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The British Iron Industry: 1700-1850.

The British Iron Industry, 1700-1850 This volume on the iron industry in Britain during the Industrial Revolution is one of the Economic History Society's series of studies on economic history that now numbers approximately fifty-five titles. And like the other books in the series, J.R. Harris's treatment of Britain's iron industry provides an introduction for students and others interested in the field. Each book is expected to survey the major historiographic themes and current questions in the area, rather than to offer the author's own analysis. Measured against this goal, the book succeeds admirably.

The book opens with a clear discussion of the basic technological processes involved in iron production, and several drawings provide excellent assists in this task. Harris then goes on to discuss the classic questions about change in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British iron industry--the debates about output, timber and water shortages, the effect of rising labor costs, and foreign penetration of the English market. These issues set the stage for the next chapter, which treats the classic technological revolutions in iron making, coke smelting, and puddling. Steel production is the next subject, followed by consideration of output and markets before 1800, the impact of changes during the Napoleonic Wars, and the industry in the early nineteenth century. A final chapter considers the ironmasters themselves.

All of these discussions are admirably concise, even as they offer an overview and critique of recent scholarship of this industry that is so central to England's industrial history. Harris deals with the traditional sources, such as the works of T. S. Ashton, Arthur Raistrick, and R. A. Mott as well as with the recent interpretations of Charles Hyde and K. C. Barraclough and B. Trinder. The issues are laid out cleanly, with Harris offering a view on the strengths and weaknesses of the various arguments. Only in the last chapter on the ironmasters, however, can one see John Harris's own strengths as a historian of business and technology emerge in his analysis of entrepreneurs, a section in which he also mentions the role of Nonconformists in this industry. Also, Harris's interest in industrial archeology (IA) appears in a brief appendix that lists important IA sites that complement the study of the iron industry. His annotated bibliography is also thorough.

The only omission in the volume is the need to discuss iron workers. Harris himself recognized this problem, explaining that there has been almost no scholarly attention to this subject. Unfortunately, this lacuna tends to confirm the traditional tendency of economic and technical history to ignore workers. Another point one might raise concerns the decision to stop the book at 1850. To be sure, this was most likely a decision over which the author had no control, but personally I would have liked to see the story brought past Bessemer and into the twentieth century. These quibbles aside, this slim volume provides a fine introduction to the history of iron making in Britain, and to the existing scholarship and questions that have attracted the interest of historians of business and technology studying that industry. The British Iron Industry, 1700-1850 fully lives up to the goals set for this series.

Bruce E. Seely is associate professor of history in the Program in Science, Technology and Society at Michigan Technological University and secretary of the Society for the History of Technology. He has published on the history of the American highway system and its engineering, and he is now completing the task of editing a volume in the Encyclopedia of American Business History and Biography on the twentieth-century American iron and steel industry.
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Author:Seely, Bruce E.
Publication:Business History Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1990
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