If not Britain, where? The case for a French Industrial Revolution

Interesting analysis by Anton Howes, an Innovation historian (what a profession!). HT again to MR blog.

He says France could have also ushered the industrial revolution as basics were present. But speed would have been slower:

But this isn’t to say that France (as well as the other countries I’ve mentioned) would have experienced an acceleration of innovation that was quite as fast as that in Britain. There were a number of factors that may have slowed France’s acceleration (but crucially not stopped it):

  1. France’s educated, learned types — the savants — had slightly different interests. Although the French Académie des Sciences (1666) was founded only a few years later than England’s Royal Society (1660), French scientists were said to be rather more concerned with abstract theorising than with applying their knowledge.
  2. France may not have had quite as prominent a commitment to spreading innovations further, to evangelising innovation. Britain’s major society for promoting improvements in general, the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (founded in 1754, now the Royal Society of Arts), was founded about half a century earlier than its French counterpart, the Société d’Encouragement pour l’Industrie Nationale (1801). [Then again, the French organised public exhibitions of their innovations about half a century before the British — their l’Exposition des Produits de l’Industrie Française began in Paris in 1798; Britain’s Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace was in 1851].
  3. French religious intolerance didn’t help. The revocation of the Edict of Nantes, in 1685, put an end to religious tolerance. People like the early steam engine innovator Denis Papin, a Huguenot (French Protestant), were forced to leave (in his particular case, rendered unable to return). I found many first or second generation immigrant Huguenots among my sample of innovators in Britain.
  4. France suffered some major political instability: the 1789 French Revolution, the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, the 1830 July Revolution, the 1848 February Revolution. All harmed innovation. The inventor Marc Isambard Brunel (also father of the famous civil engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel), fled the French Revolution for the United States, before eventually settling in Britain. The great chemist Antoine Lavoisier was rather less fortunate — in 1794 he lost his head to guillotine. [Note, again, that this only slowed innovation rather than stopping it. The Massachusetts-born Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, who had fought for the British in the American Revolution, had no misgivings about settling in Paris in 1804 (and marrying Lavoisier’s widow)]

So without the British acceleration of innovation, the Industrial Revolution would likely have happened elsewhere within a few decades. France and the Low Countries and Switzerland and the United States were by the eighteenth century well on their way towards sustained modern economic growth. The growth would probably have been slower, it may have been delayed. The path that technology took may have been a little more winding. But the improving mentality was already spreading rapidly throughout Europe, as was the commitment to spreading it further. The steam locomotive had already bolted.

Ageless debates..


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