Annotated selected bibliography for historical interpretations of the industrial revolution in britain



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Jacob, Margaret C., Scientific Culture and the Making of the Industrial West, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Pp. iv, 274.

In this original and very readable book on the history of science and economic development, Margaret Jacob shows that how and why scientific knowledge became such an integral part of European, and especially English and Scottish, culture during the early modern period, and how this culture helps explain why Britain became the first industrial nation. In the first part of her book, she summarizes her earlier study of why Newtonian science became so important in England and Scotland. In the latter part of her study, she explains that it was especially in England that a secularized and more popular version of Newtonian science became an essential part of the world-view of English entrepreneurs and inventors during the 18th century. Using the James Watt (an important developer of the steam engine) family archive in Birmingham, she shows quite concretely that scientific culture was “not a mere adjunct to the emergence of mechanized industry” but “was its essential source.” Comparative in structure, the book not only discusses Britain but also includes an analysis of the history of science and technology in France, the Netherlands, and Germany. This allows her to explain why a scientific culture and mechanical innovations became more pervasive in Britain. She shows how science was applied to worldly concerns, focusing mainly on the entrepreneurs and engineers who possessed scientific insight and were eager to profit from its advantages. She argues that during the mid-seventeenth century, British science was presented within an ideological framework that encouraged material prosperity. The book includes readable summaries of the major scientific achievements of the 17th and early 18th centuries that help us understand how the central scientific innovations of the period were important to many technological inventions crucial to early industrialization.


Kirby, Peter, Child Labour in Britain, 1750-1870, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2003. Pp. ix, 172.

1 fig. 14 tbls.

Unlike Jane Humphries’ study of child labor (see above), which deals with the subject through autobiographies of working-class men of the period, Kirby’s survey of child labor in Britain is an effort to provide a quantitative answer to the question of the prevalence of child labor in Britain during the period. He stresses that national statistics for child labor are quite scarce for this period. His study relies heavily upon census data and includes an interesting discussion of the classification of occupations used in the 1851 census. Based on the sources available he discusses the broader social and demographic context of child labor for the period, its role in production, and the impact of the state’s effort to regulate child labor, which began in the early Victorian period. The book includes an interesting discussion of the changing nature and conception of childhood during the period. He argues that the traditional narrative that stresses child labor in the new factories is a serious distortion, for that even by the middle of the 19th century, most child labor still occurred in traditional sectors such as agriculture, handicraft industries, and domestic service. His concludes that relatively few children under ten years old engaged regularly in child labor. This conclusion is disputed by Humphries (above) as well as many other writers who stress literary rather than statistical sources. Kirby’s work includes a useful bibliography and is a useful introduction to the subject despite the fact that it rather neglects the large amount of literary evidence on the subject found in more passionate critiques of child labor during the British industrial revolution.
Klingender, Francis, Art and the Industrial Revolution, ed., Arthur Elton, New York: Shocken Books, 1970. Pp. 280. 117 ills.

Klingender’s book is a pioneering work on the rather neglected subject by art historians of the connection between the British industrial revolution and art. Klingender was born of British parents in Germany in 1907. His father was a painter but, unable to make a living in Germany, the family returned to England in 1925 and lived in poverty. Klingender studied sociology for his BA in the evening school at the London School of Economics and subsequently received a scholarship, which allowed him to complete a PhD in 1934. Not trained as an art historian, he published books on such subjects as The Condition of Clerical Labour in Britain and Money Behind the Screen. As an avowed Marxist, he was drawn to the subject of the social conditions experienced by the common people during the industrial revolution. His Art and the Industrial Revolution, first published in 1947, reflects a harsh view of the social consequences of the British Industrial Revolution, which was common in the radical and socialist inspired writings on the subject, and was fairly popular among his contemporaries. An edited version was published in 1968 by Arthur Elton, which toned down some of his harsher rhetoric. Klingender, along with Marxists in general, was a proponent of a realistic art in the service of radical social reform. Included in Klingender’s study of art and industrialization are literary critiques of industrial society by 19th century writers, but his focus is on the visual arts. He explains how the new factories, canals, railroads, and other physical aspects of industrialization were first depicted in technical and engineering drawings, then appeared in graphic arts illustrating the newly built environment, and only gradually appeared in the higher forms of professional art such as painting. Thus he shows, for example how the famous iron works at Coalbrookdale were first documented by topographical artists and later immortalized by such early Romantic painters as Loutherbourg, Cotman and Turner. Klingender was the first modern critic to point to the early work of James Sharples, the blacksmith-artist praised by the great Victorian art critic, John Ruskin. Klingender was also the first to emphasize the important industrial paintings of Joseph Wright of Derby, whose heroic paintings of workingmen and iron forges, as well as his painting of Arkwright’s textile mill depicted in the classic style of a great country house, have become staples in illutrations of the industrial revolution. He also demonstrated that the monumental work of John Martin was directly influenced by contemporary realistic-romantic portrayals of bridges, tunnels and railways.

