Saturday, March 27, 2010

A thought on the unintended consequences of technological innovation

Ely Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793. Within a few years Richard Trevithick introduced engines using high-pressure steam. The combination of the steam powered cotton gin revolutionized the cleaning of cotton and led to a revolution in cotton production in the United States. That in turn made slaves much more profitable in the states in which they were used as labor to produce cotton, which in turn made America's "original sin" of slavery much more difficult to

Of course, the steam engine also led to a revolution in transportation and steam ships and eventually railroads made it possible to efficiently transport cotton bales from America to England. (Whitney went on to revolutionize the production of rifles and to become a powerful and effective exponent of manufacturing with interchangeable parts -- what came to be known as "The American System of Manufacturing".

Cotton cloth had been developed as a major export from the Indian subcontinent. With the development of shipping routes between Europe and India in the 18th century, India cotton became a high value luxury good in Europe.

John Darwin, in his book After Tamerlane: The Global History of Empire Since 1405, suggests that as the wool industry in England was threatened by the increasing import of cotton cloth from India, inventors were induced to invent machines that would allow the English to compete with the efficient and cheap Indian labor. The spinning jenny was invented about 1764. Cartwright patented a power loom in 1785 and within a few decades that technology had been sufficiently improved that there were a number of factories in England producing cotton cloth at very low cost.

The English began exporting cotton thread to India and then cotton cloth, not only substituting English cotton cloth for Indian imports in the home market but also taking export markets from Indian producers and even taking away the Indian markets. Darwin suggests that cheap British cotton cloth exports to India proved a key element in the English conquest of India and the development of the British Empire.

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