Collections: Why No Roman Industrial Revolution?

This week we are taking a look at the latest winner of the ACOUP Senate poll, which posed the question “Why didn’t the Roman Empire have an industrial revolution?” To answer that, we need to get into some detail on what the industrial revolution itself was and the preconditions that produced it, as well as generally sketching the outlines of what the Roman economy looked like. This certainly won’t be a comprehensive description of either so much as merely nailing down the definition of the industrial revolution and the basic outlines of the ancient Roman economy to see what elements of the former were missing from the latter.

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The Question

That said this is a question that is not absurd a priori. As we’ll see, the Roman Empire was never close to an industrial revolution – a great many of the preconditions were missing – but the idea that it might have been on the cusp of being something like a modern economy did once have its day in the scholarship. As I’ve mentioned before, the dominant feature of the historical debate among scholars about the shape of the Roman economy is between ‘modernists’ who argue the Roman economy is relatively more like a modern economy (meaning both that it was relatively more prosperous than other ancient economies but also that the Romans themselves maintained a more modern, familiar outlook towards money, investment and production) and ‘primitivsts’ who argue that actually the Roman economy was quite primitive, less prosperous and with the Romans themselves holding attitudes about the economy quite alien to our own. But here we need to get into a bit more specificity because beneath that quick description it is necessary to separate what we might call the ‘old modernists’ and the ‘new modernists.’

The ‘old modernist’ view of the Roman economy ran essentially from the 1910s to the publication of Moses Finley’s The Ancient Economy (1973) which fairly decisively put an end to this view of the ancient world; the major ‘old modernist’ scholars were Teney Frank and Michael Rostovtzeff. In many ways Frank and Rostovtzeff were blazing a trail, some of the first to attempt really systematic study of the Roman economy drawing on the complete range of sources (which the increasingly interconnected world of the 1800s and 1900s made possible). The late 1800s and early 1900s are full of studies like this: the first efforts to pull together everything and then comprehensively assess topics often in massive and magisterial multi-volume works (e.g. Beloch on ancient demography, Mommsen on the structure of the Roman state and law). Those grand magisterial studies then go on to form the foundation for later scholarship, though this is often in the form of later scholars pointing out all of the ways that those grand magisterial studies were wrong.

Frank and Rostovtzeff’s works form the necessary foundation for everything that followed but they both fell into versions of essentially the same mistake of assuming that Roman social and cultural systems largely mirrored their own. This is an easy mistake to make generally but it must have been an especially easy mistake to make in societies that were only starting to industrialize and so still had a lot of old agrarian social structures; great landholders in their manors with their tenants (think Downton Abbey) and household servants must have seemed very much like the Roman elite indeed. And the anxiety of those great landholders facing an upwardly mobile class whose wealth didn’t come from land must also have seemed very familiar too; Rostovtzeff especially reads this sort of proto-capitalist orientation into the Roman equites.1 And so both Frank and Rostovtzeff assumed the Romans thought about money, profit, finance, wealth and even progress mostly the way they did. The picture that emerged from those assumptions was exactly the sort that prompts this question: Rome as a highly advanced agrarian economy, growing in wealth and even potentially in the early stages of that wild capitalist2 economic takeoff – except that it never quite got there. Needless to say that vision enhanced the apparent bitterness of Rome’s decline.

Finley’s The Ancient Economy (1973) essentially detonated a bomb in that sort of scholarship and created a clear break between those ‘old modernists’ and the ‘new modernists’ who are ascendant in the scholarship today. Finley3 sought to demonstrate that the ancient economy was not ‘proto-capitalist’ in its orientation but rather a decidedly alien economy where economic relations were structured by status, legally enforced class and slavery more than money or profit. While Finley’s school of thought (the ‘primitivists’) have largely lost the argument post-1990 or so, the ‘new modernists’ that won it would hardly contend that the Roman economy was very much like the Europe of the 1600s and the 1700s, verging into modernity. Instead they stress that Rome, while it was a complex agrarian economy, was nevertheless still a fundamentally agrarian economy, which in turn demanded different mindsets, risk calculations and so on.4

The thing is, being a particularly complex or efficient agrarian economy doesn’t seem to have been the most important thing for producing the industrial revolution or it almost certainly would have happened earlier and probably not in Europe.

So let’s look at what the industrial revolution was.

The Industrial Revolution

The first key is understanding that the industrial revolution was more than simply an increase in economic production. Modest increases in economic production are, after all, possible in agrarian economies. Instead, the industrial revolution was about accessing entirely new sources of energy for broad use in the economy, thus drastically increasing the amount of power available for human use. The industrial revolution thus represents not merely a change in quantity, but a change in kind from what we might call an ‘organic’ economy to a ‘mineral’ economy.5 Consequently, I’d argue, the industrial revolution represents probably just the second time in human history that as a species we’ve undergone a radical change in our production; the first being the development of agriculture in the Neolithic period.

However, unlike farming which developed independently in many places at different times, the industrial revolution happened largely in one place, once and then spread out from there, largely because the world of the 1700s AD was much more interconnected than the world of c. 12,000BP (‘before present,’ a marker we sometimes use for the very deep past). Consequently while we have many examples of the emergence of farming and from there the development of complex agrarian economies, we really only have one ‘pristine’ example of an industrial revolution. It’s possible that it could have occurred with different technologies and resources, though I have to admit I haven’t seen a plausible alternative development that doesn’t just take the same technologies and systems and put them somewhere else.

Now we can’t cover the entire industrial revolution with all of its complex moving parts but we can briefly go over the core of it to get a sense of the key ingredients. Fundamentally this is a story about coal, steam engines, textile manufacture and above all the harnessing of a new source of energy in the economy. That’s not the whole story, by any means, but it is one of the most important through-lines and will serve to demonstrate the point.

The specificity matters here because each innovation in the chain required not merely the discovery of the principle, but also the design and an economically viable use-case to all line up in order to have impact. The steam engine is an excellent example of this problem. Early tinkering with the idea of using heat to create steam to power rotary motion – the core function of a steam-engine – go all the way back to Vitruvius (c. 80 BC -15 AD) and Heron of Alexandria (c. 10-70 AD). With the benefit of hindsight we can see they were tinkering with an importance principle but the devices they actually produced – the aeolipile – had no practical use – it’s fearsomely fuel inefficient, produces little power and has to be refilled with water (that then has to be heated again from room temperature to enable operation).

Via Wikipedia, an illustration of the ancient aeolipile, an early use of steam to create reciprocal motion. Apart from the use of steam pressure, the aeolipile shares very little in common with practical steam engine designs and the need to continually refill and heat the water reservoir would have limited its utility in any case.

So what was needed was not merely the idea of using steam, but also a design which could actually function in a specific use case. In practice that meant both a design that was far more efficient (though still wildly inefficient) and a use case that could tolerate the inevitable inadequacies of the 1.0 version of the device. The first design to actually square this circle was Thomas Newcomen’s atmospheric steam engine (1712). The basic principle here is that you have a boiler at the bottom connected to a cylinder with a piston; a valve opens which admits steam from the boiler into the piston; the steam is at very low pressure, so a weight on the arm helps pull the piston up. When the piston reaches the top, another valve opens and sprays water into the cylinder, condensing the steam (by cooling it) and creating a low pressure zone so that atmospheric pressure pushes the cylinder down; in this basic design it is the down-stroke that is the ‘power stroke.’ Though a substantial improvement on previous efforts, the Newcomen engine had all sorts of limitations: the power it could produce was limited to atmospheric pressure, the motion it created was jerky rather than smooth and most importantly it was hideously fuel inefficient.

Via Wikipedia, a diagram of Newcomen’s atmospheric steam engine. The boiler (A) produces steam at relatively low pressures which push up the piston (D). When the cylinder (B) is full, cold water from a reservoir (L) is sprayed into the cylinder, condensing the steam in the cylinder and creating a partial vacuum. This causes atmospheric pressure to push down the piston, which then pulls down on the fulcrum (F-H), creating reciprocal motion.

Now that design would be iterated on subsequently to produce smoother, more powerful and more efficient engines, but for that iteration to happen someone needs to be using it, meaning there needs to be a use-case for repetitive motion at modest-but-significant power in an environment where fuel is extremely cheap so that the inefficiency of the engine didn’t make it a worse option than simply having a whole bunch of burly fellows (or draft animals) do the job. As we’ll see, this was a use-case that didn’t really exist in the ancient world and indeed existed almost nowhere but Britain even in the period where it worked.

But fortunately for Newcomen the use case did exist at that moment: pumping water out of coal mines. Of course a mine that runs below the local water-table (as most do) is going to naturally fill with water which has to be pumped out to enable further mining. Traditionally this was done with muscle power, but as mines get deeper the power needed to pump out the water increases (because you need enough power to lift all of the water in the pump system in each movement); cheaper and more effective pumping mechanisms were thus very desirable for mining. But the incentive here can’t just be any sort of mining, it has to be coal mining because of the inefficiency problem: coal (a fuel you can run the engine on) is of course going to be very cheap and abundant directly above the mine where it is being produced and for the atmospheric engine to make sense as an investment the fuel must be very cheap indeed. It would not have made economic sense to use an atmospheric steam engine over simply adding more muscle if you were mining, say, iron or gold and had to ship the fuel in; transportation costs for bulk goods in the pre-railroad world were high. And of course trying to run your atmospheric engine off of local timber would only work for a very little while before the trees you needed were quite far away.

