Friday, July 22, 2011

Energy in the Industrial Revolution

The above graph shows energy consumption in the UK through the industrial revolution, along with Italy in the 1860s, when they were still an agrarian society.  It's from an essay by Tony Wrigley, a retired Cambridge economic historian.  He writes:
The most fundamental defining feature of the industrial revolution was that it made possible exponential economic growth – growth at a speed that implied the doubling of output every half-century or less. This in turn radically transformed living standards. Each generation came to have a confident expectation that they would be substantially better off than their parents or grandparents. Yet, remarkably, the best informed and most perspicacious of contemporaries were not merely unconscious of the implications of the changes which were taking place about them but firmly dismissed the possibility of such a transformation. The classical economists Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, and David Ricardo advanced an excellent reason for dismissing the possibility of prolonged growth.

They thought in terms of three basic factors of production, i.e. land, labour, and capital. The latter two were capable of indefinite expansion in principle but the first was not. The area of land which could be used for production was limited, yet its output was basic – not just to the supply of food but of almost all the raw materials which entered into material production. This was self-evidently true of animal and vegetable raw materials – wool, cotton, leather, timber, etc. But it was also true of all mineral production since the smelting of ores required much heat and this was obtained from wood and charcoal. Expanding material production meant obtaining a greater volume of produce from the land but that in turn meant either taking into cultivation land of inferior quality, or using existing land more intensively, or both. This necessarily meant at some point that returns both to capital and labour would fall. In short, the very process of growth ensured that it could not be continued indefinitely. This was a basic characteristic of all “organic” economies, those which were universal before the industrial revolution.
Access to energy that did not spring from the annual product of plant photosynthesis was a sine qua non for breaking free from the constraints afflicting all organic economies. By an intriguing paradox, this came about by gaining access to the products of photosynthesis stockpiled over a geological time span. It was the steadily increasing use of coal as an energy source which provided the escape route.

It was simple to substitute coal for wood as a solution to the problem of increasing the supply of heat energy, at least where the heat generated by burning coal and the object to be heated were separated by a barrier that allowed the transfer of heat but prevented chemical exchange.

Coal could, for example, readily be substituted for wood to heat salt pans or dye vats. It could also readily be used as a source of domestic heat in an open fire though it was some time before trial and error gave rise to a chimney which could both improve combustion and evacuate smoke. The early expansion of coal production was largely for domestic use, dominated by the supply of coal from coal pits near the Tyne to London. The east coast coal trade expanded so greatly from Tudor times onwards that by the end of the seventeenth century roughly half the tonnage of the merchant navy was devoted to this trade. But it took many decades of trial and error to enable coal or coke to be substituted for charcoal in smelting iron because the transfer of chemical impurities prevented a good quality result.

Until the early eighteenth century, coal, although used increasingly by the English, offered a solution only to the problem of supplying heat energy. Mechanical energy remained a matter of muscle power and was therefore limited by the photosynthesis constraint. Hence the central importance of the slow development of an effective steam engine that made it possible to convert heat energy into mechanical energy. Once this was possible the problem of limited energy supply was solved for the whole spectrum of material production and transport.
This is exactly my view, and it's very nice to see it documented in more detail by somebody with "economic" in their job title.  The one thing that came as a surprise to me was the relatively large use of coal in England as early as the seventeenth century - over two centuries before the Italians, say, started using fossil fuels in any quantity.  This raises the question of what it was about renaissance England that led it to be the first to run up against the constraints of wood supply, causing the switch to coal (which in turn positioned it to be where the industrial revolution would happen).  The most obvious guess would be Tudor shipbuilding - starting on the project that later became England's naval dominance.

At any rate, Wrigley has a book out, and I ordered it to see what other questions he might answer.


Hal said...

I'm not sure wood is the factor. I doubt Italy ever had near the wood production of England. The Italian climate is a lot like California, whereas isn't England, you know better than me, but more like the Northwest or the East Coast? And wasn't the whole Mediterranean pretty heavily deforested during Roman times? So Italy should have been ahead of England. I don't know a thing about Italian coal resources, but I'm pretty sure if the Romans had known a use for it, they would have brought it in from wherever in the empire it existed.

Ha, interesting alt history: Rome discovers Britain's coal resources and it brings on the industrial revolution. The energy bonanza is enough to keep the empire going and we all speak Latin.

Stuart Staniford said...


IIRC, the Romans were aware of coal and that it could be burned for heat. But, like people everywhere, they thought it was an inferior dirty fuel and didn't use it at scale. And they never developed the steam engine beyond mechanical toys:

Fixed Carbon said...

