Kenneth Baker has a stimulating column in today’s FT.  If you believe in  practical education you should nag the headmaster to install a 3D printer (unless he’s behind on the repairs and there’s rain coming down the walls).

Baker starts with a bold statement: Britain’s most inventive period was from 1700 to 1850. Not only did we find the resources to beat the French some half dozen times in war, but we also incubated the Industrial Revolution, through the work of “hundreds of thousands of unschooled technicians and skilled operatives” escaping the disadvantages of a Classical education.  Being able to deliver Greek Hexameters was no good for inventing a spinning jenny.  Richard Arkwright never went to school.

It is hard to be nostalgic about our 1850 “peak” when you look at Angus Maddison’s per capita growth figures:

Long Term UK Growth

Nevertheless, there is a story to tell.  For much of the next few decades, Germany and the USA beat us hands down.

UK vs GER 1850-1914

My MSC was in Global Economic History.  Roughly half the content concerned how Western Europe, and Britain in particular, stole ahead of other nations in the race to industrialise. *

Ken Baker doesn’t explain why we lost our lead or what mistakes we made.  But plenty of other people do, and from a very superficial web-skim there is considerable agreement around the idea that Britain suffered a cultural-educational failure.  From “Education and Economic Decline in Britain, 1870 to the 1990s” we learn that “By looking at issues such as literacy, the quality of scientific and technical training, the supposed anti-industrial bias of public schools and the older universities, the neglect of vocational and technical training and the neglect of the non-academic teenager, Michael Sanderson demonstrates that education was far from the sole cause of economic decline, but that its deficiencies have certainly played a part.”

Then Martin Weiner in “English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit, 1850–1980” goes further and “reveals a pervasive middle- and upper-class frame of mind hostile to industrialism and economic growth. From the middle of the nineteenth century to the present, this frame of mind shaped a broad spectrum of cultural expression, including literature, journalism, and architecture, as well as social, historical, and economic thought.”  The Classics snobs got their own back.

I have sitting on my desk David Landes’ magisterial “The Unbound Prometheus“. On pages 326-358 he tries to tackle this question.  From 1850 onwards Britain could see in real time the way Germany was catching up, transforming from being a huge customer to a competitor (in the House, “orators exercised their eloquence on government purchases of Bavarian pencils”. )  Landes discusses a range of contributory causes, from the disadvantage of our precocious urbanisation to the sheer complacency of being there first.  It appears too that we have a centuries old problem of allowing idiot grandchildren to inherit the firm, who “went through the motions of entrepreneurship between the long weekends” unlike the hungry Germans.

But, like Ken Baker, he too settles on skills as a key consideration.  We were far behind in literacy, numeracy, craftsman skills, that engineering combination of science and applied training, and higher level scientific knowledge. Prussia had enjoyed compulsory education going back to 1763.  The dozen pages left in the chapter about our contrast with Germany are painful to read.

[Landes is less confident of the other equally familiar complaint: that Britain allowed investment capital to be (mis)directed to everywhere but “good businesses”: foreign governments, public utilities, our Empire trade. He says there is good reason to believe that capital flows to opportunity.]

Complaints about Britain not being able to make things any more, lacking the skills that Germany so carefully nurtures, go back before the birth of Germany. However, I still question whether Ken Baker is quite on the mark.  Our later failures seem as much about a lack of schooling full stop, not a failure to nurture the “unschooled technicians” he extols.  In the middle of the 20th century we enjoyed an astonishing spurt of invention, including the development of the computer and the jet engine. Our wartime economy was astonishing.  And from about 1975 onwards, the ten year forward growth rate for British workers moved decisively ahead of Germany’s.  It has been 40 years since Germany last enjoyed a decade growing much faster than the UK.

German envy is as much an age-old habit as a useful economic guide.



4 thoughts on “Was 1700 to 1850 “the most inventive period in our history”?

  1. I wrote of the late Victorian decline here and concluded it is a mixture of a growing civil service, based on “classics” graduates and strengthening the non-business class and the costs of both running and investing in empire.

    Baker is absolutely wrong. Moore’s Law and similar trends in other cutting technologies show humanity growing at unprecedented rates across modern technologies. Moreover, when measured by scientific citations Britain places 3rd in the world, behind the US & China, but per capita well ahead of both. Only Switzerland places much ahead of us & no other large country comes close.

    The problem is our parasitic political class (particularly LudDims) who actively prevent or slow technological progress, opposed only by UKIP. Without their deliberate Luddism we would be between 2 – 4 times better off.

  2. I did the same course, as you know, so I’ll throw in my two cents. and I remember a paper that discussed the differences in investment priorities that Landes dismissed. It seemed quite sensible.

    British industry was smaller scale than German and was on a different growth path, it didn’t make sense to shift to the large cartel style chemical and industrial firms Germany had and even in retrospect that doesn’t seem like a bad decision.

    Cartelised industries worked when scale economies were really important and British firms didn’t want to totally change their capital base and the state wasn’t keen to encourage cartelisation. Both policy choices that in different worlds and times would have made sense.

    I don’t read the decline as one of failure but of different institutional set ups having slightly different growth rates. Both institutions have their strengths and weaknesses, and shifting from one to the other probably wasn’t worth it. The diversity was probably healthy for Europe.

    The US seems like a different case because of its westward expansion.

    1. The other side of no-cartelisation is that nobody takes over the unsuccessful firms and expands them into giants. As Carnegie did with US steel. Almost nobody made a hostile takeover in Victorian Britain.

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