But that in turn requires you to have large coal mines, mining lots of coal deep under ground. Which in turn demands that your society has some sort of bulk use for coal. But just as the Newcomen Engine needed to out-compete ‘more muscle’ to get a foothold, coal has its own competitor: wood and charcoal. There is scattered evidence for limited use of coal as a fuel from the ancient period in many places in the world, but there needs to be a lot of demand to push mines deep to create the demand for pumping. In this regard, the situation on Great Britain (the island, specifically) was almost ideal: most of Great Britain’s forests seem to have been cleared for agriculture in antiquity; by 1000 only about 15% of England (as a geographic sub-unit of the island) was forested, a figure which continued to decline rapidly in the centuries that followed (down to a low of around 5%). Consequently wood as a heat fuel was scarce and so beginning in the 16th century we see a marked shift over to coal as a heating fuel for things like cooking and home heating. Fortunately for the residents of Great Britain there were surface coal seems in abundance making the transition relatively easy; once these were exhausted deep mining followed which at last by the late 1600s created the demand for coal-powered pumps finally answered effectively in 1712 by Newcomen: a demand for engines to power pumps in an environment where fuel efficiency mattered little.6

With a use-case in place, these early steam engines continue to be refined to make them more powerful, more fuel efficient and capable of producing smooth rotational motion out of their initially jerky reciprocal motions, culminating in James Watt’s steam engine in 1776. But so far all we’ve done is gotten very good and pumping out coal mines – that has in turn created steam engines that are now fuel efficient enough to be set up in places that are not coal mines, but we still need something for those engines to do to encourage further development. In particular we need a part of the economy where getting a lot of rotational motion is the major production bottleneck.

Via Wikipedia, a late version of Watt’s final steam engine design. Watt made a number of improvements to the Newcomen engine, adding a separate condenser to allow the cylinder itself to remain hot, including a vacuum jacket around it to limit the energy loss from heat loss and eventually introducing a double-action where the piston was pushed by steam pressure in both directions, enabling a stronger and smoother stroke, along with gearing that allowed the reciprocal motion of the piston to be translated into the rotational motion necessary for most tasks.

You may be thinking that agriculture and milling grain is the answer here but with watermills and windmills, the bottleneck on grain production is farming, not milling; a single miller with a decent mill can mill all of the grain from many farmers, after all. That’s not to say mechanized grain milling couldn’t realize gains, just that they were slight. No, it is the other half of the traditional agrarian economy: textiles. You will recall that the major production bottleneck, consuming 80% or more of the time intensity of textile production (not including fiber production), is spinning the fibers into thread – a process which relies on lots of rotational motion (as the name implies). And indeed, in the 1700s, further improvements in looms (the flying shuttle) had intensified this bottleneck by making weaving progressively more efficient.

And yet again we have serendipity because Great Britain was the major center of textile production for much of the world. Through the Middle Ages, the movement of wool textiles was one of the most important trade systems in Europe: wool produced in Scotland and Wales was moved to England where it was turned into thread and then cloth and then sent to the Low Countries to be dyed before using Europe’s river systems to reach consumers all over the place. European imperialism had only intensified this system because British conquests in India had directed massive amounts of cotton into this same system alongside the wool.

But there is another key step necessary here: the steam engine produces rotational motion and the spinning process requires rotational motion but you also need a machine capable of turning lots of rotational motion into real efficiency gains for spinning. Prior to the 1760s, no such machine really existed. Since the Middle Ages you had the spinning wheel, but applying a lot of energy to a spinning wheel isn’t going to help – the spinner is still only managing a single thread. Still the pressure to produce spinning technology that could match the efficiency gains of the flying shuttle was on and in 1765 it resulted in the spinning jenny, developed by James Hargreaves. The spinning jenny allowed a single spinner to manage multiple spools at once using a hand-crank. Unlike the spinning wheel, which could be a household tool (and thus before 1765, most spinning was still literally ‘cottage’ industry, farmed out to many, many spinners each working in their homes), the spinning jenny was primarily suited for commercial production in a centralized location (where the expensive and not at all portable spinning jennies were). The main limit on the design was the power that a human could provide with the hand-crank.

Via Wikipedia, a diagram of a spinning jenny, with a hand crank (B) that can be used to turn multiple spools at once, multiplying the efficiency of the spinner.

And now, at last, the pieces in place the revolution in production arrives. There a machine (the spinning jenny) which needs more power in rotational motion and already encourages the machines to be centralized into a single location; the design is such that in theory one could put an infinite number of spools in a line if you had sufficient rotational energy to spin them all. Realizing this, textile manufacturers (we’re talking about factory owners, at this point) first use watermills, but there are only so many places in Great Britain suitable for a watermill and a windmill won’t do – the power needs to be steady and regular, things which the wind is not. But the developments of increasingly efficient steam engines used in the coal mines now collide with the developments in textiles: a sophisticated steam engine like the Watt engine could provide steady, smooth rotational motion in arbitrary, effectively infinite amounts (just keep adding engines!) to run an equally arbitrary, effectively infinite amount of mechanical spinning jennies, managed now by a workforce a fraction of a size of what would have once been necessary.

Via Wikipedia Commons, a photo from the Library of Congress showing how many spinning ‘mules’ could be connected via an overhead shaft to a single large source of rotational motion, like a steam engine, allowing truly massive amounts of thread to be spun at once by a much smaller work force (in this case smaller in more than one way; this picture was taken as part of the records of the National Child Labor Committee, an example of boys (center) working in textile mills. The work could be dangerous as there were few safety systems in place).

The tremendous economic opportunity this created in turn incentivized the production of better steam engines and the application of those engines to other kinds of production; there is a whole additional story of how the development of the steam engine interacts with the development of new artillery-production methods (both relying on the production of strong, standardized pressure-containing cylinders). All of those use-cases push steam engines to become smaller, more fuel efficient and more powerful, which in turn increases the number of tasks they can be put to. Eventually in the 1800s, these engines get small enough and fuel efficient enough to be able to move their own fuel over water or rails, collapsing the prohibitive transportation costs that defined pre-industrial economies and in the process breaking the tyranny of the wagon equation, decisively transforming warfare in ways that would not be fully appreciated until 1914.

But the technology could not jump straight to railroads and steam ships because the first steam engines were nowhere near that powerful or efficient: creating steam engines that could drive trains and ships (and thus could move themselves) requires decades of development where existing technology and economic needs created very valuable niches for the technology at each stage. It is particularly remarkable here how much of these conditions are unique to Britain: it has to be coal, coal has to have massive economic demand (to create the demand for pumping water out of coal mines) and then there needs to be massive demand for spinning (so you need a huge textile export industry fueled both by domestic wool production and the cotton spoils of empire) and a device to manage the conversion of rotational energy into spun thread. I’ve left this bit out for space, but you also need a major incentive for the design of pressure-cylinders (which, in the event, was the demand for better siege cannon) because of how that dovetails with developing better cylinders for steam engines.

Why Not in Rome?

Putting it that way, understanding why these processes did not happen in the Roman world is actually quite easy: none of these precursors were in place. The Romans made some use of mineral coal as a heating element or fuel, but it was decidedly secondary to their use of wood and where necessary charcoal. The Romans used rotational energy via watermills to mill grain, but not to spin thread. Even if they had the spinning wheel (and they didn’t; they’re still spinning with drop spindles), the standard Mediterranean period loom, the warp-weighted loom, was roughly an order of magnitude less efficient than the flying shuttle loom, so the Roman economy couldn’t have handled all of the thread the spinning wheel could produce.

And of course the Romans had put functionally no effort into figuring out how to make efficient pressure-cylinders, because they had absolutely no use for them. Remember that by the time Newcomen is designing his steam engine, the kings and parliaments of Europe have been effectively obsessed with who could build the best pressure-cylinder (and then plug it at one end, making a cannon) for three centuries because success in war depended in part on having the best cannon. If you had given the Romans the designs for a Newcomen steam engine, they couldn’t have built it without developing whole new technologies for the purpose (or casting every part in bronze, which introduces its own problems) and then wouldn’t have had any profitable use to put it to.

All of which is why simple graphs of things like ‘global historical GDP’ can be a bit deceptive: there’s a lot of particularity beneath the basic statistics of production because technologies are contingent and path dependent. Now all of that said I want to reiterate that the industrial revolution only happened once in one place so may well could have happened somewhere else in a different way with different preconditions; we’ll never really know because our one industrial revolution spread over the whole globe before any other industrial revolutions happened. But we can still note that the required precursors for the one sample we have didn’t exist in the Roman economy.

