Were British Cotton Entrepeneurs Technologically Backward? Firm-Level Evidence on the Adoption of Ring-Spinning

18 Pages Posted: 14 Aug 2009 Last revised: 19 Apr 2012

See all articles by Federico Ciliberto

Federico Ciliberto

University of Virginia - Department of Economics; Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR)

Date Written: October 1, 2010


I study the slow adoption of ring spinning in Great Britain's cotton industry at the end of the 19th century, which has been used as evidence of British entrepreneurs' declining efficiency and conservatism (Musson, 1959; Aldcroft, 1964; Lazonick, 1981, 1981b). To this purpose I use firm-level data from all of Lancashire's cotton firms over several years. The data are from Worrall's The Cotton Spinners and Manufacturers' Directory for the years 1885, 1886–1887, 1890, 1894, 1902, and 1910.

First, I show that the vertical organization of the industry, with its firms specializing in spinning or weaving, did not act as an impediment to the adoption of the ring spinning technology, as was argued by Lazonick. In particular, I show the following: i) non-integrated firms were the first to adopt rings in Great Britain; ii) the large majority of firms that adopted rings were incumbents; iii) vertically integrated firms that were spinning only either twist or weft yarn were still in existence in 1910; and iv) only a negligible number of firms changed their organizational structure upon adopting ring spinning. I also show that a large fraction of firms installed very small numbers of ring spindles upon the adoption of ring spinning, suggesting that firms were slowly adopting ring spindles to replace old mule spindles rather than transitioning over to ring spinning at a single point in time.

Then, I show that the rate at which vertically integrated firms adopted rings suddenly accelerated after 1902. I interpret this as evidence that British entrepreneurs were fully aware of the technological complementarities between rings and automatic looms. These complementarities could only be fully exploited by vertically integrated firms.

Keywords: Ring spinning, Technology adoption, Cotton industry, Lancashire, Vertical integration, Specialization

JEL Classification: N63, L22, L67

Suggested Citation

Ciliberto, Federico, Were British Cotton Entrepeneurs Technologically Backward? Firm-Level Evidence on the Adoption of Ring-Spinning (October 1, 2010). Explorations in Economic History, Volume 47, Issue 4 (October 2010), pp. 487-504, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1446903

Federico Ciliberto (Contact Author)

University of Virginia - Department of Economics ( email )

P.O. Box 400182
Charlottesville, VA 22904-4182
United States

Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) ( email )

United Kingdom

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