Book Summary: “The Role of Transportation in the Industrial Revolution” by Rick Szostak

Title:  The Role of Transportation in the Industrial Revolution: A Comparison of England and France
Author: Rick Szostak
Scope: 3 stars
Readability: 3 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

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Topic of Book

Szostak compares the English transportation network to France’s (and other nations) and finds it superior. He also argues that the English transportation network is a key cause of the Industrial Revolution.

If you would like to learn more about economic history, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

My Comments

Szostak makes a compelling case for the efficiencies of pre-Industrial transportation networks and their importance for economic growth. His argument nicely complements Greene’s finding that usage of horses expanded greatly in America after the invention of the railroad.

Key Take-aways

  • Even before the invention of the railroad, Britain had the best land and water transportation system in the world. This included horse-driven wagons on roads, canals, improved rivers and coastal shipping.
  • This comprehensive transportation network encouraged:
    • Regional specialization
    • Emergence of new industries
    • An increase in the scale of production
    • A dramatic increase in the rate of technological innovation
  • These four factors encouraged the innovation of railroads and the steam ship.
  • All of these transportation innovations could be copied by other nations, making it much easier for them to follow the path towards industrialization.
  • Water transportation was more useful for transporting very heavy or bulky items from point-to-point. This made it ideal for transporting raw materials. It was not very effective at moving finished goods to the final consumer.
  • Road transport was better for consumer market, because it was:
    • Faster
    • Had fewer delays due to changes of wind, weather or seasons.
    • Less likely to damage goods
    • Less time-consuming to load and unload.
    • Could be loaded and unloaded anywhere.

Important Quotes from Book

My contention in this work is that a modern system of transportation was necessary for the Industrial Revolution to occur in England.

The Industrial Revolution involves four phenomena: regional specialization, the emergence of new industries, an increase in the scale of production, and a dramatic increase in the rate of technological innovation. The fourth of these, as I shall show, is caused in large part by the other three. It is also the most important in the view of most historians and will be my primary focus as well.

I mean simply that on the path which England followed, a modern transportation system was necessary for the achievement of Schumpeterian growth. I would claim further that this broad path was the only likely one to be followed in that time and place, and that similar paths also requiring modern transport were followed by the other early industrializes in their turn.

To many people the era of modern transportation began with the railway.

Yet, as the work of Fogel and others has indicated, the importance so often attributed to railways was greatly exaggerated. These authors have shown that a combination of water and road transport could largely match the capacity of the railways with only a small loss in output. Thus, modern transport can safely be said to have begun when an extensive and reliable system which could move bulk goods at low cost or high-value goods at high speed came into existence. This could be accomplished only with a combination of land and water transport in the pre-railway era. On land, it required roads which could support wheeled traffic year-round such that a regular professional carrying system could develop. On water, it required an extensive network of canals, navigable rivers, and coastal shipping which could move bulky goods throughout a particular region. It is this early modern transport system – the combination of an extensive network of waterways and of suitable roads – which was necessary for the English Industrial Revolution.

This work is concerned with how improvements in transport aided the progress of four other phenomena: regional specialization, the emergence of new industries, an increase in the scale of production and an increased rate of technological innovation.

I argue that due to its superior system of transportation, England was able to enter into a new era of industrialization fuelled by improvements in technology. This would create pressures for further transport improvements. The most prominent result of this pressure was the development of railways. Countries that would undergo an industrial revolution after England used extensive railway systems.

By developing improvements in road transport (MacAdam and Telford techniques of roadbuilding, improvements in carriage design), water transport (steamboats etc.), and railways during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, England made it considerably easier for other countries to develop modern transport systems. This was one way in which later developers were indebted to England.

First, I argue that improved transport widened the market facing most producers. I show that a firm facing a wider market is more likely to increase its scale of operation, and that, since some regions could come to dominate the national market at the expense of others, market widening would lead to greater regional specialization. The second argument concerns a change in the methods of distribution which occurred in the eighteenth century. As well as aiding the process of market widening, this change allowed producers greater freedom and induced them to standardize their output, both of which results were conducive to an increased scale of operation.

With the expansion of wheeled traffic came the development of regular carrier services throughout the kingdom.11 Only then was it possible for producers to send their goods in response to orders rather than having to deliver them personally. That is, until a reliable system emerged by which producers could send orders and receive payment, they were forced to take their products on the road themselves and deal with the various buyers face to face. Once a system developed that circumvented this inefficient form of distribution, it was in the interest of producers to change their techniques of distribution.

In order to take advantage of this new transport service, producers needed a much more highly standardized product system…Only in a factory setting with supervised workmen, on machinery which could produce a high output of even quality, was this possible.

An important element in the increasing reliability of transport was the growing professionalism of the transport industry.

