Innovation and Social Structure

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.

20 thoughts on “Innovation and Social Structure”

  1. > 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.

    I don’t have it at hand, but somewhere in Mill’s “On Liberty” he makes the point that multiple decentralized groups are favorable to the discovery of truth, because (humans being imperfect by nature) it is more likely that an unusual (but true) idea will be able to flourish in a small group for a time while it is proving its value. A centralized system, which by definition narrows liberty, will be slower to advance to the truth.

    Just a conversational thought.

  2. Many of the outstanding physicians were also Dissenters. Lister was a Quaker and was dismissed from the community for marrying “out” when he married Syme’s daughter. His father, Joseph Jackson Lister, invented the compound microscope.

  3. I am eagerly awaiting my pre-ordered copy of The Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain 1700-1850 by Joel Mokyr. It should be an absolutely state-of-the-art discussion of the British Industrial Revolution.

    On the point of decentralization, Joel Kotkin (I think) had an article about the decline of all other centers of wealth, power, culture and influence in the USA, and the rise of DC to a centralized, imperial capital like Rome or Bourbon-era Paris. As the country becomes more of a bureaucratic leviathan, the only avenue to wealth, power or success will be access to government power. Hence talent and ambition migrate to the center of political power. This is a disaster which cuts against a thousand years of Anglospheric history and practice. It is a process that will only end in some sort of catastrophe, which I would prefer not to live through, though my grandchildren (hypothetical at this point) might be better off if we go through such a “time of troubles” and cut Leviathan down to size.

    Most likely, we are going to sink slowly into the mud of despotism, bit by bit, with seemingly good reasons for each step. shine, perishing republic.

    But this is America after all, and it ain’t over ’til it’s over.

  4. Goldwater probably had a point about cutting off the east coast and letting it drift out to sea. The lefties all tell us that the blue coastal enclaves generate more wealth than the great red expanse of middle America. That’s OK with me. They can have it as long as they take their urban underclass with them when they leave.

  5. I understand that the monarchy in France “bled” the producers and didn’t do much to encourage trade and industry before the revolution; spending money it did not have. Then the country went through the looking glass and down the rabbit hole of political correctness when the populist French revolution bled not only aristocracy but productive intellectual and managerial types. Napoleon came to the fore and restored order of a militaristic sort. The country prospered (to the extent it prospered) through conquest rather than production and mercantilism. A generation (and more) of war, repression, turmoil, madness, fear, and loathing throughout the population prevented the dissemination of innovation into French society at large.

  6. The nearest French equivalent to Dissenters were the Huguenots, who were slaughtered or driven out. The point about the Cornish tin industry is interesting; was there any discrepancy in the coal industries – I mean, did France have one? There had been coal-mining in England and Scotland for a long time. There’s also the fact that much of the aristocracy and gentry in Britain tended to live at home (at least for much of the year) rather than gathering at an equivalent of Versailles. That left them more in touch with agricultural and industrial development, as a potential source both of education and capital.

  7. They can have it as long as they take their urban underclass with them when they leave.

    Where did that urban underclass come from?

  8. Dearieme…Cardwell says that France did have a substantial coal industry at that point…I know coal mining was still important in France circa WWI, not sure how much decline there has been since then.

  9. A reader just kindly sent me some information on French coal mining…sounds like there was a major decline in the 1960s driven by cheap oil and nuclear power (which now produces about 80% of France’s electricity)…almost all coal mining in France has now ceased.

  10. Where did that urban underclass come from?

    I think it came largely from the permissive law enforcement policies and social policies of the left. New York is a pretty good example. Crime soared in the 70s and declined after OW Wilson’s theories were adopted.

    The single parent household is a consequence, in large part, of Great Society policies in welfare. The original AFDC was intended for windows with children. It was transformed by policies that were condemned by Moynihan in 1965. His advice was ignored.

    There is a book out now that sounds interesting. It’s titled “Searching for Whitopia”. I wonder if he has any insight.

    I grew up in Chicago in the 1940s and 50s, then left for college and never lived there again. I still have a lot of family there and have watched the trends. It’s pretty grim, as is Los Angeles and both are firmly in the hands of the left elite. I live south, behind the “Orange Curtain” as some call it. My daughter moved to Los Angeles and her car insurance tripled. Just one small indicator.

  11. France underwent several disastrous financial crisis in the 18th century which presaged another disaster, the revolution. The final blow before the revolution was a deep depression partially caused by the debts of the 7 years war and US revolution. After the revolution, French military and government spending sucked up credit and capital for political expansion. France ended up a good 50 years, at least behind Britain.
    Also, lack of markets for goods may have been an issue. Despite many early disagreements (and a war) the US and Britain continued to strengthen economic ties almost from the beginning; to the detriment of France.

  12. France suffered from religious division and endemic civil wars throughout the 16th century. England was sparred that fate, probably because Mary died childless and young, her husband Phillip II of Spain decided to return thence, where the money was, and Elizabeth turned out to be a political genius who could balance the contending forces and avoid civil war.

    In the 17th century, there were new dynasties in both countries. The English Stuarts were protestants, and James continued Elizabeth’s religious policy. But his son Charles, was arrogant, tried to make the Scots conform, and the English live without Parliament. When his subjects rebelled at his machinations, he lost and eventually lost his head.

