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I was listening to a (German-language) podcast where this argument was made (tranlation into English courtesy of Google translate):

The decisive change came in [...] 1760 in England. And that is the moment that everyone in their textbooks knows, namely that textile manufacturers came up with the idea of ​​mechanizing looms and spinning mills, replacing the workforce with machines that were then powered by hydropower and then steam. And of course, the crucial question is - and tons of books have been written about that - why England, why 1760, why not, for example, Cologne around 1500? [...] The best theory that exists at the moment, and probably also true, is that from historic coincidences it was such that in England in the eighteenth century wages were twice as high as on the European continent So, textile manufacturers in England were no longer competitive because their labor was so expensive, and just when people were expensive - for the first time in history - it was worth using machines.

I usually encounter high wages as being presented as one reason in a whole bundle for the industrial revolution having started where and when it did historically, i.e. in England around 1760. But here this one reason is singled out as the root cause and a reference to a specific theory is made.

Which theory could that be and by which author? Is there a book-length account available perhaps from that author?

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    Can't find quote just now, but allegedly the English "middle class" was at this time significantly delaying marriage into the late 20's for both men and women; causing a concurrent further increase in the value of labour. – Pieter Geerkens Jan 7 '18 at 15:42
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    That was a part of the theory put forward in this 2009 paper by Robert Allen of Oxford University. Unfortunately, it is a little light on sources, but a number of his papers are available on Researchgate – sempaiscuba Jan 7 '18 at 16:14
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    But note that the so-called HWE-hypothesis as a cause for the BIR is slowly falling apart. People have been showing that his wages series were mismeasured (e.g. Judy Stephenson), furthermore his reference point of Italy was underestimated (e.g. Malanima shows that wages in Italy were higher than previously thought, as high as in ENG), wages in France were similarly high (e.g. Vincent Geloso for Straßburg). Then there is Humphries and her update on female wages. Plus she and Weisdorf have a new paper that also contradict Allen (more in support of an industrious revolution à la Jan de Vries) – Fitzroy Hogsflesh Jan 8 '18 at 16:39
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I suspect that the podcast may be referring to published research by Robert Allen of Oxford University. In his 2006 paper Explaining The British Industrial Revolution From the Perspective of Global Wage and Price History. Professor Allen observes:

In Britain, wages were remarkably high and energy cheap. This wage and price history was a fundamental reason for the technological breakthroughs of the eighteenth century whose object was to substitute capital and energy for labour.

He goes on to note that:

Scientific discoveries and scientific culture do not explain why Britain differed from the rest of Europe. They may have been necessary conditions for the industrial revolution, but they were not sufficient: Without Britain’s distinctive wage and price environment, Newton would have produced as little economic progress in England as Galileo produced in Italy

However, Professor Allen does not seem to be claiming that high wages were a single root cause of the Industrial Revolution. Indeed, in another paper from 2006, The High Wage Economy of Pre-industrial Britain, he notes that England was not unique in having a high-wage economy in the eighteenth century. A similar situation existed in the Low Countries:

England and the Low Countries stood out in the eighteenth century for their high wage economies. At the exchange rates, wages were higher in northwestern Europe than elsewhere.

This did not impact their trading positions however, since:

English and Dutch industries were highly competitive internationally, their productivity must also have been high.

Wages were not just higher in England and the Low Countries than they were in the rest of Europe. They were also relatively high compared to the cost of living:

English and Dutch wages were also high relative to the cost of living. In most of continental Europe and Asia in the eighteenth century, a labourer’s wage was just enough to keep his family at bare bones subsistence. In contrast, labourers in England and the Netherlands could afford a diet with meat, beer, and cheese and still have a little left over to buy the odd luxury.

Professor Allen also claims that this high-wage economy created a stimulus for the Industrial Revolution by priming a "consumer revolution" which generated a market for many the products produced by the Industrial Revolution:

In addition, these favoured workers had money to buy novel and exotic consumer goods. They were an important part of the ‘consumer revolution’ that provided a mass market for non-traditional goods that prompted much product innovation in English manufacturing.

Clearly therefore, the implication is that the high wages were an important factor in triggering the Industrial Revolution in England, but not the only one.


EDIT

It is worth noting the following observation in regard to Robert Allen's hypothesis, made by @FranzPlumpton in the comments below:

But note that the so-called HWE-hypothesis as a cause for the BIR is slowly falling apart. People have been showing that his wages series were mismeasured (e.g. Judy Stephenson), furthermore his reference point of Italy was underestimated (e.g. Malanima shows that wages in Italy were higher than previously thought, as high as in ENG), wages in France were similarly high (e.g. Vincent Geloso for Straßburg). Then there is Humphries and her update on female wages. Plus she and Weisdorf have a new paper that also contradict Allen (more in support of an industrious revolution à la Jan de Vries)

Sources

  • Where does he get the claim for higher wages from? – jjack Jan 7 '18 at 22:25
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    @jjack He quotes his sources in the two papers. – sempaiscuba Jan 7 '18 at 22:32
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    @Evargalo That made sense to me too (which is why I included his comments about the market for English manufactured goods). It is possible, of course, that the wages could be reduced and the productivity increased even more by industrialisation, which also makes sense ... – sempaiscuba Jan 8 '18 at 14:39
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    @FranzPlumpton That's entirely possible. It's now over a decade since Allen proposed his hypothesis. However, the question isn't about the validity of that hypothesis, but the likely source of the theory being discussed in the podcast. Nevertheless, I've taken the liberty of adding your observation to my answer. Hope that's OK. – sempaiscuba Jan 9 '18 at 1:27
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    @sempaiscuba, i know i know, that's why I didn't write it as an answer. Just wanted to post it as a remark for readers that are not too deep into the literature... – Fitzroy Hogsflesh Jan 10 '18 at 2:23

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