Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Fascinating Question

From Tyler Cowen:
How long the Roman Empire would have had to last to generate an Industrial Revolution?


Robbo said...

There is some fascinating evidence that the Romans were well aware of a number of labor-saving devices that could have served as a technological basis for an industrial revolution. The problem was that their economy was extremely labor-intensive in the "What the hell would we do with all these slaves?" sense and did not encourage the exploitation of such devices on anything like a massive enough scale.

FLG said...

Right, and that ties in with my theory that abolition in general and the American Civil War in particular were the direct result of the Industrial Revolution.

But that's the point. When would they've had the cultural or societal insight to industrialize. It's not really a matter of technology really. I think the Romans probably could've gone down the industrialization path at some point considering their engineering knowledge. It's about when they'd accept the social readjusment.

The Ancient said...

I agree in part.

The Romans had the fruits of Greek science at their fingertips, and by and large they ingored it. In principle, they could have built a steam engine, and then a train. But they couldn't get past the tendency to see Greek innovation as toys.

They were great engineers, and innovated when they needed to on major public works projects. (The Pantheon dome, the retractable roof at the Colosseum, the thermal baths in every nook and cranny of empire.) But they couldn't seem to wrap their heads around the idea of technological innovation as a tool of economic development. They couldn't imagine a future society that was very much different than their own. (And it's hard to fault them for that, since they were comparing what they saw around them to everything else, everywhere else.)

Withywindle said...

Until about 1800?

Not to be too flippant ... I know there was a terrible falling off in many ways with the fall of Rome, but in other ways high medieval Europe was already extraordinarily more wealthy than that empire built on slaves, loot, and latifundia. So I'll say without the barbarian invasions, and everything positive that happened in European history still happening under a continuing Roman Empire, maybe by 1500--but that's a whole lot of suppositions.

The Ancient said...

Withywindle --

Those other Romans at Constantinople ...

My impression is that architecture advanced, economic management advanced (a little), military strategy advanced (quite a bit), but there was still relatively little technical innovation even by 1453.

Meanwhile, of course, the demographic and social character of the Empire changed significantly.

Is this right?

Withywindle said...

The Eastern Empire was also significantly thrown back by the barbarian invasions; survived by allowing internal barbarians to take over, and by feudalizing. The counter-factual of a Rome not falling would also include a non-barbarized Byzantium.

Withywindle said...

Harry Turtledove, incidentally, had an alternate history series of stories along these lines--what if Mohammed had become a Byzantine monk?--with various inventions advanced by several centuries.

Alan Howe said...

We're asking in some respects, how long was science held at bay? Or perhaps, how long were the eventual producers of the industrial revolution denied the philosophical ideas that drove innovation?

To me, that blank (European) period runs from the end of philosophy and science at Alexandria--broadly a period from 375 to 415--until Greek ideas crossed the Pyrenees, by way of Muslim Andalusia, in the 13th century, or about 800 years.

This is a slap to Muslim innovation during this period (not to mention Chinese), but in "European" terms, it seems to me that it is not impossible to imagine the industrial revolution beginning 800 years earlier than it did.

Alan Howe said...

And if it had, we'd have the flying cars we deserve by now.

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