    The French Bourbons were Catholic and capable. When rebellion broke out at mid-century, they used the opening to become absolute monarchs. Later in the 17th century, they abandoned the toleration of Protestantism established to end the civil wars of the 16th century.

    At the beginning of the 18th century, France was the dominant power in Europe. England did not challenge it until mid-century (French and Indian Wars, a/k/a 7 years war) or pass it until the collapse of Napoleon’s Empire.

    England was better off by its 17th century settlement, but that would not become apparent, nor explicable, until the 19th century.

  13. French medicine was far ahead of England until the end of the 19th century but Germany passed France, largely due to their progress in organic chemistry, mid-century. Rokitansky graduated in medicine in Vienna in 1828 but then went to Paris for training in anatomy and pathology. When he returned to Vienna, the medical school was completely reorganized to the point that it is called “The Second Vienna School.” Similarly, the stethoscope was a French invention that spread across Europe and America after the Napoleonic Wars ended. By 1870, the Germans had passed both France and England after the Kaiser emphasized education in science. The late 19th century medical progress was in bacteriology and surgery, both German in origin. England had the gifted amateurs like the “Lunar Men” and Charles Darwin (whose grandfather was a lunar man) but Lister, when he solved the problem of wound infection in 1867, met tremendous resistance in England while his work was adopted immediately in Germany.

  14. Many good points already made here. A couple more:

    England, and after Union, Britain, had a single internal market. Pre-revolutionary France had myriad internal customs barriers, so that to get goods across France you would have to pay customs duties numerous times. Even though France was far bigger than Britain, the latter had a single large internal market to support production and innovation.

    Guilds monopolized production by law and typically were hostile to innovation as threatening their members’ monopoly rents. But the guilds only held power in chartered cities. British entrepreneurs set up shop in unchartered towns and rural areas to avoid guild restrictions — two of these little towns were Manchester and Birmingham; James Watt avoided guild restrictions by working on university premises, which were autonomous from the city government. France did not permit this sort of regulatory arbitrage. Just as today many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are fleeing to Nevada and other low-tax, low-regulation areas.

    Finally, science was not all that useful to technological entrepreneurs in the initial periods. Even when science got the main point right, they often could not model the effects they theorized about well enough to provide useful guidance to technologists. N.A.M. Rodger describes how French scientists laid out the foundations of hydrodynamics in the late 18th century, but when they tried to apply their new understandings to ship design, they just couldn’t model the forces accurately enough. So French ships were too long and thin, and tended to break up too easily in heavy seas. The British continued to use empirical rules of thumb, which produced better, more practical ships. Eventually, science started to deliver — sugar from beets, chemical dyes, electrical equipment. Germany developed the concept of the research university feeding into systemic industrial R&D, which allowed them to surge ahead or into peer status in the late 19th century, until the Americans imitated their system and caught up.

  15. “… until the Americans imitated their system and caught up.”

    Not just that. We expropriated all their patented processes when we got into World War I. We declared the German patents to be enemy assets and sold them off to US firms. This was a gigantic blow to Germany.

    Germany had made up for its lack of a large and climatologically diverse empire (like Britain) or continental land mass (like the USA) by pioneering in chemistry, to make substitutes for naturally occurring tropical and subtropical products. The Germans had an economic incentive that the Anglosphere countries did not. They then surged ahead in these new fields. Germany’s capacity to carry on World War I despite a tight economic blockade came as a shock to Britain and to other observers. The USA grabbed much of what they had done and leap-frogged to the cutting edge.

    A remarkable tale which is told in Hugill, P. and V. Bachmann. 2005. The Route to the Techno-Industrial World-Economy and the Transfer of German Organic Chemistry to America before, during, and immediately after World War One. Comparative Technology Transfer and Society 3(2): 159-186. This article is not, unfortunately, free online, but it is very much worth tracking down.

  16. Lex,

    I also read long ago about the United States and the Soviets stealing much technology from Germany. And I agree.

    But something that has always turned me off about German technology is their love for over engineering things: cameras, cars, etc. They pack them with so many neat features a regular user would never need anyway.

    I had American cars for many years and I have grown accustomed to simplicity in design. Last year I got a Mini Cooper, I love the car, but it’s a complicated life to replace a flat tire, the interior door handles use a different mechanic system that looks nice but easily breaks and it’s made of plastic, etc.

    My brother got a BMW a few years ago and he ran into pretty similar problems, American and Japanese cars for example, use the same windshield wiper systems, which you can replace for less than 10 dls and it only takes a second, but the BMW fellows came up with some specially developed windshield wiper and now my brother had to pay more than 50 dls to replace them. What’s the use of engineering a “superior” product if you end up paying more.

    There’s an interesting story comparing WWII tank development and manufacturing strategies by Americans and Germans, here:

  17. Paul Ehrlich experimented with methylene blue when he was trying to find a syphilis cure. He tried it for malaria but saw little effect. In World War I, the Germans were cut off from quinine and work resumed. Eventually (1933) this resulted in atebrin, which we used in the south Pacific in WWII and it finally resulted in chloroquin, which does not stain like atebrin.

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