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European industry 1700-1870

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This paper offers an overview of the development of European industry between 1700 and 1870, drawing in particular on the recent literature that has emerged following the formation of the European Historical Economics Society in 1991. The approach thus makes use of economic analysis and quantitative methods where appropriate. There are a number of important revisions, compared with previous accounts of Europe’s Industrial Revolution, particularly as embodied in the major existing textbooks on European economic history. First, the Industrial Revolution now emerges as a more gradual process than was once implied by the use of the “take-off” metaphor. Nevertheless, the scale of the structural transformation that occurred during the process of industrialisation continues to justify the use of the term “Industrial Revolution”. Second, although the emphasis on the central role of technological change is not new, we use economic analysis to shed new light on the process. Drawing on a model of technological choice first introduced by Paul David, we emphasise the importance of factor prices for the initial switch to modern capital intensive production methods in Britain, the rate of diffusion of these methods to other countries and path dependent technological change. In the cotton industry, particular emphasis is placed on the role of high wages, while in the iron industry, the price of coal is seen to pay an important part. We also draw on the idea of a General Purpose Technology to evaluate the role of steam power.

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