Klingender was very concerned that modern machine-made goods and industrial design was primarily motivated by profit and neglected craftsmanship and good design. He noted that Wedgewood had employed many artists to design his manufactured products and that the Crystal Palace, which housed the Great Exhibition of 1851, was a brilliant work of industrial design. The work of William Morris, and the Arts and Crafts tradition he inspired, were a in large part a critique of machine produced goods and a plea for new principles of design tied to traditional methods of production. Klingender was especially taken by the heroic depiction of workers in the famous murals in Manchester’s neo-Gothic Town Hall by Ford Madox Brown. While a great deal of work has been done on art and the industrial revolution since Klingender, the book remains a very useful introduction to the subject.
Lambourne, Lionel, Victorian Painting, London: Phaidon Press, 1999. Pp. 512. 626 col. pls.

This is a large format art book with hundreds of excellent full color illustrations. It covers painting for the entire period of Victoria’s life, 1819-1901. Lambourne was for many years the Head of Paintings at the Victorian and Albert Museum in London. The book is arranged topically and within the topics it is largely chronological. It contains many broad generalizations but does not offer an overall thesis or a coherent argument about the nature of Victorian Art. Instead it is a brilliant tour of the subject by one who has an intimate and life-long acquaintance with these paintings. It is full of interesting anecdotes, stories, and endless interesting facts and observations, which filled his immensely popular and frequent lectures on the period. The book is especially good at analyzing narrative art, which was an important strand in Victorian painting. If there is an overarching theme, it is his observation that “we are much nearer to the Victorian than might be supposed.” By this he meant, that while we often criticize the sexism, chauvinism, racism and hypocrisy of the Victorians, our popular culture retains many of these prejudices and biases. There are chapters on the Victorian art establishment, the fresco revival and murals, portraits, landscapes, watercolor paintings, narrative and genre, the panorama as virtual painting, childhood, fairy painting (he wrote a large study of this), sport and animal works, the pre-Raphaelites, social classes, the nude, women artists, social realism, emigration and war, the fallen woman, transatlantic exchanges, colonial painters, the aesthetic movement (about which he also wrote a major study), impressionism, and the fin de siècle. One of the striking conclusions you come away with after feasting on this volume, that there is little here that actually treats the topic of industrialization although there is much that might be seen as a reaction to mechanization and factory produced goods. If you are unfamiliar with the painting of the period, this is the place to begin. If you are well acquainted with the subject, you will thoroughly enjoy Lambourne’s tour de force. For a brief and systematic scholarly study of 19th century British painting, you might begin with Kenneth Bendiner, Introduction to Victorian Painting (1985).


Landes, David S. The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969. Pp. ix + 566. 57 tbls.

This is the classic study that argues that technological innovation was a major cause of the industrial revolution. Prometheus Unbound is an expansion of volume 6 in the Cambridge Economic History of Europe published in 1965. Although it covers all of Europe, as well as the entire period from 1750 to the 1960s, its discussion of the British industrial revolution is a very useful account of the topic. Moreover, since it covers Europe as a whole, it provides a broad context to the wider debate on why Europe was the first region of the world to industrialize and why the West retained industrial primacy in the world right through the 20th century. With the rapid growth of Asian economies during the late 20th century, the debate on the origins of Western economic primacy, and whether this primacy would perhaps move to East Asia in the future, rekindled the debate. In 1998 Landes published a major contribution on this topic with his The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some are so Rich and Some so Poor (1998). The latter book restates and updates his earlier argument within a world-historical perspective.



Prometheus Unbound remains a classic book on the role of technological innovation as an important reason for Europe’s industrial revolution and Britain’s premier role in its birth. Landes provides a detailed and learned study packed with fascinating details on each of the leading industries in the British industrial revolution. He draws upon a vast variety of sources in many languages. Proof of this lies in his extensive bibliography, which, unfortunately, is missing from this volume, but can be found in the Cambridge Economic History version. In addition to serving as a source of information on the technological innovation, Landes’ substantial discussion of Britain contains a more general explanation of the broader social and political factors that made Britain the first industrial nation. Landes does not have much faith in theoretical economic explanations of economic growth. In this respect, he remains an old school economic historian, who is firmly rooted in an empirical tradition and is suspicious of “the construction of simple explanatory models and prefers the “wholeness of reality, however complex it may be.” Instead of a grand theory, he favors what he calls a “plausible” argument that finds the roots of technological innovation and economic growth in Britain’s scientific culture, its representative form of government, its geographic position, and the popularity of scientific experimentation and application. Above all, he argues that Britain’s industrial revolution was an outcome of the “scope and effectiveness of private enterprise” that ensured “the rational manipulation of the human and natural environment.”

