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Mothers of Innovation: How Expanding Social Networks Gave Birth to the Industrial Revolution.

Mothers of Innovation." How Expanding Social Networks Gave Birth to the Industrial Revolution, by Leonard Dudley. Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012. xxii, 275 pp. $67.99 US (cloth).

Most studies of the Industrial Revolution are written by historians striving to look backwards with the help of methodological tools borrowed from the social sciences. This book is written by a forward-looking economist with an interest in modern information revolutions who has a point to make about the role of social networks within the gestation of innovative technologies. The historical component of his thesis is a mix of sweeping generalization and folksy anecdote. To this reviewer the broad brush strokes depicting stagnation and change in European states over three centuries seem rather schematic, and a historian of science would no doubt find the stories of individual "inventors" and their collaborators that bring the analysis to life at intervals rather old-fashioned as well. Perhaps this does not matter very much as long as we focus on the fact that the book is not really about the Industrial Revolution as an event in the past, but is rather an extended argument offering "an explanation of the burst of innovation that occurred in a number of regions of Western Europe and North America over the period from 1700 to 1850" (p. 219).

To choose the region as the unit of analysis makes sense even if the author shows a great deal more sensitivity in selecting the zones of Europe and North America that displayed an early and sustained propensity to innovate, than in marking out the territories that do not merit inclusion. Birmingham and Manchester together with their industrial hinterlands pass muster and so do Lyon and Philadelphia, but the whole of Scandinavia, Germany, Belgium, and Switzerland have nothing to contribute, it seems. The analysis is complex and multi-tiered, whether at the level of the sampling (types of innovation) or the conclusions that can reasonably be drawn from the data as various hypotheses are tested Probably the best way for the general-purpose historian to get a grip on the author's social-networks model of innovation is to turn to the end of the book (Chapters eight and nine), for it is here that he recapitulates his findings and confronts them with ongoing debates between and among historians and economists.

On the whole, supply-side explanations of innovation and industrial take-off such as those favoured most recently by Joel Mokyr with his emphasis on the determining role played by useful knowledge fare less well. Demand and price factors cannot be excluded from the story of economic growth through technological achievement as R.C. Allan has always insisted. However, the combination of energy and labour costs will not explain adequately the chronology of technological breakthrough, nor is it an all-embracing argument applicable on its own to every case. In this regard the economic historian E.L. Jones gets closest to a full understanding of why industrialisation accelerated first in Britain--in Dudley's judgement because he gives full weight to the regional context in which both supply and demand factors can be seen to interact.

This is to leave the author's own findings out of account, though. The book highlights the role of empathetic communication (of ideas, skills) between individuals of a similar mind-set, an activity which singularly increased in geographical scope and social complexity in the course of the eighteenth century. There is nothing particularly new in this observation: historians routinely evoke Enlightenment "sociability," and communication between savants and fabricants has been explicitly discussed by a number of scholars. But Dudley refines this observation by working out ways of measuring the intensity of communication and by adding the variable of "cooperation." What emerges is a social-network geography which, it is the contention of the author, needs to be taken into account alongside supply-and demand-side factors when analysing the propensity of certain regions, to not only give birth to macro-inventions (dubbed here Super-Technologies), but also carry on fostering related "spill-over" innovations. This argument is accompanied by a great deal of jargon and some rather subjective categorisation (for example, "Other Cooperative Innovations'" and "Non-Cooperative Innovations"), but the basic intuition about the existence and role of social networks underpinning innovatory activity seems sound, and it withstands the battery of tests that the author applies to the concept. How are these social networks modelled? They are envisioned as zones of mutual trust, consisting usually of cities and hinterlands, which enjoyed the advantages of linguistic uniformity and an open, tolerant cultural environment, whilst being free of corporate institutions which might otherwise have suffocated the innovative urge.

The author places excessive stress on the linguistic factor as though cooperation in the joint enterprise of innovation was quite incapable of overcoming the barrier of language. Historians of scientific knowledge generation and diffusion in the late eighteenth century would beg to differ. Many of the entrepreneurs, engineers and skilled workers whom Dudley mentions by way of illustration of the process of collaboration had both international contacts and hands-on overseas experience. But the point about the existence of discrete regional cultures that tended either to be favourable, less favourable or frankly inimical to innovation is well made.

P. M. Jones

University of Birmingham
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Author:Jones, P.M.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2013
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