Currently reading Turning Points in Western Technology (D S Cardwell, 1972.) The author observes that during the late 1700s and early 1800s, the state of French science and mathematics was very advanced–more so than that in Britain–and asks the question: Why was industrial development in Britain so much more successful than that in France?
He offers three suggestions:
1)…(France) had nothing to compare with the great non-ferrous metal mining industry of Cornwall. Mining, especially of the latter sort, had long been associated with progressive technology. This was particularly true of eighteenth-century England where mining was linked to a close network of related and complementary technologies: metallurgy, refining, iron founding, power and transport.
Interesting, but probably not directly relevant to our current situation. Cardwell’s next two points, though, I think are very relevant.
2)Secondly, it is possible that the very virtues of the French system militated against economic success. France was, as Britain was not, a centralized country. Paris, the capital, was also the only important centre. It is natural for functionaries to favour centralism: it is so much tidier to have everything run from one big central city. Accordingly talent was drawn to Paris and the Ecole Polytechnique…In England on the other hand there were several important centres besides London…All these active centres meant a wider and more effective diffusion of talent than was possible in France.
3)Thirdly, it may not be entirely subjective to discern a broad difference between the practice and personnel of technology in England and in France at this time. English technology seems to have been generally more empirical than French which was more theoretical, more scientific. Does this perhaps reflect not so much a difference in national temperament and in scientific organization as the existence of a class in England that had few or no representives in France?…Men who were in very close touch with immediate and practical requirements and had both the ability and the means to effect fruitful innovations. In France, on the other hand, the engineer appears more typically as a mathematician, a Monge, a Carnot, or a Prony.
Today’s politicians often seem to think that innovation can be guaranteed by simply pouring enough money into “R&D.” Cardwell’s analysis suggests that the problem is considerably more subtle.
Elsewhere in the book, Cardwell discusses the emergence of the British cotton-processing industry:
The early leaders were often Dissenters who were excluded from the fruits–some might say the corruptions–of office in State and Establishment. They were therefore free to devote themselves to business as their sole professional aim while the laws of England assured them their property and the profits their genius earned.
(Cardwell is using the term “Dissenters” in its religious sense–ie, these men were not followers of the Church of England.)
Had cotton-spinning and weaving been an “industrial policy” project of the Government, than these Dissenters would have not been the ones selected to create and run the cotton mills. Even leaving religious issues aside, those chosen would surely have been the connected and credentialed–categories that would have left many of the successful cotton masters out. And the history of British industrial development would have been very different.