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The Role of Transportation in the Industrial Revolution: A Comparison of England and France.

This study has two purposes. The first, avomed in the opening pages, is to demonstrate that an improved system of transportation was necessary for the Industrial Revolution to occur in England and that the absence of an efficient network explains why no similar process took place in France. The second aim, not stated until the conclusion, is to reassert the significance of the changes, and especially technological innovations in the iron and textile industries, that occurred in the English economy from the mid-eighteenth century, the revolutionary character of which many scholars have increasingly challenged in recent years. The author attempts to reach these goals by a comparative analysis of transport and industrial change in England and France in the latter half of the eighteenth century. To do so he first examines road and water transport in the two countries to show that by the mid-century England already had the best communications network in the world. He then attempts to show the dynamic effects improved transport had on the English metallurgical and textile (and above all, cotton) industries, which he considers crucial to the Industrial Revolution, and the negative impact unimproved transport facilities had on the same industries across the Channel. A shorter final chapter offers a much thinner analysis of the pottery industries in an effort to prove that transport also played a major role in the development of other sectors.

In contrast to most previous studies of transport in this period which are monographic rather than comprehensive and more descriptive than analytical, Szostak's is informed and wide-ranging and constantly involved in debates with other scholars. At first blush, indeed, his thesis is a seductive one. Robert Fogel for the United States and Gary Hawke for England long ago showed that the role traditionally ascribed to railroads as stimulators of growth in the nineteenth century was greatly exaggerated because already improved water and road transport could have been substituted for railroads with only a marginal loss in output. The corollary of this, of course, is that the transport breakthrough to lower costs and wider markets had already been made by the time the steam locomotive was perfected around 1830. Szostak's argument is seductive for a second reason: while in England private enterprise was responsible for improvements in roads and canals in the eighteenth century, the French State was obliged to make massive investments in transport facilities from the 1820s onwards, which suggests that there were significant differences between the two systems in the later eighteenth century. Unfortunately, although Szostak's discussion and dialogue with other scholars is always intelligent and provocative, his study is flawed and, in the end, unconvincing.

At one level, it is not at all surprising that we should not be persuaded. The complexity of the process Szostak seeks to define and explain, the absence of a generally accepted theory of economic growth in general, and the paucity of statistical data have always prevented scholars from agreeing on the dynamics of change in the later eighteenth century, as at other times. It might also be said, in Szostak's defence, that he prudently states in his introduction that if he argues that transport improvements mere necessary he does not claim they mere sufficient to generate the Industrial Revolution. However, he also early claims (p. 5) that they constituted an exogenous variable "which both allowed and induced the Industrial Revolution" and it is one of his discursive strategies to deny the validity of other rival explanations of technological innovations in iron and textiles, be they rising costs of charcoal, coal resources that were richer in England than in France, foreign markets, or chain reactions in different stages of production. Later in his analysis, indeed, he even talks (pp. 222-23, for instance) of his "theory" and his "model." In so doing he goes too far. His emphasis on the role of transport is less original than he believes, for no student has ever ignored transport changes and some (witness the work of Gerald Turnbull for England or J.-C. Toutain for France) have even attempted to show their significance. In any case, Szostak is not able to offer new theoretical insights into the role these changes might have played or how to extract the transport factor from wider structures and causal chains. It might also be added that he makes no attempt to measure changing transport costs either for individual industrialists or national economies. He justifies this partly by the claim that if English statistics are relatively accurate and complete, the French are deficient. This argument is not convincing because some data on costs in France are available in the [F.sup.20] at the Archives Nationales (cited in the bibliography but not in his text) and more are to be found in the rich and revealing deliberations ([F.sup.14] 10912) of the corps of government engineers (the Ponts et Chaussees) which had responsibility for transport infrastructures. Szostak's failure to consult this latter source is especially regrettable in that he asserts (pp. 87-88), without demonstrating, that the centralized French state and its agents failed to improve transport.

There is a second and related weakness in this study: its source base. Szostak has consulted some contemporary sources but he uses them for what he calls (p. 233) "anecdotal evidence... the views of contemporaries on what was happening around them." Such views, however, have to be used with caution and can only be taken out of their contest if they are carefully decoded. Besides, they cannot be used in a pointillist manner to build up a composite picture. It is not evident to this reviewer that Szostak is always sufficiently prudent in his use of this evidence. Thus he quotes liberally from French studies on French transport published from the 1820s to the 1840s which cannot be treated as the mirrors of reality he supposes them to be because they were contributions to heated contemporary debates on the relative advantages of different means of transport and on who, State, private enterprise, or both, should be responsible for improving them. A similar argument can be made against what is the principal source base for this study: published secondary works. Szostak has not consulted all recent work. There is, most importantly, a serious imbalance in his evidence for France: only one in ten of published books in the bibliography are in French and much significant recent research on the nature and pace of change in France is ignored. As a consequence, the author relies heavily on information on France culled from works in English that mere published before revisionist historians criticized earlier assertions of French "backwardness" and the consequent search for "retardative factors" and showed that French growth processes were not only different from the English but more dynamic before and after the French Revolution than had previously been supposed. In a study dependent for evidence on other scholars' work to confirm the author's thesis, this weakness is a significant one.

Szostak's book has a third and final weakness: successfully proving his thesis depends on his definition of the process for which transport is deemed crucial. Thus by dating the Industrial Revolution as beginning in the 1750s and 1760s he is able to claim that transport improvements already in place by that time can be treated as cause rather than effect. By defining the Industrial revolution as involving four interrelated processes - regional specialization, new industries, and, above all, dramatic increases in the rate of technological innovation and even in the scale of production in key industries - he can claim that better communications were essential for each process. By showing that growth in France did not follow this pattern and arguing that improvements in transport mere less important there, he can use the French example as a counterpoint to support his case. Both his definition and his comparative approach, though, pose problems. His definition does not raise difficulties because he only analyzes limited sectors and the proof he offers is nonqualitative and thus goes against currently fashionable macroeconomic accounting which, in any case, is coming under increasing attack. It poses problems because it oversimplifies growth processes which recent work has revealed to be much more complex and difficult to date that used to be claimed in those interpretations that mere vogue in the 1950s and 1960s and which Szostak seeks to resuscitate. Rather than fixing industrialization as beginning after 1750 or 1760, this research has stressed both the gradual character and the precocity of change in eighteenth-century England. Instead of emphasizing technical innovations and growth in a few sectors, scholars have found that the productivity parameters of technology in the period were more limited and innovations of other kinds more widely diffused across production processes and sectors than previously supposed. Recent work has also warned us of the difficulty of comparing the English and French economies - though this does not mean that we should not do so - not just these were made up of often ill-integrated regional economies but also because as the late Jean Bouvier noted in 1987 (in Patrick Fridenson and Andre Strauss [eds.], Le capitalisme francais, XIXe-XXe siecles): "a l'instar de toute nation et de tout Etat, la France fut naturellement autre que ses voisins ... I'approche revisionniste ... a ruine a jamais la propension A croire en une voie royale, de la croissance industrielle capitaliste, qui serait moddle universel A imiter." Szostak is undoubtedly aware of some of these revisions and difficulties; readers should also be aware that, at least in part, his definitions and comparisons are rhetorical devices to bolster an argument rather than convincing new interpretations.
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Author:Ratcliffe, Barrie M.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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