None of the precursors were in place

Sunday, January 15th, 2023

Once you understand how the Industrial Revolution came about, it’s easy to see why there was no Roman Industrial Revolution — none of the precursors were in place:

The Romans made some use of mineral coal as a heating element or fuel, but it was decidedly secondary to their use of wood and where necessary charcoal. The Romans used rotational energy via watermills to mill grain, but not to spin thread. Even if they had the spinning wheel (and they didn’t; they’re still spinning with drop spindles), the standard Mediterranean period loom, the warp-weighted loom, was roughly an order of magnitude less efficient than the flying shuttle loom, so the Roman economy couldn’t have handled all of the thread the spinning wheel could produce.

And of course the Romans had put functionally no effort into figuring out how to make efficient pressure-cylinders, because they had absolutely no use for them. Remember that by the time Newcomen is designing his steam engine, the kings and parliaments of Europe have been effectively obsessed with who could build the best pressure-cylinder (and then plug it at one end, making a cannon) for three centuries because success in war depended in part on having the best cannon. If you had given the Romans the designs for a Newcomen steam engine, they couldn’t have built it without developing whole new technologies for the purpose (or casting every part in bronze, which introduces its own problems) and then wouldn’t have had any profitable use to put it to.

All of which is why simple graphs of things like ‘global historical GDP’ can be a bit deceptive: there’s a lot of particularity beneath the basic statistics of production because technologies are contingent and path dependent.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    While Rome was basically an agricultural empire, it did have very large scale plantations growing wheat, olives, and cotton, and there was an empire-spanning distribution of those products. They also had very large-scale ceramics manufacturing, again with empire-wide distribution of its products. The disappearance of North African red ware from Europe is supposed to be one indicator of the “Dark Ages.”

  2. Mike-SMO says:

    The Roman and other “Classical” societies were based on the collection and control of masses of people and especially the ones with “special” skills. England/Great Britian broke with that tradition since there were jobs (pumping water out of mines and hoisting materials) that humans didn’t do very well. Once steam power was invented, it got loose in society in mills and transportation. The Atlantic Ocean was not the Mediterranean. The open spaces of Europe, Russia and North America were not the walled cities of Italy and North Africa. Once mass and distance were included, the humans fall out of the system. New human skills become valuable. Hence, the “engineer”. “Scotty” was barely human, but he was useful and trainable. And if “Scotty” needed a pressure seal, he made one. “Scotty” made the new world.

    Rome, did not have the vision, or the need, for the things that led to the industrial revolution. Perhaps if Rome had survived a bit longer….

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