In a different age, boys ran away to sea to become engineers. They learned quickly, they said in boozy, expansive addresses given before meetings of shipbuilding associations in the latter half of the 1930s, because of "spanner rash."
That's a joke about child abuse, hopefully a little less offensive when told by the men who suffered it. (It made men out of them! Except for the men who didn't get invited to give plenary addresses.) (Obligatory.) Like I said, a different age.
The thing about history is that it's long. You pretty much have to skip to the good bits, and that means a good bridging story. Like I said, a good bridging story. I guess that means that someone, someday, is going to have to do a list of good narrative tropes for grand historical heuristics. It could be like TVTropes, only it would make fun of tenured academics, instead of Joss Whedon and approximately a million anime people. Maybe a graduate student could put it together?
One grand trope says that everything's getting better. That's what you call the "Whig interpretation," and you might have noticed that I go for it a lot here. You might also have noticed that I went for the Reverend Thomas Malthus's throat last time. Which is odd, because if there was ever a Whig view of history. . . .
Here's the thing, though: we can't get away with skipping to the good bits when we want to talk about what's in the hole. The "Whig view of history" we talk about tends to mean people like Macaulay and Babbage (far more successful as a publicist than a computer engineer). That was the 1820s and 1830s, though, not the 1790s. What did it mean to be a Whig in the 1790s? It meant being a member of a faction of county political families that promoted the interests of certain bishops, who promoted the interests of certain reverends, who promoted the interests of their families. It is a grand circle of self-interest that naturally accretes self-justifying ideology. In Malthus, that ideology happened to be that society, by helping the poor, bred more of them, whereas the advance of theology (no, seriously) was just bearing fruit in the form of greater morality. It is a seductive argument against raising the Poor Rates that still resonates today. The brilliance of Malthus's argument was that he made it at a time when it remained to be demonstrated that the number of poor was rising, or, indeed, could rise at all, and that greater morality (ie, more, better paid Whig reverends) was the real solution to all of human problems.
And thus we get the idea of Malthusian growth, just at the moment that it was breaking down, and the road is opened for a new kind of Whiggism, in which scientific progress was key. But note that we're still talking about an advance in human knowledge. And if theology is a true study of a true thing, shouldn't better theology rebound on better science? That's not just an implicit argument in later Nineteenth Century Whiggism. It is right there in the prospectus. Seriously: the War of Science Against Religion guy argued that the reason that pagan Greek science passed on to the Arabs instead of the Byzantines was that the Arabs weren't idolators. (Actually, the Google Book search suggests that I understate: he was obsessed with the idea. Maybe Jared Diamond can steal that idea, too, after he's done with "fat continents versus tall continents.")
Why, we ask, did science unleash non-Malthusian growth, just at this time and at this place? Because, we're told in Lives of the Engineers, just at this point a bunch of Whiggish engineers started innovating. There was a great takeoff: Britain started making cheap cottons. Because of science. Which was unleashed by proper theology.
Of course, it isn't 1830, any more, and we don't (overtly) argue that if we can just stop thinking that the Trinity and consubstantiation are things, than, voila, our minds will be liberated to invent Bessemer steel and spinning jennies.
We believe in something else: the free market! (The following ideas were discovered by me, in a pure entrepeneurial effort out of nothing, and have been copyrighted, or patented, or whatever the technical word is.)
- Traditional society
- characterized by subsistence agriculture or hunting & gathering; almost wholly a "primary" sector economy
- limited technology;
- A static or 'rigid' society: lack of class or individual economic mobility, with stability prioritized and change seen negatively
- Pre-conditions to "take-off"
- external demand for raw materials initiates economic change;
- development of more productive, commercial agriculture & cash crops not consumed by producers and/or largely exported
- widespread and enhanced investment in changes to the physical environment to expand production (i.e. irrigation, canals, ports)
- increasing spread of technology & advances in existing technologies
- changing social structure, with previous social equilibrium now in flux
- individual social mobility begins
- development of national identity and shared economic interests
- Take off
- manufacturing begins to rationalize and scale increases in a few leading industries, as goods are made both for export and domestic consumption
- the "secondary" (goods-producing) sector expands and ratio of secondary vs. primary sectors in the economy shifts quickly towards secondary
- textiles & apparel are usually the first "take-off" industry, as happened in Great Britain's classic "Industrial Revolution
See that? Textiles are first.Iron founding? Steam engines? Mass brewing? Railways? Heavy chemical industry and the spread of bleach and soap? The timing is wrong. The number series shows our takeoff happening between 1798 and 1815.
Now, admittedly, that number series has been comprehensively discredited, but only in the kind of boring, technical monographs that use databases developed in the last generation (probate inventories, if you were wondering), and which say nice things about Karl Polanyi. If we took that kind of thing seriously, we might end up throwing away the whole takeoff thesis, and replacing it with a story of Boseruppian growth. And, yes, that's a dig at the Gregory Clark school of long run economic history. I'm sorry, I can't help myself.
If you're a regular reader, you know that I have my own explanation, and that I think that there is a hidden variable here: huge, deficit-expanding wars. Lots of spending, lots of spanner rash. (There's an unavoidable amount of death and destruction, but I prefer to avert my eyes from that.) It's the navy that buys the cast iron and the mass-produced beer and the uniforms and the sailcloth and on an on....
Whereas if you're an occasional reader, you want payoff. What the fuck does this mean for the Battle of the Atlantic?
I'm glad you asked...