But then that raises, I think, another question with how we think about economies in the past: if it wasn’t on the cusp of a revolution, what made the Roman economy unusual?

The Nature of the Roman Economy

Broadly speaking we can think about human production as fitting into three major types: non-agrarian hunter-gatherer societies, agrarian and pastoral societies, and finally industrial societies. The first merely harvests what the environment already provides, while agrarian and pastoral societies actively reshape local ecology to make it provide more. Yet both are ‘organic’ economies in that nearly all of the energy they use (with a few, largely marginal exceptions) is provided by muscle power which in turn derives from food consumption which in turn derives, ultimately, from solar energy and photosynthesis. Industrial economies, by contrast, derive the majority of the energy they use from sources other than muscle power – initially chemical reactions (burning coal and other fossil fuels) and later nuclear power, solar, etc.

The point is that these systems are not merely different in degrees, but different in kind, functioning on a very different basis with different potential avenues for growth in production. In an industrial economy, there are many new potential sources of energy which can be harnessed for production, whereas in an organic economy inputs are functionally limited to the land. New land can be brought under cultivation (or cultivated more intensively) of course, but marginal gains decrease rapidly (because the best land is cultivated first and because adding more labor to already cultivated land, while it can increase harvests, is less efficient than cultivating new land) and there is a fairly hard ceiling on total production of this sort that was, for the most part, fairly low.

Nevertheless there is room in an organic economy for small sorts of efficiencies that can collectively add up to greater economic output, albeit not on anything like the scale of increasing output in an industrial economy. We’ve actually talked about some of this before. The summarize, it is broadly supposed by historians that the Roman economy (particularly c. 100 BC – 200 AD or so) was remarkably productive for an organic economy enabling a relatively high general standard of living for an organic economy. How does that happen? We think there are a few favors that led the Roman economy to perform better.

First, the Roman Empire as a result of its conquests created a linguistic, customs and monetary union over the whole Mediterranean, which was kept relatively free of things like pirates and bandits. Each of these changes made markets more reliable and efficient, which in turn could mean that a larger proportion of farmers could specialize their farming output (with elite estates probably leading the way), resulting in higher total output as the market supplanted safety-through-diversity farming strategies common in agricultural economies with low degrees of farming integration. That greater output then enables the economy to support more specialized workers with high productivity making non-agricultural goods which thus become more common and eventually affordable by the farmers. We can see these processes only imperfectly, but archaeological evidence in the early empire seems increasingly to indicate there was meaningful regional specialization (most visible with olive oil because of how it was transported), suggesting these processes were at work. Likewise, we see specialized non-agricultural goods showing up in non-elite contexts at greater rates, suggesting that even the lower (non-slave, an important caveat for this period) classes have greater access to these things.

Shipwrecks (and by implication, shipping volume) in the Mediterranean 1500 BC to 1500 AD. As the volume of shipping grew, it would have been easier for farmers to trust markets to provide essentials from other parts of the Mediterranean and thus for some regional specialization to emerge, resulting in overall gains in productivity. We see this clearest in olive oil production, where the wares of production centers in North Africa and Spain are detectable (because they traveled in ceramic vessels that survive) as far away as Britain.
Graph after Fig. 2.5 from A. Wilson, “Developments in Mediterranean shipping and maritime trade from the Hellenistic period to AD 1000” in Maritime Archaeology and Ancient Trade in the Mediterranean (2011).

Second, the interconnectedness the Roman Empire created also encouraged the spread of innovations in production, both agricultural and non-agricultural, things like watermills for the grinding of grain, new more effective presses for olives, higher quality metal-working and so on. We can map these innovations only imperfectly, but once again archaeology is slowly filling in a picture where the movement of these ideas was significant. Once again I want to note these technologies were not revolutionary but evolutionary and often what was changing was not their existence but their distribution: ideas that had been ‘stuck’ in one corner or other of the empire can suddenly spread out over those more interconnected lines of trade.

Finally we also have evidence (albeit somewhat more tricky) that the period also sees the accumulation of productive capital, plausibly encouraged by the relative stability and peace the Roman Empire created with in its borders. Diet indicators and midden remains indicate that there’s more meat being eaten, indicates a greater availability of animals which may include draft animals (for pulling plows) and must necessarily include manure, both products of animal ‘capital’ which can improve farming outputs. Of course many of the innovations above feed into this: stability makes it more sensible to invest in things like new mills or presses which need to be used for a while for the small efficiency gains to outweigh the cost of putting them up, but once up the labor savings result in more overall production.

But the key here is that none of these processes inches this system closer to the key sets of conditions that formed the foundation of the industrial revolution. Instead, they are all about wringing efficiencies out the same set of organic energy sources with small admixtures of hydro- (watermills) or wind-power (sailing ships); mostly wringing more production out of the same set of energy inputs rather than adding new energy inputs. It is a more efficient organic economy, but still an organic economy, no closer to being an industrial economy for its efficiency, much like how realizing design efficiencies in an (unmotorized) bicycle does not bring it any closer to being a motorcycle; you are still stuck with the limits of the energy that can be applied by two legs.

As a result, the ingredients for the ‘take-off’ of the industrial revolution (which involves adding more energy to the economy on a per capita basis) aren’t there. While the Romans are coming up with clever ways to drain deep mines (mostly mining for precious metals; deep shaft mining for tool metals mostly seems like it wasn’t done. Probably it wasn’t generally economical), they aren’t doing this at coal mines (because they don’t use much coal, though they do use some), which means they don’t have the neat coincidence of abundant fuel in a place that needs pumping which gave rise to the first practical steam engines. They also lack the metallurgical capacity to easily build such engines and even if they had them they lack very many industries prepared to be revolutionized by cheap reciprocal or rotational energy (remember, they’re only in the slow beginnings of the process of switching to watermills from muscle-powered mills).

Instead the Roman economy essentially moved from a ‘low equilibrium’ organic economy (that is stable at low efficiency, with little specialized farming production and very limited agricultural capital being used) to a ‘high equilibrium’ organic economy (that is stable at higher efficiency due to markets encouraging specialized production and more agricultural capital). We cannot be sure exactly the scale of production growth that movement entailed; some estimates put it around 25% but these are very speculative; in practice we really don’t know. Just as the political conditions provided the ‘push’ to move the economy from one stable position to the other, political collapse seems to have moved the Roman economy right back down. Roman economic growth, because it was a product of institutions instead of technologies, was not durable in the face of those institutions collapsing.

In my view the key takeaway here is just how contingent the industrial revolution was: the industrial revolution that occured required a number of very specific pre-conditions which were really on true on Great Britain in that period. It is not clear to me that there is a plausible and equally viable alternative path from an organic economy to an industrial one that doesn’t initially use coal (much easier to gather in large quantities and process for use than other fossil fuels) and which does not gain traction by transforming textile production (which, as we’ve discussed, was a huge portion of non-agricultural production in organic economies), though equally I cannot rule such alternatives out.

Much of history ends up this way. As much as we might want to imagine that the greater currents push historical events largely on a predetermined path with but minor variations from what must always have been, in practice events are tremendously contingent on unpredictable variables. If Spain or Portugal, for instance, rather than Britain, had ended up controlling India, would the flow of cotton have been diverted to places where coal usage was not common, cheap and abundant, thereby separating the early steam-powered mine pumps both from the industry they could first revolutionize and also from the vast wealth necessary to support that process (much less if no European power had ever come to dominate the Indian subcontinent)? This question, like so many counter-factuals, is fundamentally unanswerable but useful for illustrating the deeply contingent nature of historical events in a way that data (like the charts of global GDP over centuries) can sometimes fail to capture.

Next week is going to be a gap week because I will be giving a talk at PDXCON2022. I know there were plans to record that part of the event; if that recording is made available (I hope it is) I will be sure to share it here.

  1. Historians these days generally reject this pattern of thought which sought to reframe historical systems in the context of modern systems. Perhaps unsurprisingly the scholarship of the early and mid-1900s on labor and the economy in the ancient world was heavily inflected by Marxist historical and economic theory, either by historians who were themselves Marxists (Finley but also G.E.M. de Ste. Croix (fl. 1954-1981) or who were reacting violently against Marxist thought – Rostovtzeff, who fled his native Russia after the Russian revolution, being the obvious example here. These days historians tend to be quite skeptic of ‘grand narratives’ of this sort, generally contending that the particulars of time and place overwhelm the superficial commonalities upon which such grand narratives rely.
  2. Emphasized more by Frank and Rostovtzeff than industrial production.
  3. Drawing himself on the work of Max Weber and Karl Polanyi
  4. In particular a great many of the essential ‘bricks’ of Finley’s argument have collapsed. Finley argued against trade in bulk staples, a position sustainable in 1973 but not today due to archaeological evidence. Likewise, Finley’s argument that the Romans couldn’t do sophisticated accounting has crumbled as more evidence for Roman finance has emerged. In many cases it has become clear that what Finley viewed as a general ancient aversion to profit-making, careful accounting and market interactions was in fact just the snobbery of our sources (landed elites for whom a more sophisticated economy created as much competition as it did opportunity) adopting a pose of disdainful moralism; as our evidence has improved it seems increasingly clear that this was a facade even among the elite.
  5. Terminology here borrowed from E.A. Wrigley, Continuity, Chance and Change (1988).
  6. Likewise the earliest steam engine locomotives were first used in coalmines for two decades (1804 – 1825 or so) before they became efficient enough for general use.