Increased speed of transport would have two positive effects on reliability. First, if delivery was delayed by some freak accident, the receiver could quickly send an order for and receive replacements. Second, the less time an order spent en route, the less vulnerable it was to robbery, pilfering or water damage. It would also make possible higher rates of stock turnover.

While the late eighteenth century was characterized by the growth of cities throughout Europe, it is clear that England experienced a much greater degree of urbanization than other countries. And it must be emphasized that growth in other English towns was even more remarkable than the great expansion of London during this period.

Improved transport was not the only factor that encouraged English urbanization during the eighteenth century, but it would appear to be of great importance. Much of the urbanization in England occurred as small local market towns lost business to larger centres.

Thus, transport improvements become the only plausible way of mounting a demand-side argument at the microeconomic level to explain a phenomenon as widespread as the Industrial Revolution (though one could still think of a drop in transport costs-as a supplyside change). This book, therefore, does not serve merely to emphasize the importance of transportation. It becomes the only reasonable way of explaining the Industrial Revolution in terms of something other than shifts in the supply curve due to something like an exogenous increase in the rate of technological innovation.

Two facts are unavoidable: that the nineteenth century witnessed previously unheard of economic growth, and that England was clearly decades ahead of the rest of Europe in terms of the changes that comprise the Industrial Revolution. It must be proved, not simply asserted, that the Industrial Revolution was inevitable. England’s dominant role must still be emphasized. My premise is that the changes seen in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries would not necessarily have led to an industrial revolution. Had the obstacles to transport improvements not been overcome, Europe’s destiny might have been stagnation and decay.  

It is now commonly recognized that the links between foreign trade and industrialization are weak.

The main purpose of this chapter is to show that England in the late eighteenth century possessed a far better transport system than France. Since France is considered to have been England’s closest rival at the time, the implication is that England had the best transport system in Europe, and thus the world.

The main advantage of water transport and especially coastal shipping lies in its ability to ship bulk goods at a lower cost per ton-mile than road transport. While estimates vary, this ratio of costs was rarely above 1:2.

The disadvantages of water transport are many. Most obviously, it cannot by its nature go every where. Even in England, some tracts of land could never feasibly be served by water.

Road transport is also much faster than any type of water transport. Coastal shipping could be very fast, but it was subject to the vagaries of the winds; it could take months to complete the Newcastle-London trip. In fact, even though coastal shipping was less expensive, passenger traffic almost always went by road to avoid delays. River boats relying on sails were even slower than their coastal counterparts. Canal barges could not be pulled as fast as a wagon and the inevitable delays at locks could only widen the margin. Thus, road transport had an advantage throughout the period in transporting goods for which speed was more important than cost. Numerous high-cost, low-bulk goods fell into this group, including many finished products and some raw materials.

The possibilities of delay or damage were far smaller than on water. During times of war, insurance costs could actually make land transport cheaper.

For these reasons, the output of the two most important industries of the English Industrial Revolution, textiles and small metal wares, “were usually shipped by land.

Further, road transport was inherently more flexible. A given road could support a large number of wagons while a canal could easily become congested as long lines of barges waited to get through a lock. This was indeed the fate of many eighteenth-century canals. Also, while all boats need some type of docking facility, a wagon can be loaded or unloaded anywhere. On top of this, horses and wagons used for agricultural work could be shifted to transport services in times of great demand

A more telling comparison is the proportion of land within, say, twenty-five kilometres of a navigable waterway. Phillips’ map (1975) of English inland navigation shows that only parts of central Wales and northern England lie a great distance from navigable water. .. About one third of France was over twenty-five kilometres from the nearest navigable waterway.

Even if Willan’s claims were exaggerated, the record of English efforts at river improvement in the eighteenth century would appear to be far superior.15 Then, after the completion of the Sankey Brook Navigation and the Duke of Bridgwater’s canal, a network of canals was quickly constructed. The Mersey and Severn Rivers were linked by canal in 1772, the Trent and Mersey in 1777, and the Thames and Severn in 1789. These canals and others linked the major industrial areas of England with each other and with the largest markets. While most canal traffic was local, it was possible to move bulky goods at low cost throughout most of England.

The further consideration of quality tips the balance even more heavily toward England. English river improvements proceeded in a logical and orderly fashion from the late sixteenth century on. First, rivers were dredged, banks reinforced, river courses straightened, and water level controlled with the use of sluices and staunches. Before the English embarked on the centuries-long task of extending waterways, they strove to improve the quality of navigation on rivers that were already navigable.

Along with their superior quality, English waterways also formed a more cohesive network than French waterways. All navigable portions of English rivers flow into the sea, so that river navigation always connected with coastal shipping (discussed below). The various difficulties of French rivers, especially the existence of rapids, meant that many navigable portions of rivers were unconnected with other rivers or the sea. Moreover, English canals were built to connect navigable rivers. River improvement was considered unimportant in eighteenth-century France and left to local initiative.

