The Skills of the Unskilled in the American Industrial Revolution

Research on Innovation Working Paper

51 Pages Posted: 8 Nov 2000

See all articles by James E. Bessen

James E. Bessen

Technology & Policy Research Initiative, BU School of Law

Date Written: September 2000

Abstract

Were ordinary factory workers unskilled and was technology "de-skilling" during the Industrial Revolution? I measure foregone output to estimate the human capital investments in mule spinners and power loom tenders in ante-bellum Lowell. These investments rivaled those of craft apprentices, suggesting a different view of industrial technology. Accounting for skill, multi-factor productivity growth was negligible, contrary to previous findings. From 1834-55, firms made increasing investments in skill, allowing workers to tend more machines and generating rapid growth of per-capita output. This growing investment was motivated partly by changing factor prices and more by a changing labor supply. Calculations show that firm policy and social conditions, including literacy, influenced the investment in factory skills. When skills are considered, technological change at Lowell appears as a broad social process, dependent as much on innovation in institutions as on invention of machines.

JEL Classification: O30, N61, J24

Suggested Citation

Bessen, James E., The Skills of the Unskilled in the American Industrial Revolution (September 2000). Research on Innovation Working Paper, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=244569 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.244569

James E. Bessen (Contact Author)

Technology & Policy Research Initiative, BU School of Law ( email )

765 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston, MA 02215
United States

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