When Was the Industrial Revolution?

Metrics of everyday living standards are problematic. Commonly used economic statistics like real median income, real median household consumption, real per capita income et cetera rely on fallible national economic statistics. Above all, National Income Accounting may be blind to integral aspects of the standard of living. Accounts may be fudged by governments in countries with weak independent institutions. Finally, such statistics rely on judgements encoded in adjustments for representative consumption bundles, purchasing power and effective exchange rates. Of course, the entire enterprise relies quite heavily on assumptions about the plausibility of reducing human well-being to consumption bundles.

Anthropometric alternatives such as stature and BMI are confounded by morphological adaptation to the paleoclimate. Bigger bodies generate more heat so that situated populations adapted to warmer climes tend to be smaller than those adapted to colder climes in accordance with Bergmann’s rule. This means that the cross-sectional variation of stature and BMI cannot be interpreted straightforwardly as reflecting differences in everyday living standards. However, time-variation in anthropometric measures (and the cross-section of dynamic quantities) can be usefully interpreted as measuring changes in living standards. To wit, the Dutch-Indian difference in contemporary stature is less reliable than the Dutch-Indian difference in gains in stature (say, over the past century).

Actuarial alternatives are more promising. Mortality and morbidity data capture health insults that are directly indicative of net nutritional status. Since the latter is an irreducibly joint function of disease environment and nutritional intake, it goes to the heart of everyday living standards. Actuarial alternatives such as life expectancy are not confounded by adaptation to the paleoclimate since there is no equivalent of Bergmann’s rule for life history variables. Instead variables such as life expectancy capture contemporaneous environmental burdens—epidemiological and thermal—that are indeed of interest to those investigating variation in living standards.

Table 1a. Effective Temperature and Living Standards.
Effective Temperature PCGDP Stature (cm) Life Expectancy
ET < 14 23,537 174 76
14 < ET < 16 12,526 171 73
ET > 16 8,439 167 68
Source: Clio Infra, Binford (2001), author’s computations. Population-weighted means for N=99 countries. 

The above differences in the variables explain why Stature (r=-0.736, p<0.001) is a stronger correlate of Effective Temperature (ET) than Life Expectancy (r=-0.360, p<0.001) and PCGDP (r=-0.378, p<0.001). It also explains why controlling for income, ET is uncorrelated with Life Expectancy (t-Stat=-1.5) but not stature (t-Stat=-8.0). Whatever causal effect ET has on Life Expectancy is explained by variation in per capita income. This is not true of stature presumably because ET is correlated with variation in the paleoclimate which is causally related to stature and other body size variables via Bergmann’s rule.

Screen Shot 2018-11-10 at 12.50.06 AM.png

Parenthetically, we note that if we use Binford’s thresholds for storage (ET=15.25) and terrestrial plant dependence (ET=12.75), then we obtain a version of Table 1a that is less effective at partitioning modern societies by living standards. See Table 2b below. The map above displays Binford’s thresholds.

Table 2b. Effective Temperature and Living Standards.
Effective Temperature PCGDP Stature (cm) Life Expectancy
ET < 12.75 22,012 174 75
12.75 < ET < 15.25 24,164 174 78
ET > 15.25 8,781 167 68
Source: Clio Infra, Binford (2001), author’s computations. 

ET is a linear function of absolute latitude (r=-0.944, p<0.001). ET is meant to capture the basic thermal parameter of the macroclimate. Together temperature, precipitation and topography (elevation, terrain, soil, drainage) structure the ecology of situated populations in the ethnographic present just as they did in prehistory. Economic history, prehistory, and anthropology are not as far from each other as they seem. But we have digressed far enough. Let us return to living standards in Britain.


If you accept my argument that life expectancy is the best measure of everyday living standards we have, then the transformation of British living standards can be dated quite precisely. The essence of the Malthusian Trap was that real gains in living standards could not be sustained. Given the energetic constraints of preindustrial economies, population growth wiped them out. Thus we find that forty was a sort of rough upper bound on British life expectancy under the Malthusian Trap. The British Industrial Revolution, 1760-1830, had no discernable impact on British Life Expectancy. It is only in 1870 that British life expectancy begins to pull away from forty. Fifty was only breached in 1907; sixty in 1930; seventy in 1950; and eighty in 2000. Britons could expect to live twice as long at the end of the 20th century as in 1870 or 1550. 20 of the 40 years in life expectancy gained over the past 150 years were gained in the 40 year period 1910-1950; 10 have been gained in the 68 years since 1950; and 10 were gained in the first 40 years of the secondary revolution, 1870-1910. 1910-1950 is the hockey-stick that takes you from the turn of the century classical to the mid-century modern.


The evidence from stature is also consistent with this periodization. The problem with using body size variables like stature is that, unlike life expectancy, we don’t have a Malthusian ballpark against which to judge modern morphology. As I explained, European body size over the very long run is explained by population history. European gracialization (shrinking bodies) and decephalization (shrinking brains) since the medieval period is an active area of investigation, although still poorly understood.

body_sizeHowever, time-variation of stature in the ethnographic present can be interpreted as measuring time-variation in everyday living standards. That is all we really need to date the departure. And that too points to the last quarter of the nineteenth century as the beginning of the divergence. Most of the gains in stature were concentrated in the period 1920-1960, corroborating the finding from British life expectancy. The hockey-stick is a story of the early-twentieth century.


The empirical evidence from both anthropometric and actuarial metrics suggest that it is time to cut the British Industrial Revolution down to size. It is time to recognize it for what it was: a “revolution” largely confined to cotton textile manufacturing that pointedly failed to transform everyday living standards in Britain. The real departure came with the secondary industrial revolution, 1870-1970, that was not confined to Britain but a rather transatlantic affair. It witnessed the generalized application of machinery powered by fossil fuels to perform work everywhere from farms to factories. More generally, it is characterized above all by the increasingly ubiquitous application of science and technology to concrete problems.

