Macrohistory Seminar – Bruno Caprettini (University of Zurich)

Event details

  • Thursday, October 12
  • 12:15 PM
  • Kaiserplatz 7-9, 4th floor, Room 4.006

Rage against the machines. Labor-saving technology and social unrest in England, 1830-32, with Hans-Joachim Voth

Can the adoption of labor-saving technology lead to social instability and unrest? We examine a canonical historical case, the so-called ‘Captain Swing’ riots in 1830s Britain. Variously attributed to the adverse consequences of weather shocks, the shortcomings of the Poor Law, or the after-effects of enclosure, we emphasize the importance of a new technology – the threshing machine. Invented in the 1780s, it spread during and after the Napoleonic Wars. Using farm advertisements from newspapers published in 60 English and Welsh towns, we compile a new measure of the technology’s diffusion. Parishes with evidence of threshing machine adoption had much higher riot probabilities in 1830. Threshing machines were much cheaper to operate with water power, and they were initially only useful for wheat. We show that suitability for both predicts technology adoption. IV results suggest that the spread of threshing machines was responsible for unrest. We also show that areas with more generous poor law provision saw much less rioting, even in areas where threshing machines were common. This suggests that the welfare state can facilitate technology adoption.


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