Burke on the “first industrial revolution”

2015-01-21

in Books and literature, Economics, History, Politics

The first industrial revolution, centered in Flanders, happened almost entirely because of the arrival from the Arab world of a new, horizontal loom, equipped with foot pedals to lift the warps. This innovation left the weaver’s hands free to throw the shuttle back and forth, which made weaving much faster and more profitable and, above all, made possible the production of long pieces of cloth. Because of their centuries of experience in working wool, the Flemish were the best weavers in thirteenth-century Europe. Flemish cloth was sold everywhere in the known world, and its manufacturers went from the East Indies to the Baltic to obtain their dyes, and to the mines of the Middle East for the alum which was used to fix the dye so as to make their colors fast.

Burke, James. The Pinball Effect: How Renaissance Water Gardens Made the Carburetor Possible. 1996. p.80 (paperback)

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

. January 21, 2015 at 12:11 am
. January 21, 2015 at 12:16 am
Milan January 21, 2015 at 9:54 am

Note the many modern features of this story: the international diffusion of technology, the importance of intellectual property, economies of scale, global supply chains, automation…

. January 25, 2015 at 7:22 pm

200 years ago, it took 479 hours worth of labor to make a shirt (spinning, weaving, sewing), or $3,472.75 at $7.25/hour.

It’s one thing to heart that the automatic loom brought about a huge economic boom, it’s another thing to contemplate just how difficult material objects were to produce before industrialisation. As we contemplate a future where all the dividends of automation accrue to investors, rather than being divided with laborers (instead of higher wages for increased productivity, workers are laid off, deskilled and made increasingly interchangeable as the productivity gains are diverted to dividends), it’s worth pondering which of today’s labor-intensive goods will be “too cheap to meter” by technological change, and what will happen to our wealth distribution as a result.

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