But there was much more at play than technology and knowhow. For it involved a massive integration of the globe that, as Geyer and Bright put it, destroyed the capacity of the world’s macroregions to sustain autonomous histories. This onset of their ‘global condition’ takes places in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. The key to this transformation was rail. Sail was competitive with steam on the open ocean through the nineteenth century. The topology of the world economy thus couldn’t have been transformed by cheap and efficient transport by steam ships because sailing ships were already cheap and efficient.

The disconnectedness of the world economy was not a function of weak connections between macroregions. Instead it was local; defined by the tyranny of distance in the interiors of the great landmasses of worlds old and new. Until the advent of rail, transport over land was prohibitively expensive; condemning lands far from waterways to insulation. The sea-borne world economy was correspondingly limited to the maritime world. A larger, more integrated and more intrusive world economy emerged with rail that allowed the bounty of the interior to be sold on the world market. The international division of labor that emerged on this iron frame had much more bite than the one that characterized the world economy confined to the maritime world.

Ghost acres had little bearing on the British kitchen table until the late-nineteenth century. To be sure, Britons had been addicted to imported drug foods (sugar, tea, coffee, tobacco) from slave plantations for centuries. But as late as 1870, only 10 percent of British meat was imported. By 1910, Britain was importing 40 percent; largely beef from Argentina and lamb from New Zealand. The ghost acres finally increased the proportion of high quality foods in the British diet. Recall that beef is extraordinarily land-intensive. In the present day US, according to a recent study, producing one calorie (Mcal=1000 kcals) of beef requires 147 square meters of land compared to just 5 square meters for chicken and pork. Since land productivity was considerably lower than today, beef must have been even more land-intensive that it is today. The ghost acres were thus absolutely necessary for the transformation of British diets and therefore British living standards.

Screen Shot 2018-11-10 at 2.59.26 AM.png
Source: http://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/early/2014/07/17/1402183111.full.pdf

So Pomeranz is right about the ghost acres but wrong about the timing. Ghost acres did not transform British diets until the last quarter of the nineteenth century. As I suggested in the great British meat trade, the transformation of British living standards required not only the opening of the American interior but also an instance of definite technical solutions that make up the secondary/real industrial revolution: in this case solving the problem of transoceanic mechanical refrigeration. Chicago could not monopolize the British beef trade in 1880s and in the 1900s Argentina could not replace the US as a supplier in the British beef trade without the chilling solution. So I am not saying that rail was sufficient. What I am saying is that rail was necessary. Moreover, the British beef trade was ultimately based on the harvesting of great pastures in the interior of the New World. This required rail not only in the Anglo newlands but also in Argentina.

The opening of the interiors also required great migrations from the two Anglo oldlands. It also required the expulsion of native populations with great violence. In the American West, not only was there great military resistance by the horse cultures of the Great Plains Indians; during the mid-nineteenth century, the Sioux acted as a great power equal to the United States in Great Plains diplomacy and warfare. As Richard White notes,

In a sense, the Fort Laramie Treaty marked the height of Sioux political power. … With the Sioux and their allies so thoroughly dominating the conference, the treaty itself amounted to both a recognition of Sioux power and an attempt to curb it. But when American negotiators tried to restrict the Sioux to an area north of the Platte, Black Hawk, an Oglala, protested that they held the lands to the south by the same right the Americans held their lands, the right of conquest: “These lands once belonged to the Kiowas and the Crows, but we whipped those nations out of them, and in this we did what the white men do when they want the lands of the Indians.”

The warfare between the northern plains tribes and the United States that followed the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 was not the armed resistance of a people driven to the wall by American expansion. In reality these wars arose from the clash of two expanding powers–the United States, and the Sioux and their allies. If, from a distance, it appears that the vast preponderance of strength rested with the whites, it should be remembered that the ability of the United States to bring this power to bear was limited. The series of defeats the Sioux inflicted on American troops during these years reveals how real the power of the Tetons was.

Sioux power, like that of the other Great Plains Indians, was based on the bountiful but precarious foundations of the horse trade and bison herds in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. The last of the bison herds were wiped by the locust of white hunters looking for hide in 1871-1875. But the decline of Sioux power was slow; they still managed to wage pitched battles against the US army into the last decade of the nineteenth century. So the expulsion of native populations was very far from an automatic process.

But even after native resistance was overcome, settlers had to clear the land. And so on … the point being that a whole lot more was ultimately involved in the transformation of British living standards that was not in place until the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Indeed, it only came together by the turn of the century. That’s why the hockey-stick is a story of the early twentieth century.


One thought on “When Was the Industrial Revolution?

  1. This strikes me as fundamentally misconceived. The industrial revolution clearly takes off in the 1820s with steamships and railways. These are what make mass food exports to Europe possible. Sure, there was a lag before the effects kicked in, but, speaking as an Australian, food exports on a mass scale were only possible with mass shipping. Refrigerated mass shipping being another mini revolution in itself.

    So, yes, the Industrial Revolution did start in Europe, indeed in England. That steamship and railways made much more access to the resources of the globe is the story, it does not start after that mass access is achieved.

    That is why free trade v protection starts becoming a thing by the 1830s and 1840s (see debate over the corn laws). It is only with mass transport that you get major income effects for entire factors of production, with countries either being scarce labour scarce capital ganging up against plentiful land (all the Anglo colonies and ex-colonies) to impose protection, or scarce capital and scarce land ganging up on plentiful labour (Germany) to impose protection or plentiful labour and plentiful capital ganging up on scarce land to impose free trade (Britain).

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