Landes definition of the industrial revolution is still widely quoted. He argues that an “interrelated succession of technological changes” was “the heart of the Industrial Revolution:” “(1) the substitution of mechanical devices for human skills (2) the substitution of inanimate power—in particular steam—for human and animal strength; and (3) the marked improvements in the getting and working of raw materials.” According to Landes, this is what “marked a major turning point in history. To that point, the advances of commerce and industry, however gratifying and impressive, were essentially superficial: more wealth, more goods, prosperous cities, merchant nabobs…In the absence of qualitative changes, of improvements in productivity, there could be no guarantee that mere quantitative gains would be consolidated. It was the Industrial Revolution that initiated a cumulative, self-sustaining advance in technology whose repercussions would be felt in all aspects of economic life.” Prometheus Unbound is the classic argument, told with fascinating empirical detail, that technological innovation led to a self-sustaining growth of productivity that is the chief characteristic of the industrial revolution.


McKendrick, Neil, John Brewer, and J. H. Plumb, The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth Century England, Bloomington, Indiana; Indiana University Press, 1982. Pp. 345.

Traditional studies of the industrial revolution have concentrated on the supply side of production, such as technology, methods of production, capital, and labor. In recent decades there has been a great deal of research on the demand side of the British industrial revolution. This volume by three well-known Cambridge University historians played an important role in encouraging the latter approach. Although there is an effort here to eplain the ultimate source for the expanded demand for goods, much of the evidence in this volume is about how producers responded to increased demand. The authors suggest that a consumer revolution of the 18th century provided the incentive for inventors and entrepreneurs to revolutionize British industry in order to meet the growing demand for all sorts of goods by a larger segment of society. Demand, of course, has to be effective demand in order to encourage entrepreneurs to provide more and different goods. The simplest way to increase demand was an increase of wealth in a society, but greater wealth need not be spent on consumer goods. It could, for example, be saved, spent on church decorations or on war. The claim here was that during the eighteenth century, and especially during the second half of the century, Britain experienced a consumer revolution, which was not just limited to a small upper class as in previous centuries, but also was broad enough to have a significant impact on economic growth and thus played an important role in the British industrial revolution.

About half the book consists of essays by McKendrick. In an opening essay he argues that the late 18th century developed a new materialistic attitude that accepted the acquisition of material goods as an honorable pursuit of pleasure and even of demonstrating sociability and virtue. He points for example to Mandeville’s praise of fashion and luxury in his famous Fable of the Bees and to Adam Smith’s support for the proposition that the pursuit of profit by an individual provides for the economic growth that produces benefits for all. His other essays are on he growth of advertising, the role of fashion in stimulating demand, and on Josiah Wedgwood’s sales and marketing techniques. John Brewer’s section shows how pottery makers, printers, graphic artists, and pub owners used the growth of popular politics and agitation for reform in the late 18th century to increase their business. Finally, there are three chapters by Plumb on the commercialization of leisure in such areas as theater, spas, and horse racing, In an interesting chapter on the changing attitudes toward children during the period, he notes that the dramatic increase in the purchase of children’s books, toys, and fashionable clothes produced a whole new category of consumption. In “Acceptance of Modernity,” Plumb argues that the 18th century enthusiasm for manipulating nature, rooted in the popularization of ideas produced by the scientific revolution, led to a passion for the breeding and collection of decorative animals, the hybridization of plants, the popularization of gardening, and the assemblage of cabinets of curiosities. Plumb argues that the search for novelty, the exotic, the latest fashions and the acceptance of luxury and materialism all contributed to the creation of a consumer culture. What made these 18th century developments so important for economic growth was that its consumer culture was no longer confined to a small upper class, but was now prevalent among the growing middle ranks of society so that it became a major source of economic growth in the economy without which the industrial revolution would not have occurred in Britain.
Marshall, P. J. ed., The Oxford History of the British Empire, Vol. II, The Eighteenth Century, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Pp. xxii, 639.

