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Reviewed by:
  • The Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain 1700-1850
  • Kenneth Morgan
The Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain 1700-1850. By Joel Mokyr (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2009) 564 pp. $45.00

This book is both an interdisciplinary study of the impact of the "Industrial Enlightenment" on the British economy and a synthesis of the main economic aspects of Britain's Industrial Revolution. The second remit is less original than the first, but the consideration of specialist studies by other historians on population growth, agricultural productivity, foreign trade, the service sector, and living standards is thoughtful and intelligent. Professional scholars will enjoy reading chapters on those topics, though they will find few novel interpretations or information. The first remit of The Enlightened Economy, however, is more original. Drawing on primary printed and secondary scientific, philosophical, economic, and political literature, Mokyr argues a well-supported case for the diffusion of scientific and technological progress as a distinctive and important reason for Britain's ability to undergo and sustain an Industrial Revolution ahead of its main rivals. By conjoining literature often kept [End Page 288] separate—the scientific and philosophical, on the one hand, and the economic, on the other—Mokyr suggests that increases in useful knowledge, the desire for progress, intellectual curiosity, and a reservoir of talented, practical men to implement technological change were essential underpinnings of British economic growth in the period from 1700 to 1850. Through these means, and via the networks, institutions, and societies formed to support them, certain macro-inventions—notably smelting iron with coke, the design of the steam engine, and new cotton-spinning machinery—were made possible and diffused widely by the early nineteenth century. "The changing intellectual environment," Mokyr writes, "created communications between those who knew things and those who made things" (85). Engineers, machinists, and lecturers "spread the culture and values of the new gospel of useful knowledge and impressed upon natural philosophers the need to make their knowledge available to those who could make use of it" (88).

Mokyr's argument is not simply a restatement of the role of heroic inventors in industrialization. But it differs from historical interpretations that view British industrialization emerging from either the transition from an organic to an inorganic economy or via extensive proto-industrial activity leading to economic growth. What Mokyr provides, rather, is a fuller context than others concerning the role of metropolitan and provincial institutions in stimulating the circulation of industrial and technical knowledge in Georgian Britain. He emphasizes the deeply embedded artisan skills from which Britain could draw to put that knowledge into productive use. Thus, "the great British inventors stood on the shoulders of those who provided them with the tools and workmanship" (121-122). The "Industrial Enlightenment" was disseminated by the famous names who made major technological breakthroughs—Abraham Darby, Richard Arkwright, Samuel Crompton, Matthew Boulton, and James Watt—and by lesser lights with highly competent skills who refined and adapted the techniques of the macro-inventors.

In such a wide-ranging book, certain issues are raised that will need further research and thought. For example, Mokyr argues that a steadily rising number of inventors were influenced by the cultural and social changes implied by the "Industrial Enlightenment." The comparative dimension to this conclusion will need further exploration in order to ascertain why French or Dutch inventors did not receive similar stimulation, given that the promotion of useful knowledge was not confined to Britain during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Since France had many innovative scientists, and the Netherlands pioneered techniques to improve agriculture and waterways that were later copied in Britain, it is legitimate to question whether the difference between the three countries, in terms of the diffusion of industrial practices, lay in the number of highly motivated, skilled mechanics, engineers, entrepreneurial craftsmen, and adapters of micro-inventions. Moreover, since some significant British inventors, such as Arkwright, Crompton, and Darby, did not receive significant scientific schooling, the source of their [End Page 289] inventiveness needs further elaboration. If they did not have strong connections to the world of Enlightenment science, how did they arrive at their technological breakthroughs? It was probably not through...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1530-9169
Print ISSN
0022-1953
Pages
pp. 288-290
Launched on MUSE
2011-08-06
Open Access
No
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