts to quantify the growth rate of the economy during this period agree in depicting it as an era of much slower growth than was once supposed. The industrial revolution was incontestably of fundamental importance and yet has proved remarkably difficult to pin down. Since estimates of the size of the economy in the mid-nineteenth century are little changed, the revisionist view of slow growth necessarily implies a much larger economy in, say 1750 than was supposed by earlier generations of economic historians. Since output per head was substantially higher in England than in her continental neighbours in 1850, the revisionist view also implies that the same was probably also true in 1750. Assuming that in, say, Tudor times England did not enjoy an advantage in this respect over her neighbours, the period that might be described as the 'long' seventeenth century is thrown into relief as a period of exceptional interest. This lecture is devoted to the discussion of the issues raised by the prevailing view of growth before and during the 'industrial revolution'.


Sir Tony Wrigley, former Master Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and Past President of the British Academy

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