416 thoughts on “Collections: Why No Roman Industrial Revolution?

  1. That was an interesting rundown. I liked it.

    One typo I didn’t see in the other comments: above the picture of James Watt’s steam engine it says, “gotten very good and pumping out coal mines”. Pretty sure you meant “very good AT pumping out”

  2. I worry that this overstates the contingency of the IR. To me, it’s always seemed like the decisive turning point was around 1500, with gunpowder, the printing press, and superior sailing + navigation plunging Europe into a technological wormhole that exploded out and came to rewrite the world, achieving its final apotheosis in the spasm of technological change that was the IR. But maybe my read of things is totally off here.

    In your reckoning, what is the relationship between enlightenment thought and the IR? Did they just happen to coincide with each other, and today we glorify the values of the enlightenment because those were the values in fashion at the time we happened to stumble upon the steam engine? I could also see a model where the competition to build increasingly sophisticated artillery triggers both the enlightenment as a cultural movement and provides the engineering knowledge required to build an effective steam engine.

    To me though it seems like the culture ran ahead and laid the groundwork. The slow birth of the modern scientific method, made possible by some mix of technological change (printing press) and cultural change (reformation???), seems like it was the crucial factor that made something like a steam engine possible (though all the other contingent factors could explain why it happened in Britain first).

    And I guess this isn’t mutually exclusive with a contingency model of the IR. Maybe the counterfactual is we’d live today in a sort of extended colonial world based on agriculture and commerce tied together with sailing ships, and we’d still be waiting around for someone to stumble upon a useful purpose for an early steam engine. To me that feels strange to contemplate, like someone hit a pause button on development, but maybe that’s just because I’ve internalized a whig history sort of model that I ought to discard.

    1. >I worry that this overstates the contingency of the IR.
      >To me, it’s always seemed like the decisive turning point
      >was around 1500, with gunpowder, the printing press,
      >and superior sailing + navigation plunging Europe into
      >a technological wormhole that exploded out and came
      >to rewrite the world, achieving its final apotheosis in the
      >spasm of technological change that was the IR. But
      >maybe my read of things is totally off here.

      Well, gunpowder emerged in lots of places, well before 1500. Printing presses were available in lots of places, and in places where they did not become widespread, it was usually for the kind of reason you wouldn’t expect to stop people if they were irreplaceable and a vital necessity. Europe definitely had an advantage in long range navigation and sailing, but used that primarily for luxury trade which doesn’t directly explain why someone would or would not develop and improve the steam engine.

      >To me though it seems like the culture ran ahead and
      >laid the groundwork. The slow birth of the modern
      >scientific method, made possible by some mix of
      >technological change (printing press) and cultural change
      >(reformation???), seems like it was the crucial factor that
      >made something like a steam engine possible…

      Perhaps to an extent, though it’s not hard to imagine a culture where different values and attitudes prevail, but where those values and attitudes don’t preclude the creation of a workable steam engine. There are scientific concepts your engineers must understand in order to design a working steam engine (such as “vacuum”), and a culture that doesn’t actively obstruct their ability to acquire and act on such understanding is vital, but there’s probably more than one way to get there.

      The contingency model does a lot more to explain “why here and now, and not elsewhere” than does the “cultural flowering makes it happen” model.

      1. I think one of the problem making it *too* narrowly deterministic is that well… The global interconnectedness meant that if this kind of shift happened it was going to spread rapidly, something that was’t the case for the neolithic revolution. (and that spread relatively rapidly too, it was just that some areas had thousands of years of coming up with their own paths to agriculture, while we’ve only had about 250 since the start of the industrial revolution)

        If you *only* had access to the mesopotamia it would be easy to say that the neolithic revolution required wheat, or whatever.

        1. James Burke in “Connections” made it sound like the real breakthrough in agriculture was draft animals: making oxen who could live on grass do the bulk work of pulling a plow, thus improving the human food/human calorie expenditure ratio. This required the discovery that male cattle could be forcibly socialized by gelding all but the breeding bulls. This was such a revolution not only in economics but in culture and even religion that David Attenborough described it as “The Gods Enslaved”.

          1. Nah, going to have to make a hard disagreement there: Because we have a counterexample in the New World, where (llamas aside) we get a massive agricultural revolution but no draft animals.

          2. Multiple exceptions to needing a draft animal:

            Mesoamerican maize. Andean potatoes. New Guinea taro (granted, no taro-fed empire; see _Against the Grain_ books). I think Southeast Asia rice farming too — I know water buffaloes can be involved, but they don’t seem necessary for running a rice paddy.

            Draft animal plowing may have been a breakthrough, but it wasn’t necessary for either having agriculture itself, or having empires fed by agriculture.

            OTOH Elizabeth Barber thinks that draft plowing meant a shift in food production and status from women (horticulture centered) to men (plow centered) and thus more patriarchal societies. Source: part of _Women’s Work_ (largely about textiles, but also drawing on archaeological and Homeric evidence, like the Phaeacians as a possible echo of Cretan society.)

            (Though you could maybe use my same list of counterexamples against her argument…)

      2. Yes gunpowder, printing press were invented elsewhere (as was the lateen sail, and compass) but western Europeans took all of these and adapted them far more effectively than others. I also would say the Europeans engaged in more than “luxury trade”.
        The exploration and colonial expansion and competition among the many west European states were a major driver in driving technological change as well as economic drivers for growth.

        I would also add that mercantilist capitalism was a huge part of it rather than say an empire expanding (such as the Ottomans). So many of the early colonial projects were the limited stock companies ie. The Dutch East India, the Virginia Company (which wasnt about settlement but making a profit, say bringing back gold). For the Dutch it was the spice trade. For English and French the sugar plantations in the Caribbean brought back more income than the American colonies. The Portuguese, once they rounded the horn of Africa, their aim was to get as much of the trade in the Indian ocean and one of the reasons for grabbing posessions in India. They may have had very little to offer the Indians in the way of trade but were superior in their naval technology and fighting skills. Also the Russia America company and Hudson’s Bay (fur trade).

        This incentive simply did not exist for the Romans in that so much really depended on one leader especially after it stopped being a republic. Once Rome controlled most of Europe and the Mediterranean there was little competition and little incentive. The Romans did not have the sailing ships nor the incentive to sail to North America. Which could be another topic in and of itself, why didn’t the Romans do the colonial expansion?

        1. Coming back to this a while later…

          > …I also would say the Europeans engaged
          > in more than “luxury trade” [with their ships]…

          Okay, but in what sense does this materially contribute to the development of steam engines, which really are the “killer app” here? The Spanish and Portuguese had huge intercontinental maritime empires, but did not develop the steam engine and were definitely not first adopters of any really important industrial technology. The Dutch didn’t, either.

          Nor were there any really remarkable advances in ship technology between, say, 1700 and 1800 that would explain why industrialization began to accelerate so quickly around 1800 and not earlier. I don’t think ships were a key factor here; maybe a secondary one.

          Remember that all these “income-bringing” trades in sugar and spices and so on were far from the first time that people were able to make huge amounts of money shipping luxury goods over long distances. But the Silk Road and the Levant, prosperous centers of long range trade, didn’t give rise to the Industrial Revolution either. The main effect of something like the East India Company is to redistribute gold and silver that are already present (either in India, in Britain, or both) from the coffers of whoever would have already had it, into the coffers of the Company.

          > This incentive simply did not exist for
          > the Romans in that so much really
          > depended on one leader especially
          > after it stopped being a republic.

          The Roman Empire conquered several new provinces under the early empires. The reasons they stopped had little to do with “lack of incentive.” There was plenty of competition from the Persians, for instance, and indeed that was the problem! Much of the available resources were needed to defend the existing borders, and the territories beyond the Roman Empire’s borders were all either held by a strong opponent (Persia), or absurdly poor and containing effectively nothing that could be taxed to support the cost of subduing the province.

          Conquering Scotland or the Sahara Desert or the depths of Central Europe would simply have presented the Romans with more expenses and more territory to fortify, without a corresponding economic reward. So why would they go on expanding? What would “colonial expansion” have looked like for them?

    2. The Baroque Cycle, in between its historical fiction bits, has some interesting observations on “What happened between 1600 and 1700 in Europe anyway, that slingshotted Western Europe into what would, eventually, be the IR”

    3. It’s probably fair to say that gunpowder and the printing press and long-distance maritime navigation with associated access to raw-material-producing colonies were necessary preconditions to the IR.