Greg Clark, a real economist, in his A Farewell to Alms, discounts the notion that energy was central to the IR. However, his definition of the IR is simply the reinvestment component in the Solow equation (Solow did not review Clark's book favorably). On the other hand, the ecological historian, Kenneth Pomerantz, gives energy a key, but not the central, role in the IR. Wrigley's work is new to me, and I'm going to get into it.

kjmclark said...

Joseph Tainter says:
"The development of the coal-based economy in England is a case in point. Wilkinson (1973) has shown that major jumps in population, at around A.D. 1300, 1600, and in the late eighteenth century, each led to intensification in agriculture and industry (see also North and Thomas [1973]). As the land in the late Middle Ages was increasingly deforested to provide fuel and agricultural space for a growing population, basic heating, cooking, and manufacturing needs could no longer be met by burning wood. A shift to reliance on coal began, gradually and with apparent reluctance. Coal was definitely a fuel of secondary desirability, being more costly to obtain and distribute than wood, as well as being dirty and polluting. Coal was more restricted in its spatial distribution than wood, so that a whole new, costly distribution system had to be developed. Mining of coal from the ground was more costly than obtaining a quantity of wood equivalent in heating value, and became even more costly as the most accessible reserves of this fuel were depleted. Mines had to be sunk ever deeper, until groundwater flooding became a serious problem.(P. 98-99)"

JohnDenver and I had an argument about the British Wood/Coal transition at a few years ago. It more or less starts here.

We weren't directly discussing why Britain was deforested, but rather whether the period while they switched to coal was a relatively smooth transition. Tainter doesn't suggest there were significant problems, and JD chose that as his example of such a transition. The answer is no, that was the period in which the British more or less enslaved the Irish, and stripped Ireland of wood.

"In large measure because of timber shortages in England, Wales, and Scotland, Ireland suffered colonial exploitation of its forests during the seventeenth century. Firm colonial control freed proprietors to exploit Irish forests. The generally accepted estimate is that about one-eighth of Ireland was covered by forests and woods in 1600, and an additional amount was composed of land that was barren, boggy, or both. By 1700, the Irish woodlands had been reduced to about 2 percent of the total land area. A flourishing seventeenth-century timber export trade died out in the early years of the eighteenth century, and Ireland became a timber-importing country." ("The Unending Frontier", p223, Prof. John Richards of Duke, 2003)

Seth said...

Interesting find. I want to read his book too.

This is what really caught my eye, though:

"Yet, remarkably, the best informed and most perspicacious of contemporaries were not merely unconscious of the implications of the changes which were taking place about them but firmly dismissed the possibility of such a transformation."

Nobody expects the industrial revolution! Nor do they adequately anticipate the energy transition in store for us in the 21st century.

Justin said...

Stuart. If you want more summer reading, then I also suggest that you pick up a copy of Ayres and Warr's 'The Economic Growth Engine: How Energy and Work Drive Material Material Prosperity'.

Ayres and Warr were referenced in the IMF's recent WEO that covered peak oil for the first time. The IMF mentioned that traditional approaches that limited the importance of the energy sector to its share in GDP were now being challenged in the economic literature.

I'm grinding through the book, but is is highly illuminating in its treatment of energy, technology and growth. Think it would be just up your street.

Michael Cain said...

Historians have identified a number of changes that greatly increased the demand for wood. One of the interesting ones was the wide-spread adoption of glass windows by the well-off. Increased production of glass for panes required very large amounts of wood to fuel the furnaces; and the poor insulating qualities of the windows required increased amounts of wood for space heating. Deforestation led to the regular relocation of glass houses in order to be close to fuel sources.

BOP said...

One critical aspect of UK development is the fact that the UK did in fact expand her land area.

The capital of Canada, Ottawa, was first developed as the locus of a timber trade that saw wood harvested from an immense watershed and shipped to the UK.

The British also "harvested" the West Indies through the development of the cane sugar industry. This was initially dependent on cheap human slave labour and provided a low cost source of calories to the growing UK population.

All of these imperial outposts became markets for UK industrial production which further drove UK energy demand.

yvesT said...

One point we tend to forget in these energy calculations, is that the sun is still the primary source of energy for humans and the biosphere in general, and most probably by far.
Solar energy used by agriculture, or simply for bodies heat (humans or animals) without specific equipment, is never taken into account in these calculations, although it is clearly part of the used energy.
Of course saying so doesn't change much about the current problems regarding energy, but would be nice to have a look at the true used energy graphs. (and can also be a reminder that for architecture for instance, south facing windows can be energy collectors as much as PV are).
Nice texts below from G Bataille regarding energy (but in french) :