Video: Anton Howes on The Causes of The Industrial Revolution


This summary was, as ever, prepared by Simon based only upon the video.

Anton set about the task of explaining a 1500% increase in wealth from 1730-1820, excluding life style improvements derived from technological improvements in the quality of goods e.g. the lumen hours of light bulbs vs candles has risen as well. A revolution that a hocky stick increase in living standards, as described by Deirdre McCloskey. What is so special about this period? There had been comparable “efflorescences” of industrial development that had not been as successful.

For example, the Roman’s had mechanisation, and water power and during Song Dynasty China before the Mongol invasion there was a comparable situation where there was almost, but not quite, an Industrial Revolution. What would have happened to society if either of those efflorescences had flourished? We could have been several centuries ahead in development from where we are now.

The 1500% increase in wealth is not fully attributable the normal market features we might guess at. Adam Smith’s division of labour and free trade between nations only accounts for approximately 13% not 100% of the GDP increase between 1698 and 1803, for example.

Instead T S Ashton’s “wave of gadgets all over Britain” that occurred in pretty much every industry you could name. This was not just in steam and cotton milling, but gardening, agriculture, ceramics and “pretty much every industry you could name.

What explains that?

Standard theories

  • Capital increases – Marx’ theory that the bourgeoise overthrew feudalism, is insufficient and older institutions such as Churches and Universities could have taken a similar lead, but they did not.
  • The Protestant Work Ethic – the theory of Max Weber – there were not enough Calvinists to account for the change, though their were more protestants and non-conformists than Calvinists specifically. Weber’s general approach might be useful, but his specific interpretation is not convincing for Anton.
  • Enclosure – Marx again, but enclosure only accounts for about 1.5%, not 1500%.
  • Imperialism – had too many downsides (hyper inflation) and larger empires did not experience the same thing, so why didn’t the Spanish, Dutch French and Germans have an Industrial Revolution until after ours. Foreign trade in general may be more important.
  • Canals / railways are also not sufficiently powerful forces, accounting for only 1.5%, and other efflorescences such as Rome and China that had canals did not manage to produce an Industrial Revolution.
  • European Dominance – the theory of Jared Diamond in Guns Germs and Steel does not explain why the UK had an industrial revolution not the Spanish or Dutch?
  • Coal – a common explanation. There is evidence coal could have been imported at a cost of only 1% of GDP and steam was only a factor later in the 1830 period when the steam engine was applied to industry.
  • Glorious Revolution 1688Douglass North explains that formal institutions associated with the revolution were important but the major financial institutions were focused on raising money for war, not the industrial revolution. Families and political and religious institutions actually financed industrial investment during the period.

Anton’s theory: a culture and ideology of innovation

Anton asserts that an ideology of innovation – a sub culture that takes hold from 1700 (or before) until 1780-1830 when we have a full blown Industrial Revolution.

This ideological sub-culture had several key features:

Newtonian Systematic Experimentation – noting down experimental results in order to avoid the repetition of experimental programs.

Encyclopedias and Almanacs that count and catalogue ideas and reference data. This accelerated the dispersal of knowledge from experiments and enabled people to make intuitive leaps by combining ideas discovered through printed material.

Patent change – a specific judge set new precedents that required patent claims to  be more specific, lessening the drag imposed by patents on follow-on innovators.

Social institutions – such as sinister sounding Masonic Lodges and the Birmingham Lunar Society accelerated the dispersal of knowledge. These institutions were associated with many of the great innovators and reduced the “social and cultural costs” of innovation. They would also have provided an incentive for people to innovate in order to achieve the recognition of the groups.

Open Source experimentation, evidence of an “ideological committment to society that  out weights personal profitable gain”. Some examples:

  • Lean’s Engine Reporter set up by Cornish tin miners – a reaction to patent trolling and the withdrawal of consultancy services and licensing of engines from Watt and Bolton.
  • Abraham Darby II, the inventor of Coke Smelting is quoted as saying “he would not deprive the public from such an acquisition” which is understood as a rejection of the patent system for ideological reasons.
  • Also, the Royal Society of Arts (or the Society for the Encouragement of Arts Manufactures Industry and Commerce, at the time) and originally restricted its prizes to inventions that were not patented but which were also thoroughly described. Participants were often wealthy establishment figures but there were examples of dirt poor inventors winning prizes under these terms.

Religion – a great many of the inventors that form part on Anton’s quantitative studies are part of minority or persecuted religions. Dissenters and free-thinkers are tolerated after 1689 (thanks to the Glorious revolution) but they were excluded from various public offices and even the military. To some extent were pressured into industry, but then make financial contributions through their religious institutions that funded the revolution.

Tolerance for Innovation – in several respects

  • Immigrant inventors – Brunel’s bridges, gas lighting, soda water, the Time’s press, silk,canned food and more are the invention of foreign inventors.
  • Internal Markets and tolerance of price gouging – prevented famines. Compared to France’s toll booths that stopped food being moved around. These were dispelled by the civil war which blew away very many authoritarian institutions.
  • Improving legal tolerance – Tudor laws banned the development of labour-saving devices, a measure designed to protect workers that later was felt to be getting in the way of production that benefited the whole of society. As such, legal rulings slowly started to be made that ignored and over turned the Tudor law and eventually Luddism broke out as the fearful workers final resort.
  • Political support – towards the end of the period free trade begins to be tolerated along with pro-innovation policies. The policies were put forward over the period and gained traction towards the end.


  • Curiosity – tolerance is insufficient without the curiosity to drive that which is tolerated.
  • A new luxury – Downton Abbey hierarchies are replaced with class layers defined by wealth, and a new consumer culture of desirable industrial products, tea spices etc. All initially illegal and over-regulated, but eventually the establishment buys into the sub culture.
  • Religious tolerance, as mentioned above.


It does not matter so much what policies the government has. Technology has driven through these barriers already and will continue to do so. Anton looks forward to seeing the African continent import our technological progress and leapfrog us into the future.



  1. It does matter what policies a government has – in a negative sense. Government policies can crush economic development – and often have done so. Without secure private property rights the largest scale factory can be taken by the whim of the state (as was the case repeatedly in Chinese history).

    By the way I am pleased to see T.S. Ashton mentioned. Although more than 60 years old his little book on the Industrial Revolution has never been bettered.



  2. Anton does appear to contradict himself on that point, since he mentioned those Tudor laws. Josh Lachkovic provides an insight that might reconcile the contradiction

    View at

    “Outside of my political circles, a lot of people I know are politically apathetic. And if they aren’t, they will almost certainly identify as left-wing.

    If I was to say to one of them, “government regulations hamper business and are a terrible idea,” they will likely disagree.

    But if I was to say, “you can’t get in that Uber cab for another 10 minutes even though it’s sat there waiting for you,” They’re going to question why. And even when you explain the angle that it’s because Uber have a competitive edge over the old marketplace, they will still think it’s ridiculous.”

    He implies that tech free’s markets by making the old scene look stupid and well, old. This strikes me as potentially very powerful and Anton’s talk seems to confirm that, but the unseen and unquantifiable force is how many ideas could have flourished but did not because they were not quite good enough to make the old controls look bad.



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