The Hand-Loom Weaver and the Power Loom: A Schumpeterian Perspective

Mar 2016 | 142

Authors: Robert Allen


Abstract:

Schumpeter’s ‘perennial gale of creative destruction’ blew strongly through Britain during the Industrial Revolution, as the factory mode of production displaced the cottage mode in many industries. A famous example is the shift from hand loom weaving to the use of power looms in mills. As the use of power looms expanded, the price of cloth fell, and the ‘golden age of the hand loom weaver’ gave way to poverty and unemployment. This paper argues that the fates of the hand and machine processes were even more closely interwoven. With the expansion of factory spinning in the 1780s, the demand for hand loom weavers soared in order to process the newly available cheap yarn. The rise in demand raised the earnings of hand loom weavers, thereby, creating the ‘golden age’. The high earnings also increased the profitability of developing the power loom by raising the value of the labour that it saved. This meant that less efficient–hence, cheaper to develop--power looms could be brought into commercial use than would have been the case had the golden age not occurred. The counterfactual possibilities are explored with a model of the costs of weaving by hand and by power. The cottage mode of production was an efficient system of producing cloth, but it self-destructed as its expansion after 1780 raised the demand for sector-specific skills, thus providing the incentive for inventors to develop a power technology to replace it. The power loom, in turn, devalued the old skills, so poverty accompanied progress.

JEL Codes: N63, N34, O31

Keywords: Technological Change, Invention, Technological Unemployment, Creative Destruction


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