      But Europe wasn’t unique in having those: compared to parts of Asia it was a relative latecomer in adopting some of them, and nor was Britain (to the extent that “Britain” is an identifiable and relevant geopolitical/economic entity prior to about 1650) a particular class leader in Europe in any of the relevant fields during the early-early modern period. The question I most often see in this context is, essentially, “why Britain/Europe and not China?” given that China appears to have had a massive head start.

      The spirit of proto-scientific enquiry which developed during the early modern period in Europe doubtless helped and that was in part a product of decentralised government (creating space for freer thought) and the resulting kind of pressure-cooker enviconrment which encouraged governments – or at least certain types of government – to sponsor thinkers to see what they could come up with. And while that requires a lot more analysis than I have the space, motivation or ability to perform – reams of paper have already been exhausted on this subject – this does seem to have been an important reason why the IR happened in Europe not China.

      But it’s notable that while some early experiments with steam power were done on the continent, all the major innovators during the critical phase of the IR – Savery, Newcomen, Watt, Trevithick, etc. – were British, working in Britain, not French, Dutch, Swedish, German, etc. (some of which had more “advanced” political or economic systems). And while the IR happened relatively quickly in macro terms, from Newcomen’s engine to a working locomotive took about 100 years, time enough in context for some other country(‘s engineers) to build on the ideas generated in Britain if those ideas were useful to them.

      It suggests then that either British people of the period must have been exceptionally intelligent and far-sighted to see and invest in the long-term benefits in a technology nobody else was interested in, or that there were unique or at least highly unusual circumstances and preconditions in Britain which permitted and encouraged its people to develop this technology. Being British, the first explanation is obviously attractive to me… but it’s hard to make it with a straight face.

      I feel I should also point out that the presence of Indian cotton in Britian, while it certainly fuelled the fires of the IR, wasn’t a unique factor at the start of the IR. While England had had trading posts in India since the early 1700s, it didn’t start acquiring real territory until the mid-18th century and didn’t become the dominant European power in India until the 1760s. (I am not an expert in the period, but I might speculate on whether Indian cotton actually just subbed in for American cotton lost after ~1783). It was an ingredient necessary to push the IR forward, but it wasn’t the one key missing factor stopping anyone else from doing it.

    4. Many other answers have been given, I would just like to enumerate the enabling factors that were present in China and did **not** lead to an IR there:
      1. Printing press since Song dynasty at least
      2. Gunpowder ditto
      3. Ocean-going fleets around 1400
      4. Huge supplies of coal in the Northeast
      5. Long-distance textile trade and industry
      6. A very efficient market for agricultural products at least in the richest provinces around the Yangtse mouth – in fact more efficient than anywhere in Europe

      All of these together were not sufficient or at least did not make the IR happen automatically in China. The reason it took place in Britain must be either due to a very specific and contingent sequence of events, as explained by Bret above, or to institutional factors, as mentioned above in the book by Malm.

      1. How was textile production in China different than in Britain (western Europe)? Could it have also benefited from an efficient mechanical engine powered by cheap chemical reactions?

      2. Even more germane to Bret’s central point about organic economy vs. energy economy: China began using machinery powered by fossil fuels to produce an economically critical good efficiently as far back as the 2nd century BCE! In Sichuan, brine and natural gas were pumped from deep wells, and the natural gas was used to boil the brine in vast pans to make salt, one of the most important trade goods in pre-modern China.

        Mineral energy usage in Sichuan salt production and British coal mining echo one another. In both cases, the source of energy (natural gas/coal) was located in close proximity to an obvious and easily developed usage (heating/pumping), and this prompted further development of the machinery until it was *somewhat* efficient and reliable.

        Han dynasty China also had some economic and social features that you’d think would promote further industrialization. In the early Han dynasty, wealth and political power was concentrated among merchants and “industrialists”, a sort of proto-capitalist class that collectively controlled two key industries – iron and salt production. So there was already a move away from land ownership and agricultural production as the source of wealth and power. Whereas in Roman times, Crassus’ wealth largely came from his ownership of vast agricultural estates and slaves to work them, the Han dynasty industrialists obtained their wealth from control of iron mines, large-scale iron smelting and forging operations, and salt production and distribution. They also owned vast agricultural estates and peasants to work them, but as a side effect – in the absence of alternatives, productive agricultural land was a safe and reliable place to park excess wealth.

        That might be a key point; ancient China lacked any mechanism to more productively pool this excess wealth and direct it toward creating more wealth. The surplus wealth created through industry and commerce could either be parked in agricultural land and earn “organic economy” rates of return, or funneled toward raising and outfitting truly enormous armies to fight on China’s frontiers, effectively destroying the wealth – as happened under Emperor Wu of Han, the seventh Han emperor, who raised taxes, nationalized much of the salt and iron production, and embarked on a series of military campaigns against the Xiongnu federation to the north.

        The other key difference is probably that there was little impetus to expand the Sichuan salt works. Transport between Sichuan and the rest of China was historically expensive because it’s a basin surrounded by mountains, and the region was often de facto autonomous of the central government. Meanwhile, the rest of China had many sources of salt, particularly on the coast, and relatively cheap transport thanks to the Grand Canal. So unlike the British and textiles, where the European market would consume basically as much as they could produce, the proto-industrial Sichuan salt works was largely restricted to the local Sichuan market. No matter how efficiently they produced salt, transport costs made their salt more expensive than locally produced salt or sea salt transported by river barge in the rest of China.

        1. The question of whether and to what degree cultural values promoted or inhibited the development of an industrial revolution has been debated endlessly. FWIW many posit that Confucianism, which often painted merchants and traders as a parasitic class, discouraged proto-capitalism and industrialism.

          1. I don’t think that alone would be an obstacle, though – culture doesn’t exist completely independently of the material circumstances (see Bret’s post about the banning of chemical weapons, which I just reread a few minutes ago). If the salt industry was profitable enough, the people who invested in it would have continued to do so and developed new philosophy to justify it.

    5. I don’t see how any of this could be mutually exclusive with the conditions given by Devereaux – after all nothing changes that this requires an alternate powersource uncoupled from the food chain and an economically viable development path for productive technology powered by it.

      Should Britain’s conditions not occur, it’s a mystery how long it would take for someone to muck around with the idea sufficiently – perhaps the scientific knowledge-base would steadily advance until people had the whole progression planned out, or perhaps someone else would stumble across it at some other time in the indefinite future, likely after more extensive deforestation in the pursuit of naval power and greater metal production. A lot of technology isn’t really some great inevitability in the temporal sense, _especially_ firearms – someone could have stumbled upon gunpowder in 1100 BC and then maybe the Romans would be having great wars with the Macedonians and their pike and shot formations*. Potentially if no luck ever struck and there was no coal about you might eventually get electricity, magnetism, and photovoltaic panels to do the dirty work, but that’d take significant time and it’s not so much avoiding the solar issue so much as sidestepping it (granted coal does that too, but temporally** rather than spatially).

      * Of course such a profound change severely diminishes the probability of those specific polities forming in the alternate world, to say the least.

      ** There’s definitely some absurdity to the easiest industrialising powersource being essentially a _horrifically_ inefficient conversion of the same photosynthetic energy we used before with the one saving grace of lossless storeage multiplied by hundreds of millions of years of buildup.

      1. I think that if there were no fossil fuels, the likely driver of industrialization (if and as it eventually happened) would be hydroelectric power, more so than photovoltaic panels.

        Electromagnetism runs into sort of the same problem that steam engine design does, in that you won’t see a lot of scholarly effort into figuring out complex abstractions or obscure weird material interactions involving it unless people can obviously do something with it. Before you can find out that highly pure silicon (or creatively doped silicon) can yield an electric current when exposed to sunlight, you need to have a reason to even spend time worrying about what electricity can and cannot do.

        A hydroelectric generator lends itself to this, because it creates the incentive as a conceptually straightforward modification to the existing sorts of locks and dams people already build on rivers anyway.

  3. Absolute brilliant article I found it’s interesting and helpful well written ideal for a person who has hasn’t been to university

  4. ‘nearly all of the energy they use (with a few, largely marginal exceptions)’ I’m not quite sure I’d qualify windmills and waterwheels quite as ‘marginal’ (albeit definitely situational) in mediaeval Europe…

    1. I’m not sure what modern estimates look like, but John Langdon (Horses, Oxen, and Technoligical Innovation, 1986) estimates that 70% of medieval Europe’s power was sourced just from animals. The remaining 30% would have been split between people and mill-power, with the former almost certainly forming the greater part (mills during that period are being used almost exclusively for grinding grain and fulling cloth, and a lot of people try to avoid using them even for that), so I think it is accurate to use “marginal” to describe a source that contributes maybe 10% of power. And it’s going to be even less than that in earlier time periods and in some regions outside of Europe.

      1. From 1100 or so mills were used for a lot of purposes other than grinding grain – fulling cloth and forging iron (trip-hammers and also driving bellows), sawing wood and so on. By 1400 they and wind-mills were very common across western Europe. Still not a power source to rival animals, but not trivial.

