- The First Knowledge Economy: Human Capital and the European Economy, 1750–1850 by Margaret C. Jacob
Margaret C. Jacob provides a coherent account of reasons behind the industrialization of four Western European countries with expert clarity, brevity, and instructiveness. Jacob argues that Britain was a pioneer in the Industrial Revolution because for the first time in history a productive combination of knowledge translation, human capital, and cultural ethos worked. The author rightly maintains that the deployment of knowledge wielded by ‘‘semi-literate tinkerers,’’ (2) self-educated industrial innovators, and gentlemen-scientists was critical for the establishment in Great Britain of the first knowledge economy. In Jacob’s words, ‘‘Both the lofty and the mundane lay at the heart of early industrial processes’’ (126). This line of reasoning was partly inspired by Musson and Robinson’s Science and Technology in the Industrial Revolution (Toronto, 1969), which suggested that the eighteenth-century Industrial Revolution in Britain was a result of [End Page 365] both uneducated empiricism and the intellectual movement characteristic of the Enlightenment with its scientific spirit percolating top-down and its empirical knowledge diffusing bottom-up. Jacob significantly extends Musson and Robinson’s considerations on the development of steam engines in Birmingham (from Savery and Newcomen to Boulton and Watt) and the technical processes of bleaching and dyeing of fabrics, manufacturing linen and wool in Leeds, and industrial-scope cotton making in Manchester.
Determinedly brushing aside economic arguments in favour of the social and material basis for the Industrial Revolution, Jacob insists on the crucial role of human capital in triggering rapid industrialization in Britain. However, the outright dismissal of the argument about the role of abundance of easily extractable coal in Britain somewhat diminishes the weight of Jacob’s argument. The above-mentioned Musson and Robinson discuss the approximate number of steam engines that helped to propel the Industrial Revolution, particularly in proportion to water power (71– 72). Consider as well that the availability of easily accessible coal deposits, as German historian Rolf P. Sieferle argues in The Subterranean Forest: Energy Systems and the Industrial Revolution (München, 1982, transl. Cambridge, 2001), enabled people to turn increasingly to manufacture-oriented activities: by substituting wood for coal in burning, thus saving wood for construction, and increasing the efficiency of smelting. Moreover, the shift in land-use structure occurred because woodland was converted into pasture for sheep on which manufacturing of wool-cloth depended. Therefore, Jacob’s argument suffers from the underestimation of socio-economic factors and the exaggeration of ‘‘the growing pool of mechanically knowledgeable entrepreneurs and civil engineers’’ (55) at the end of eighteenth century.
Another imbalance in Jacob’s argument occurs in the novel comparison of Britain’s industrial primacy compared with France and the Low Countries, particularly in educational standard that furthered technical literacy. Jacob admits that ‘‘while we cannot always know how youthful British engineers or entrepreneurs acquired their knowledge, we can show its presence in their maturity’’ (223). The argument that there was insufficient technical education in France, Belgium, and especially the Dutch Republic suffers, since ‘‘the industrial retardation’’ (201) found there, as Jacob puts it, cannot be adequately explained by the superiority of British education. Moreover, it is well known that many sons of British entrepreneurs opted for technical education on the Continent at the time. In this connection, to support the claim about the British pre-eminence because of better technological knowledge among the public, Jacob introduces a vague concept of British ‘‘scientific culture.’’ This concept is employed by Jacob in a number of contexts throughout the book (see pages 17, 47, 183, 188, 221), but its [End Page 366] essence is open to interpretation. Further, it seems that Jacob attempts to link British ‘‘scientific culture’’ to Weberian ‘‘spirit of capitalism’’ engendered by the Protestant ethic that in Britain became known as Unitarianism. In Jacob’s words, ‘‘More than in any of the other varieties of late eighteenth-century Protestantism, science, more aptly physico-theology, had...