Along with its advantage in inland waterways, England also had a considerable advantage in coastal shipping. It was recognized in the seventeenth century that England had more coastline per square mile of land (estimated figures are England south of Firth of Forth one mile of coastline per fifty-five square miles, France one mile of coastline per 134 square miles) than any other country in Europe, and that this advantage was important (Willan 1964, 4). Not only did England have a relatively long coastline, but it was more indented than that of France and contained many large natural harbours.

With the improvements to port facilities on the one hand, and considerable expansion of her coasting fleet on the other, England at the time of the Industrial Revolution possessed an overwhelming advantage over France in coastal shipping.

England’s major ports – Liverpool, Hull, Bristol, Newcastle – gave admirable access to England’s industrial heartland, and were aided by a number of river systems which flowed from the heartland to those ports. In France, the best ports and longest rivers were generally not in those areas best suited to industrialization. In sum, France had a relatively poor system of inland waterways in terms of length, quality, and cohesion,30 and a relatively poor position in coastal shipping as well, and the water transport resources which France did possess tended not to be in the regions where they were most needed.

The eighteenth century witnessed serious efforts to improve roads in both England and France, but these efforts took quite different forms. In England, after centuries of attempts to induce local parishes, on the one hand, to take better care of roads using statute labour, and on the other, to induce road users to do less damage to road surfaces, the decision was made to set up turnpike trusts. Tolls would be collected from road users and the funds used for road maintenance, in many cases to build new roads that would be shorter or less steep. The first turnpikes were introduced in the seventeenth century, while in the first half of the eighteenth a network of turnpike roads was established linking virtually all towns in England. In France, however, road construction and maintenance were largely in the hands of the central government.

The French network of royal roads, with a few roads leading from Paris, could hardly compare with the network of turnpikes in England . By 1770, only in pockets of East Anglia and the north could an Englishman find himself more than twenty kilometres from a turnpike.

With French roads, one of the purposes in construction was to make a monument to the French crown.

A cursory comparison shows that England has much quicker stagecoach service in both time periods than France. In the 17605, most French coaches travelled at 40 to 55 km/day, with a few outliers managing 80 to 130 km/day. In England, most coaches travelled 80 to 130 km/day, with top speeds of over 160 km/day.

At the time of the Industrial Revolution, England was already blessed with the best post office anywhere.

Almost all of England was connected by good transport links to form a unified market with a great degree of regional specialization. In France, vast areas were virtually unconnected with the rest of the economy, and agricultural production was generally for local consumption.61 France achieved a unified national market in the i86os at the earliest, after much work had been done on roads, canals, and railways.

I do not deny that industrialization, once begun, created a demand for even better transportation. All I claim is that a network of waterways and roads, usable in all but the most extreme weather conditions, had to be in place before the Industrial Revolution could begin. The timing of events supports this conclusion. The Industrial Revolution is commonly thought to have had its beginnings between the years 1760 and 1780. Thanks to centuries of attempts at road improvements, a system of good turnpike roads had been established through almost all England by 1750. The mideighteenth century is also the point at which a hundred years of river improvements, which had doubled the length of navigable waterway, gave way to the construction of canals76 which, within a couple of decades, had forged the basic links necessary for England to possess a national network of inland waterways connecting her major industrial areas and markets.

The fact that both road and water transport systems were largely in place before the Industrial Revolution was underway, and that both were the result of centuries of effort, is convincing proof that this transport system was not itself a result of industrialization.

To my mind, the most convincing explanation is an institutional one. France failed where England succeeded because decision making was too centralized in France. Transport networks must serve a variety of needs and the concentration of power in a few hands in France inevitably led to the formation of a system that served political and military needs but not economic ones. Business interests were generally ignored in France in both the planning and operation of canals.

French bureaucracy, by favouring ostentatious display, discouraging private investment, ignoring tolls, and allowing waste, did much to slow the pace of French transport improvements. It also had the usual characteristic of bureaucracy in being slow to act.

It must not be forgotten how unique the English Private Bill was. No other legislature in the world possessed such a device. Local transport needs could be brought up before the national government, and a bill passed which would set up the legal framework in which work could be undertaken. While the cost of getting such a bill passed was far from trivial, there was at least an established procedure which could be followed by people in all localities. The ability to collect tolls not only gave locals the necessary cashflow to undertake the work, but also reduced their reluctance to maintain routes largely used by others.

A close look at the eighteenth-century English and French economies does show that improved transport had an important impact on the process of industrialization in many ways. The appearance in England of the four phenomena which characterize the Industrial Revolution – regional specialization, increasing scale of production, the emergence of new industries, and a dramatic increase in the rate of technological innovation – can be explained in terms of the improvements in England’s transport network during the eighteenth century. The non-occurrence of the same phenomena in France can be seen as a natural result of the fact that her transport system remained of very poor quality throughout the century.

If you would like to learn more about economic history, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

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