      2. I would be curious, does that “power calculation” include wind powered sailing ships. It may have been initially small, but given the demand for trade, spices and the east being cut off by the Ottomans. The development of ocean going sailing ships combined with guns and gunpowder provided a much bigger driver for development than Romes land empire and galley ships driven by slaves did.

        1. I thought that galleys were war vessels and that merchantmen only rowed in narrow circumstances (e.g. getting in and out of harbor).

          1. You are correct. Crew calories storage is less functional cargo hold available, on top of being an expense. Being a galley rower is a highly unpleasant job with low necessary qualification, leading to things like the chiourme which would create discipline problem on a merchant ship.

    2. For every watt of mechanical work done by a windmill or waterwheel, you would see many watts of mechanical work done by the draft animals plowing the fields, the farmers growing and harvesting the crops, the animals hauling cargo around, the workers spinning fiber into thread, and so on.

      1. What about nonmobile power? Remove transport (and remove sails too, to be fair) and across fields, and what proportion of power is not human or animal?

  5. Lovely to see spinning mentioned! The Romans could not have mechanised spinning, as you can’t go from hand spindles to a spinning jenny – you first need to invent the flyer. Even the Great Wheel won’t do.

  6. Thanks for getting this up here. I have long wondered why the Romans never had an Industrial Revolution. I particularly appreciate now having the various additional scholarly sources you cite. Well done!

  7. Test post: can everyone see these unicode characters or are they unsupported for some viewers?
    𝗯𝗼𝗹𝗱, 𝘪𝘵𝘢𝘭𝘪𝘤, 𝙗𝙤𝙩𝙝

    1. I see them in my email client in a terminal, but I believe that they are going to cause issues with screen reading software.

      The one I have installed is quite unsophisiticated (espeak-ng) and others may do better, but I get something like “letter 1d5ef, letter 1d5fc, letter 1d5f9, etc.”

  8. OK since we’ve gone into counterfactuals on steam engines and Rome…

    Engineering types, is some form of steam turbine, pointing boiling steam at a windmill, possible? Efficiency of a Newcomen engine perhaps?

    1. Remember that in ancient Rome iron meant hammered bloom iron produced by blacksmiths with a forge and anvil. Are steam engines even practical unless you can mass-produce cast iron, which requires blast furnaces?

      1. Well the Roman could cast bronze… and at the start at least It took a while for cast iron cannons to beat Bronze ones on performance. But again w/o the demand for cannons you don’t have the same pressure to make casting better and cheaper. Compare the size of the Roman state kind of killed any push to find better springs for torsion artillery (which might have pushed metallurgy and pneumatics) because they just did not need to.

        1. ‘A while’ is rather underselling it; bronze cannon continued to be manufactured well into the 19th century, and were measurably superior to iron equivalents at least into the 18th. To my understanding quality difference arises because cast iron is more liable to voids and imperfections than cast bronze (and also fails deadlier when used as a pressure vessel), so iron cannon had to be made thicker than equivalent bronze pieces and so were heavier despite being made of an on paper stronger and lighter material.

    2. Engineering type here. The Romans didn’t have the tools to make the tools needed. Especially for a turbine. the metallurgy and tolerances required just weren’t there

      1. I wasn’t clear. Not asking whether the Romans could make a modern or even early 20thC steam turbine. Those are/were very high tech, because they had to compete with existing steam engines that had been developed for over a century.

        Could someone with Roman (classical Chinese?) tools and materials make some kind of steam turbine, basically a windmill with a steam pipe pointing at it? Would this generate enough rotational energy to be useful, in comparison with actual windmills and watermills of the same period?

        1. well….. I suppose they could do something small and toylike like spinning a pinwheel in front of a teakettle. But to get useful work out of something that is spinning it has to either go very fast or have a lot of mass or both. as on the spinning wheel or the potter’s wheel, or the flywheel on Watts engine picture above, the angular momentum evens out the spinning motion
          the Romans had copper boilers that they used in their baths they were low pressure and I don’t know if they would have been able to spin something heavy enough fast enough. … maybe a trip hammer where short bursts of usable work wouldn’t be as much of a problem? use the same fire to heat the metal as to heat the water and then when the metal is hot an the water is boiling, let it go for a short burst of activity as you work teh metal? IDK

    1. I’ve sometimes wondered if wood could be at least one filter. I’m not sure there’s an a priori reason why plants developed cellulose as their main stiffening element; it could have been proteins like chitin or keratin. No wood, no easy sources of fuel, no fire.

      1. It’s not the wood, it’s the fungus that gave us the Carboniferous. Or, more precisely, the lack of fungus. The issue isn’t wood, it’s that wood was hard to digest–nothing had evolved yet to break down cellulous.

        ANY hydrocarbon that’s not rapidly digested would have the same result, however. This is evidenced in the conservat lagerstattens (Burgees Shale being the most famous)–most of them conserve anatomy as very thin films of coal, proving that things like keratin and chitin can be made into fossil fuels. The reason we don’t have huge deposits of coal from the Cambrian is that stuff had already evolved to eat that material post-mortem. Hard parts appear to have started out as small add-ons to organisms (see the Small Shelly Fauna), which gave microbes and other organisms plenty of time to adapt to digesting things like keratin and chitin.

        None of this would apply to oil. Oil is typically the result of microscopic plankton dropping down into the ocean and being compressed and heated, a somewhat different process from coal formation. And I can see a parallel process working for oil as with coal. Remember, oil was already in use for lighting (for thousands of years); pumping oil isn’t that much different from pumping water, either, except that oil is a fuel, so the steam engine would have equal value here. So one could speculate that areas like the Great Black Swamp, where oil was bubbling up to the surface, could produce an Industrial Revolution in the same manner as Great Britain did, IF the conditions were correct.

    2. Well, if bacteria were quicker to evolve a way to digest cellulose, no Carboniferous coal deposits…

      Though petroleum has different sources, metamorphized plankton (and wow, that’s a complex process.) Could you have a petroleum-IR? Difficult on Earth, where the easy sources (Arabia) had low population. And I don’t know if there’s a Newcomen path, where you could use a shitty steam engine + cheap oil to extract more oil.

      But that’s just one component; possibly the whole IR was an unlikely contingent process: printing + scientific community + coal deposits + …

      1. Petroleum might be possible I suppose. Saw a fascinating documentary of crude oil extraction by hand in Myanmar, but can’t seem to remember which one! Was a BBC one of some variety.

        Either way, there’s a video of it being done with ropes, pulleys and a borehole here:

        And a pump setup with small engines here, which I suspect could be replaced with crude steam engines:

        Just need all the other contingencies in place.

    3. To build on your thought some, I’ve wondered if stored energy is a major filter. You could still have an industrial revolution, but if you run out of fossil fuels before you can invent/discover sustainable energy sources that have a high enough energy density to fuel your machines, you could stall.

      1. Ursula LeGuin’s “Left Hand of Darkness” is usually read for other reasons, but it is also an account a planet without fossil fuel deposits and of the very slow development of an advanced civilization using solar power for some purposes, e.g. huge, slow trains, and still relying on muscle power for many others.

  9. There *is* an alternate partial industrial revolution in history – the Dutch Golden Age. During the Dutch Golden Age, they harnessed vast quantities of peat for industrial heating, which formed a major – some say *the* major – source of their considerable wealth. It was essential to many highly profitable industries there, notable sugar refining, dye production, distilling, and ceramics. They had such a competitive advantage unrefined Caribbean sugar would be hauled across the Atlantic to be refined there.

    In practice the Dutch almost completely exhausted their peat reserves and so had largely stopped using it by the late 1700’s. They got passed by the English in energy use before then anyway, partly because coal is denser and cleaner, enough so to make up for the Dutch transport advantages. Possibly in an alternate world without England around the Dutch would have regressed to being just another European, county, although by this estimate their per capita income was still at the top and well ahead of England as late as 1800. But I think it’s at least plausible that the Dutch model could have also led to an industrial revolution, focused initially on increasingly efficient use of heat (think industrial Franklin stoves) and then later on to using alternative forms of energy such as coal or (after the discovery of electricity) hydropower.

    I also would not discount the possibility of a science-led industrial revolution. Yes, it was the need for pumping devices in a special use case that made the English use the Newcombe engine in spite of its inefficiencies. But a scientific interest in devices and discoveries had already formed by that time, and it could lead to the development of very significant processes without immediate uses – electricity being a very striking example of that.

    Possibly the Romans could have followed a Dutch path to an industrial revolution. They did have some industrial scale production where large heat sources could have been of great value, but not nearly as much as the early modern Dutch. Offhand I would guess they were nowhere close to any kind of industrial revolution, but it might be interesting to consider how much development of their economy would have been needed to get to a similar stage.

  10. > As we’ll see, this was a use-case that didn’t really exist in the ancient world and indeed existed almost nowhere but Britain even in the period where it worked.

