Every historian of capitalism, whatever meaning she ascribes to capitalism, needs to make sense of Britain’s industrialisation from the late 18th century. There is a long-standing tendency in economic history, exemplified recently in Robert Allen’s The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective, to analyse the economics of machine adoption based on a calculus of cost saving.
No one has proven more articulate in challenging this approach than Eric Hobsbawm, who cautioned us against the assumption that a capitalist economy has any inherent tendency to cost-saving or technological innovation, emphasising that “[i]t has a bias only towards profit”. He suggested the potential of a history of profit to understand the motivations for introducing machines and the consequences of their adoption.
In this lecture, I take up this idea by exploring the adoption of steam engines in one of the most rapidly growing industries in the British economy in the second half of the 18th century. I show that this approach offers new insights on the history of capitalism that have relevance well beyond the bounds of any particular industry.
This lecture is a part of our program on the history of capitalism. Read the full program here.
Capitalism Workshop in DIAS seminar room, 2:15-4:00pm.
About Mary O’Sullivan
Mary O’Sullivan is Professor of Economic History at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. Her research focuses on the history of capitalism, with particular attention to enterprises, industries and financial institutions, as well as the history of economic thought with regard to profit, finance and capital. Her most recent book, Dividends of Development: Securities Markets in the History of U.S. Capitalism, 1866-1922, was published by Oxford University Press in September 2016. O’Sullivan was a Fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin for 2016-2017, she served as the president of the Business History Conference in 2017-2018 and she is a Research Member of the European Corporate Governance Institute. She is currently working on a project on the history of profit – see “The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Capitalism”, Enterprise and Society, vol. 19, no. 4, Winter 2018 – as well as the history of the Great Depression of the 1930s (see “Eine historische Fiktion, Spiegel Geschichte, Ausgabe 5, 2020, 134-140).
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