Coal Is the Wrong Materialism

Matt Ridley calls for a materialist account of the Industrial Revolution. Coal — and thus geography — he thinks is the crucial factor. I agree with him against Deirdre McCloskey that we need a materialist account. But coal is the wrong material.

Coal has long exercised a powerful magnetism as the key to the Industrial Revolution: see the accounts of E.A. Wrigley and Kenneth Pomeranz, as well as that of Robert Allen. Coal output surged in this period. And one of the features of modern growth has been a dramatic decline in the relative cost of energy. The chart below shows the cost of energy relative to the wage from 1230 to 2000 in England.

Relative Cost of Energy

But coal cannot explain the upturn in innovation rates that the Industrial Revolution represented for several reasons.

The first is that without a single ton of coal being dug from the ground in England 1760-1860 there would still have been an Industrial Revolution. As Deirdre herself demonstrated in the 1980s, the majority of economic growth came from textile innovations that in no way depended on coal. Steam power was in no way essential to such mills. There was plenty of water power available in the years before 1850.

Later in the nineteenth century coal became important in the extension of the Industrial Revolution. But the process was well underway before this.

You don’t need coal to develop the elaborate canal system that the English constructed in the late eighteenth century — horses do fine. You don’t need coal to remake 21,000 miles of inland roads with all-weather surfaces by 1830. You don’t need coal to introduce threshing and reaping machines in farming — horse power again. Improvements in sailing ships, not coal, were responsible for most of the decline in the costs of international transport before 1850.

A second reason coal cannot explain the advent of British ingenuity is that the coal of Northumberland and Durham, from which Matt Ridley’s ancestors prospered, was as close to Amsterdam and Antwerp as to London. Cheap coal was not a monopoly of the British. Once you got it on a ship, the Dutch also could partake of this bounty of nature. But they did not.

Coal thus shaped the later Industrial Revolution. But to claim coal created it would be the equivalent of claiming that the coffee that fueled this contribution is the source of modern thought. For my more detailed and somewhat technical analysis of the role of coal in the Industrial Revolution, see here.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s lead essay, Deirdre McCloskey summarizes the argument of her forthcoming book, Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World. She argues that while the modern world rode an economic tide, the tide did not have economic causes. Changes in thinking and, yes, in rhetoric did the real work. Neither thrift, nor greed, nor the Protestant ethos are at the heart of this transformation, which brought material prosperity to whole classes that had never before known it. A variety of possible causes must be dismissed, she argues, from foreign trade, to legal institutions, to coal. The dignity and liberty of the bourgeoisie are the keys to economic transformation.


  • Gregory Clark argues that cultural or intellectual developments, like the rise of the bourgeois virtues, ultimately can’t explain the modern world. Not only were such virtues around long before the Industrial Revolution, but they have come and gone throughout many different societies over thousands of years. Why, then, did the Industrial Revolution only happen so recently, and only once? Worse, if we accept that cultural changes brought modern prosperity, we face the prospect that future changes in intellectual fashion may rob us of prosperity as easily as it was bestowed. This he finds both unfortunate and, thankfully, unlikely.

  • Matt Ridley makes two connected points: First, surges in creativity and innovation are far from unique. They can be observed throughout history, and they are usually connected to increases in trade and specialization. In this sense, Britain during the eighteenth century was not exceptional.

    Second, however, Britain was exceptional in another respect — it had large reserves of coal, and it began putting them to use. Cheap energy helped ensure that the boom in innovation didn’t die out. Entrepreneurs won out against plunderers in part because they had this resource at their disposal, and because they could make the case for the benefits of innovation so easily. It was only after the switch to a coal-driven economy that wages finally began to rise for the typical British worker. They continue to do so today thanks to coal and to other sources of cheap energy that have since been discovered and exploited.

  • Jonathan Feinstein suggests that the revolution in human creativity is still underway, and that we have not yet fully recognized what it means to be creative. The science of creativity, he argues, is key here, as the creative process is very different from what most people imagine it to be.