    I remember hearing a theory for why the IR happened in Britain, not in France – on a BBC programme, not less. The theory was that in France, the existence of a royal academy of the sciences meant that scientists who could have invented the steam engine focussed instead on publishing papers that would impress other scientists or royal patrons, thus creating the dark side of modern academia; whereas in Britain if you wanted funding for your science experiment you would much sooner get it from an early factory owner who expected to see practical applications within their lifetime, such as “how about you invent something to improve pumping water out of my coal mines?”

    > Consequently wood as a heat fuel was scarce [in England]

    According to Oliver Rackham, Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape, producing firewood through coppicing was always part of traditional British agricultural life; but it’s undoubtedly true that Britain was much less forested than the continent, and that they shifted to coal as fuel supply couldn’t keep up with rising demand. (Apparently south Wales also has some of the best coal in the world, which might have helped.) I think there’s been a charcoal “industry” around the Forest of Dean since almost time immemorial, but I guess that was still small scale by comparison.

    1. The Brits had their Royal Society as well; it produced practical output along with vicious flamewars published as scientific papers.

    2. There was a lot of contact among western European scientists. Denis Papin (french Born) who worked with Christian Huygens with air pumps and made a vacuum pump. He invented a steam pressure cooker and noticed that steam had the power to raise the lid. Later after trying to use gunpowder to drive an engine (something suggested by Huygens) decided that it was impractical as it left non-condensable gas in the piston. Papin then decided steam could be used to condense and create a vacuum and drive the piston (vs using gunpowder to make pressure). This led to a design for a steam engine where water was heated and condensed in a cylinder which would drive the piston down. He published this design in 1690. But it was slow as it took a full minute to boil the water and would have maybe 30 strokes in a hour. And it was difficult to build a large cylinder and a piston that would fit.

      Thomas Savery, then applied for a patent in 1699 for a steam engine (but it was actually just a pump) it had no piston, rocker arm but showed that it was possible to use steam to pump water.
      Then Newcomen a blacksmith and his partner built their engine.

      It was interesting that it wasn’t so much scientists but tradesmen and tinkerers that actually came up with a working engine but they probably did make use of Papins ideas.

      So to some extent, what is needed here is the free exchange of ideas and the printing press really is a big factor. And you also need a class of business people and merchants who are trying to improve their production and make money.

      1. > It was interesting that it wasn’t so much scientists but tradesmen and tinkerers that actually came up with a working engine but they probably did make use of Papins ideas.

        So not only was there a scientific community, there were tradesmen educated enough to follow science and apply it to their work.

    3. British revisionism in order to forge national myth on a state-subventionned channel. What a shocker. Put it in the same bag as the longbow. England had their own societies marred with the same ego-wars, and focused just the same on the above of theory of the universe rather than the below of solving functional engineering problems.
      As the author of the blog-post have put it, the early steam engine was kinda shit at most things and would have been abandoned if not for a very specific set of circumstanced that only existed in England, mostly because it was far more connected than in the past to mainland europe and the rest of the world (thanks to progress in sailing technology, finally solving england problem of being a disconnected backwater mudhole compared to the France/Italy/Spain/HRE area) while still facing the logistical problem of having to cross the channel and being on a cold, muddy island with not that much warmth.

      Where you can disagree with the post and other “what if”, is that the already quite connected world of the time would have permitted this invention to spread to other countries (like, for example, if it was the French by sea or the Russians by land that got a hold of India trade, both reasonable alt-history hypothesis) and reveal it’s use in textile whether or not Britain had access to massive fibers supplies, and you can let your imagination/world building run wild.

      Nonetheless, the primitive steam engine was solving a problem that was british-exclusive (not much coal deep mines anywhere else before the need to get coal to power steam engine) with a solution that was acceptable only by british circumstances. To move this invention somewhere else, you need to move those circumstances in that place.

  11. As a technical type, I am glad to see the emphasis on the need for a dense, portable. storable, energy source for an IR to happen. However, and this is outside my expertise so any insight would be appreciated. on a more basic level, would a slave owning society like Rome ever need labor saving devices? Especially if the ruling elites’ power was based on the size of their lands, chattel, and the size of their patron/client network?

    1. Slave labor is cheap, but you still have to feed them. Getting more work done with fewer workers means more profit, more profit means more wealth, and wealth is status.

      1. Slave labor is not cheap. As you put it, you need to feed, dress and roof them, etc…
        It’s just more reliable than free-workers. Just like most things, slavery was not abolished out of moral grandeur, but simply when salaried work became more competitive than slavery following the IR, making slaves outdated farm equipments.

        Cultures that still practice slavery nowadays use slaves not because it’s cheaper than a contractor/employee, but because they can’t quit.

        1. Depends on the free labor, and the slaves. For instance, serfs’ labor duties in England sorta slipped away because lords preferred to fine them for not doing it, and then hire free labor, who would know that the lord wouldn’t hire them again if they shirked.

          1. I think there’s a comparison here with scutage, where the English kings preferred to have people buy off their feudal military duties and then hire professional soldiers.

            I’m wondering which came first, I suspect scutage, and that the feudal landlords spotted that the English kings had a good thing going with this whole “hire professionals” thing and decided to emulate it.

            Without an example at the top of the kings and great lords acting like money was more important than command authority, I’m not sure that the smaller holders would have been willing to put up with the prestige hit of not being able to boss around all their tenants.

          2. Feudal society was too close to subsistence for letting prestige trump practicality like that

          3. On ‘scutage’ – the hire of mercenaries, ‘money-fiefs and soldiers for pay shows up in mid-medieval times (and before that there were retinues that were much the same thing). The ‘forty days’ of service is the term of unpaid service (service at your own expense); anything after that was paid.

    2. Humans are inefficient at producing bulk horsepower because even the most wretched slave still needs humanely edible food, which has to be produced by more human labor. I’m unaware that anyone actually used slaves instead of oxen to pull plows for example.

    3. Well, supposedly, better cotton gins revived American slavery and cotton farming. Also, all the advancements in spinning and weaving increased the demand for cotton fibers. So that’s a bunch of labor saving devices that led to *more* slavery.

  12. First off, really enjoyed reading the article. This is a topic that’s always interested me.

    I would like to add, that a certain amount of power not included was wind power for sailing ships in transport and exploration. In contrast to the Roman empire so much of the Mediterranean sea transport was based on galley slaves. Obviously the Mediterranean was well suited for galley ships. But distant ocean exploration was made possible by the lateen sail (borrowed from the Arabs) which allowed for sailing almost into the wind, along with the compass and guns and gunpowder (both Chinese inventions) The exploration and colonial expansion was a big economic driver (for Spain it was the gold and silver) for the Dutch it was the trade in spices and the English and French it was the sugar plantations (along with the cycle of slave trade) and of course the India connection with cotton but also the tax income that the English collected from governing India.

    Of course a huge difference between the Romans and western Europe
    was that Rome conquered the majority of Europe and the surrounding Mediterranean and having done that had little competition (and created a few centuries of Pax Romana). Whereas Europe (especially the Western nations) spent centuries competing in colonial expansion and warfare and were able to hone the military methods in fighting among themselves and the fact that really only after the Napoleonic wars ended with Britain as the dominant power (although a sea power, rather than land) was there a Pax Britannica in which there was a good 80 years or so of relative peace between the major powers. (There is also a major geographical advantage as pointed out by Ian Morris — the prevailing winds and distance that allows travel between Europe and the Americas, is much better for Europe than China. Even though Chinese ships were more advanced in ZHeng He’s exploration than the little European carracks, the distance across the Pacific is something like 4 times the distance across the Atlantic and the prevailing winds are much farther apart).

    One other factor that comes into play and it is related to this idea of decentralized competitive growth is the mercantilist capitalism. So on reading Roger Crowley’s history of Venice one is struck by the fact that Venice became a major power despite not having any land to grow food, but ironically using its shipbuilding and trading skills and expanding into various coastal possessions primarily for trade. In contrast with the Ottoman empire which was a centralized govt with a supreme leader (and at its peak larger than any european kingdom) Venice had a Doge who was fairly autocratic in the early days, but later the Doge was elected by and ruled with the council which was made up of prominent families and essentially a republic. This allowed for a more efficient gov’t and this Republican form of govt also ended up in much of western Europe as well.

    Finally the printing press (and while movable type printing was invented in other places) in Europe was a massive spread in the sharing of information and dissemination especially in technology and science. The effect of this cannot be understated.

    So western Europe was by 1712 already more technologically advanced than the Romans were in weapons, ocean sailing, military methods, but also the competition among states and their striving for more profit through trade and expansion were a huge driver for the cycle of technological development.

    For similar topics I would be interested in why the industrial revolution did not happen in China or India or the Muslim world for instance.

    1. I am impressed by Paul Kennedy’s analysis of this. He argued that essentially western Europe had fewer _dis_incentives towards proto-capitalism than centralized empires whose overweening priority was to uphold the status quo. Or as he put it, for the rest of world to modernize the way Europe did would require “the existence of a market economy, if not to the extent proposed by Adam Smith then at least to the extent that merchants and entrepreneurs would not be consistently deterred, obstructed and preyed upon.”