This is the second of a five volume multi-author work on the history of the British Empire. This volume contains twenty-six useful essays by major historians on such topics as Empire politics, economics, war, culture, particular regions, on the Empire’s growth in the 18th century, its experience during and the consequences of the American Revolution, and its expansion, especially in Asia, during the wars of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It was a series of wars throughout the 18thy century against native peoples, the French and the Spanish that established Britain as the major colonial power in North America during the 18th century. The turning point in the conflict was the British victory in the Seven Years war, which left Britain, a latecomer to colonization, as by far the most important imperial power in North America. In an important chapter, Patrick O’Brien argues that, while the merchants, manufacturers and skilled British labor force were the key forces, both in the colonies and the home country, in developing the economy of the early empire, its success in the 18th century also owed a great deal to the mercantilist policies and military efforts of the state. A coalition of merchants, manufacturers, and military and political leaders was able to use the fiscal and military power of the state to support their economic interests in British imperial expansion. Nonetheless, as these essays point out, and as the American Revolution demonstrated, there was no coherent and effective central state authority in Britain that was able to create a unified and effective imperial governing structure. Political authority remained largely in the hands of British citizens and their representatives in the colonies. Economic decisions and trade, despite the effort of the Navigation Acts to control them, were made by networks of entrepreneurs on both sides of the Atlantic in pursuit of profits.



Central to the economy of the British Atlantic Empire were plantation commodities, such as sugar and tobacco. David Richardson, Philip Morgan and Richard Sheridan have excellent chapters on the plantation complex while Daniel Richter treats the experience of Native Americans. The old argument that the profits from slavery and the plantation economy underwrote the industrial revolution Britain, first popularized by Eric Williams in 1944, is not supported in these essays. Instead, some of the essays lend support to the argument that Britain’s success in international trade during this period was an important contributing factor in Britain’s industrialization. While most of the volume deals with the Western Hemisphere, there are four excellent chapters on British expansion in Asia, especially the transformation of the East Indian Company’s monopoly trading system into a territorial empire in India during the latter half of the 18th century. In addition there are interesting chapters on the role of religion in a commercial empire, the growth of the British Navy and the importance of Sea Power, the black experience in the Empire, the birth of the abolition of slavery movement, and the crisis of the American Revolution. The volume concludes with on excellent essay by P. J. Marshall noting that, although the wars with France between 1793 to 1815, as well as the East India Company’s wars in India, vastly expanded the world-wide reach of he British Empire, the early 19th century Empire still lacked a coherent vision, was largely a consequence of opportunities seized on the spot, and did not result in the building of a central political and military imperial structure or a coherent set of economic policies during the period. The volume contains a useful chronology and each chapter includes a selected list of further reading on its topic.
Mathias, Peter. The First Industrial Nation: An Economic History of Britain, 1700-1914, 2nd ed., London and New York: Routledge, 2001. Pp. xxii, 493. 26 figs. 11 tbls.

First published in 1969, this is a classic text on the British Industrial Revolution, which was widely used by university students well into 1990s. The 2001 edition, although fundamentally similar to the earlier edition, contains an interesting new preface by the author on the historiography of the subject. When Mathias first published this volume, the ‘new economic history,’ which uses theoretical mathematical economic models and complex statistical tools to explain economic history, was already challenging the more traditional analytical approach to the subject. This mathematical complexity produced a growing divide between economic historians who were primarily economists and those who were primarily historians. The result for the non-mathematically trained reader was that the econometric approach to economic history made the subject inaccessible. Mathias notes in his 2001 preface that, more recently, economic history has once again become more institutional in its approach while many of the conclusions of the new economic history have now been reintegrated into general accounts of the industrial revolution in a fashion that makes them more accessible to students. While very much an economic history, Mathias’ volume remains a sophisticated and excellent overview of the classic interpretation of the British Industrial Revolution that combines the literary tradition with quantitative economic analysis. When the book was first written, economists were searching for a model to help guide underdeveloped countries toward development. Mathias begins with a Prologue in which he warns that the search for the single most important cause for the Industrial Revolution, as in a mathematical equation, is impossible for such a deep and complex human phenomenon as the Industrial Revolution. Part I covers the period from 1700 to the early 19th century. Mathias agues that the Industrial Revolution built upon a long and complex development of the British economy, which accelerated and deepened during the late 18th and early 19th century to produce the first ‘industrial nation.’ While he mentions political, sociological, demographic, geographical and cultural factors, his emphasis is upon specifically economic factors. The book is organized topically with chapters on agriculture; economic policy, trade and transport; industrial growth and finance; working conditions; and the standard of living controversy. He argues that there is no consensus on the standard of living for the workers between 1790 and 1850, but that it improved after 1850. In Part II, he continues the story through the 19th century, with chapters on the railways, free trade, industrial organization, finance, the rising standard of living and labor organization. Overall, Mathias’ explanation of the British Industrial Revolution is one that emphasizes the interdependence of many factors with special praise for the entrepreneurs. The book contains 39 useful statistical tables and charts.
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