Industrial Espionage and Technology Transfer: Britain and France in the Eighteenth Century *
Industrial Espionage and Technology Transfer: Britain and France in the Eighteenth Century, By J. R. Harris. Aldershot: Ashgate, 1998. Pp. xviii+655; illustrations, notes/references, bibliography, index. $110.95.
Even before publication this work was recognized as a masterpiece by those best qualified to judge, namely, François Crouzet and Peter Mathias. Their verdict will be endorsed by all who are fortunate enough to read it. Its subject is important and its approach persuasive. The book focuses on the transformation of Britain into the world's leading industrial power, a revolution it dates between the 1690s and the 1750s. That revolution altered the balance of power in Europe, changing Britain from an importer of foreign technology into an exporter of its own newly developed processes of production. John Harris explains clearly how the transformation occurred. He identifies the key to British success in the high caliber of its craftsmen, in their inventive capacity, in the quality of their tools, and in the extending and productive division of labor.
Even more fundamental was the rise of the first coal-fuel economy in history, which effected the great transition from organic to inorganic sources of fuel. This new and unprecedented trend affected first the nonferrous metal trades and then, between 1709 and the 1750s, the vital iron industry itself. It valorized Britain's vast mineral reserves and, because coal was relatively inexpensive, endowed it with a large comparative advantage. It also effected a radical change in technology itself by gearing society up to a continuing process of systematic rational invention and innovation. That process made the eighteenth century an era of unexampled progress, which compels one to discount the belief expressed by Edmund Burke in 1790 in "our sullen resistance to innovation."
Europe proved quick to respond to the new constellation of forces. Led by Sweden and France, foreign states sought to learn the secrets behind Britain's industrial achievements and to transfer the new techniques to their own lands. Thus the theme of industrial espionage broadens into the larger one of technology transfer. Between 1710 and 1800 perhaps a thousand [End Page 355] British artisans were persuaded to migrate to France. That state failed, however, to emulate British achievements or even to narrow the gap in productivity. It proved unable to recruit the best British artisans or to train French artisans of comparable quality in British methods of manufacture. French ministers relied overmuch upon the advice of scientists and Academicians, who lacked any experience in the practical processes of production.
In allotting pride of place to the skilled mechanic, Harris explains why Britain forbade the emigration of artisans as early as 1719, long before it prohibited the export of machines in 1785. The skills of such artisans remained of crucial importance in transferring techniques from Britain to other states. By contrast, the utility of plans, drawings, and even models of machinery remained limited. In exalting the creative role of the artisan at the expense of the scientist, Harris has vindicated the trenchant iconoclasm of Michael Fores.
John Harris (1923-97) was a scholar of wide-ranging interests who pioneered the study of the history of business, technology, and shipping as well as of regional history. He proved well suited to this particular undertaking and indeed devoted fifty years of his life to the task, beginning with the preparation of weighty theses upon St. Helens (1950) and the copper industry (1952). His seminal articles in History (1967, 1976) remain landmarks in the historiography of the Industrial Revolution and have come to full fruition in the present work. Harris's procedures may well disturb disciples of the postmodernist school of thought: he has shown the immense value of "naive empiricism" in historical research. He has trawled through masses of unexplored archives in Rouen, Lorient, Saint Gobain, Le Creusot, and Lyons as well as in Paris. His investigations ranged far beyond the frontiers of France to embrace Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Austria, and Russia, but perforce exclude Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands. He did not merely transcribe material but revealed a complete understanding of the processes he describes. Colleagues in Europe and America have given him their enthusiastic support. The evidence he presents is compelling, and his conclusions remain irrefutable.
This work will remain a permanent memorial to a scholar of profound learning and genuine modesty. It transforms our understanding of the Industrial Revolution and will influence both teaching and research far into the future. John Harris rehabilitates and extends the work of John U. Nef, who had assumed that a distinct hiatus in economic development followed his own purported "revolution" of 1540-1640. Harris shows convincingly that the period 1640-1760 formed no hiatus but rather was dominated by fundamental change. Thus he restores vitality to Paul Mantoux's thesis of The Industrial Revolution in the Eighteenth Century (1928; reprint, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), and in so doing he undermines the credibility of those "new economic historians" who have minimized the extent of economic development in eighteenth-century Britain. Harris also [End Page 356] extends the work of David Jeremy on technology transfer and sets the British experience firmly in a European context. Thus his work takes its place in the great tradition of historiography pioneered by Otto Henderson in Britain and Industrial Europe, 1750-1870 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1954). This book must not be judged by its title alone: its subject is broad, its appeal wide, and it will remain indispensable to all who are interested in the history of technology, science, economic development, and Britain's relations with the wider world.
D. A. Farnie
Dr. Farnie, a visiting professor at the Manchester Metropolitan University, has edited the new comparative study Region and Strategy in Britain and Japan: Business in Lancashire and Kansai, 1890-1990 (London: Routledge, 2000).
* Permission to reprint a review published here may be obtained only from the reviewer.