      1. Adam Smith’s market economics was not too different from the free market ideology that had held sway in the Muslim world for a long time. Free markets for agricultural products were also very much present in China. The Muslim world did not have monopolist stockholding corporations like the British and Dutch (East and West) India Companies, so if you want to look for an institutional reason for European dominance from the 18th century onwards, look at monopolies, not free market economics. Note that I am not saying any economic system was sufficient or even necessary for the Industrial Revolution.

        1. I’ve heard it argued that a too-free market is fundamentally uncreative because no one builds up the capital reserves required to transform industries. Rather than efficient markets and innovation going hand-in-hand, as tends to be assumed, innovation (at least the capital-intensive kind) is caused by monopoly and rent-seeking behavior, which is deleterious to market efficiency (and often to later innovators).

    2. On ‘capitalism”. A lot of European trade and development was state-driven. EG the capture of the Indian Ocean trades was essentially well-armed piracy, conducted by state vessels and supported by state troops and fortresses. The British Admiralty was consistently a large-scale investor in promising technologies (first automated interchangeable parts machine line, plate-rolling, pickling and food preservation, instruments, just to name a few) and the French did likewise. Royal absolutism in Germany and France lent heavily on professional and mercantile support – these groups saw it as preferable to the landowning oligarchy that was the alternative.

      England was unusual in that the landowning oligarchy saw naval power as essential to their own survival, and were prepared to fund it. But they and their peers in France and Germany were also keenly interested in making money.

      Recent historians make a good case that many parts of China were rather more ‘capitalist’ than Europe – free markets in labour, land and goods and a sophisticated financial system. It’s not even clear that Indian and Chinese understanding of mechanics and physics was inferior before say 1750. So it comes back to the breakthrough in exploiting a new source of power – coal and steam.

    3. “Venice had a Doge who was fairly autocratic in the early days”

      Thanks to the internet, this phrase will never not make me laugh.

  13. Loved this article. Whether the author realized it or not, there were many parallels to startups and innovation theory; the initial market for the crudest version of your technology, which acts as a force that enables incremental innovation, then enables the improved technology to be used in other markets, and so on.

    Also liked the insight that Rome was in the same category as other agrarian economies, it just happened to be better communicated and protected than most, which would naturally guide any agrarian economy to become like Rome.

    1. The perfect illustration of that principle is flat-screen monitors. People had been trying to develop flat-screen televisions almost literally before television. But none of the experimental technologies was practical for implementation. What changed was the laptop PC: unlike a television, a crude monochrome low-res monitor was adequate for the first generation of laptops, and this provided a market and revenue stream to successively improved flat screen monitors. Finally, the quality-price threshold of commercial practicality for televisions was reached.

  14. One other factor that historians seem to overlook concerning Rome is that the boyant economy of c100BC to 200AD was built partly on the vast amounts of treasure looted from the eastern realms as they were conquered. It was this huge capital reserve that allowed the massive standing army of 300k to be maintained for so long despite the fact that the economy was incapable of supporting such a massive force – once the capital was chewed up the Emperors tried to maintain the army but beggared the economy doing it – again it took a couple of centuries to really hit home – but it is why the Eastern Empire under Justinian couldn’t field the sort of military force that Anthony and Cleopatra did – or for that matter that Augustus did.

    1. Disagree. I think there’s good evidence in the sources that the loot from Egypt was used up by the end of the reign of Augustus. The cash of earlier conquests seems to have been spent during the civil wars. By Tiberius the conquest windfalls are gone, but tax revenues we’re sufficient to support the army provided nothing went too wrong (which it did with the Antoine plague).

    2. Not only do I disagree, but I have this wonderful Patterson analysis on silver stocks in ancient world and exactly how fast they disappear:
      This is in addition to the more fundamental issues of actually forming, equipping and feeding a 300k army, where no amounts of silver and or gold suffice if you do not have enough of the agricultural surplus produced and redistributed.

      1. Without fiat money and central banks capable of regulating interest rates, physical availability of specie has a strong effect on economies. The influx of New World gold and silver is credited by some with ending the long period of Medieval deflation and giving the early mercantilist/capitalist economies a boost. In the 19th century the retention of the gold standard when the supply couldn’t match the expansion of the economy is thought to have aggravated boom/bust cycles and impoverished primary producers like farmers, fishermen, miners and lumberjacks, whose product became increasingly devalued in terms of ever more precious gold.

  15. I would just like to point out Paolo Malanima’s work in energy use, energy sources and energy limits in ancient Rome and in medieval Italy, for those of the commentariat who are wondering on limits, and percentages of energy available from wind/water in pre industrial societies.

  16. I would argue that the IR was a culmination of mathmatical, metallurgical and mechanical knowledge developed in the medieval and renaissance periods.

  17. I have an old book called “Mysteries of the Past”. It’s one of those coffee table books from the 1970s that you could get through one of the more intellectual magazines. Curiously, a number of chapters still are mysteries. We do have a better idea of things like the collapse of the Maya, but the purpose of the Easter Island statues? How and when did humans spread across the globe?

    One of the chapters is titled “Why Did the Ancients Not Develop Machinery?” The author discusses the mechanical devices of the Roman Empire – windmills, water mills, steam-driven toys – and speculates on why they never bothered to develop them into anything truly useful.

    His conclusion (which I am strongly inclined to agree with) is that it was a matter of attitude. Manual labor was denigrated, so any sort of device that might be a benefit to laborers was ignored. There was no social incentive to attempt to innovate. This is reflected in their deities (which were borrowed basically wholesale from the Greeks, who also had their own problems with labor-saving devices). Vulcan, the god of the forge and engineering, is the ugliest god in their pantheon. He’s constantly made fun of by the other gods. Contrast this with the medieval depiction of God as an architect / engineer, building the universe – which, not really surprisingly, came into prominence during the Medieval Industrial Revolution of the 12th-14th centuries.

    1. This was Finley’s view.

      And as I’ve noted elsewhere (here:, archaeologists have spent the last 50 years or so systematically burying Finley. The ancients did, in fact, develop labor-saving devices and often deployed them widely. I’m afraid your book is quite out of date on this point.

      Also ‘God as an architect’ goes back to Plato (and his ‘demiurge’ which literally means ‘public craftsman’), not the Middle Ages.

  18. One missing link is the emphasis on both Science and *practical* Science. It is no coincidence that a system of philosophical and practical belief *antithetical* to the ultra-dominant traditionalist and faith based paradigms of Eurasia came into widespread adoption mere centuries before the Industrial Revolution.

    Indeed, the circumstances that led to these paradigms you’ve identified which allowed the Industrial Revolution generally descend from the Scientific Revolution. Coal was increasing in usage even prior to the pumping of water in part because Geology was being developed in lockstep with increasing demand. For one of the first times in Human history people were proposing *why* natural resources exist where they do, synthesizing that information into theories, and testing him. The first European steam engines were made by scientists-the practical ones were evolutions of earlier designs, and the scientific establishment wasted no time in improving on it. Bessemer was the son of a French scientist, inheritance patterns critical to crop engineering were made by scientists, etc. etc.

    What changed was the culture of knowledge. Rome had a religious and traditionalist methodology that rewarded innovation in the traditional aristocratic fields, like prose, warfare, and politics. Even the great philosophers were primarily concerned with debating each other, not with testing the world for truth. Early Modern Europe had those incentive structures too, but also developed a scientific sub-culture that rewarded innovation in trade, industry, scholarship, and historiography. Further, Francis Bacon managed to instill a core value of *practicality* to scientific works; science was supposed to be useful, not just right, unlike the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle; for all that they had the same social standing as scientists they lacked the methodology, culture, or purpose.

    That is what the Roman’s truly lacked. It wasn’t even the Printing Press, which enabled the Scientific Revolution, nor was is deforestation, trade, textile manufacturing, coal usage, etc. All of those would have applied as causes at various parts of times of the Empire (indeed, in a truly enlightened view they did but later-England has a line of descent to Rome like all of Europe). They even had a high literacy rate among the elite and techniques to spread information-not as efficiently as the Printing Press, but clay tablets and various parchments and papers obviously existed and were quite sophisticated.

    Hence the conditions you identify as being the source of the Industrial Revolution, while varied, are also all the direct and often intentional result of the earlier scientific revolution. Textiles production was being centralized and improved and fuel resources exploited because of scientific principles driving innovation. If Rome had developed a theory of Science it could have likewise developed in ways the created the conditions for iterative growth, but the first step isn’t any particular combination of environmental factors, but the theory of progressive, practical, and testable truth that predates those environmental factors.

    (Well, and the carrying capacity to support a learned elite, but Rome certainly had that).

  19. Astonishingly good comments! I am reading this in August 2023, and I’ll have to come back and read through them all. I wonder if anyone made the point that England existed as a place with lots of coal (and, I suppose, few trees, though someone may correct me) as part of the Roman Empire, yet nothing happened. Was it known for wool production back then? Was cotton in use in the Roman Empire? (maybe wool or linen would work).

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