Advanced Search
MyIDEAS: Login

Industrial Energy from Water-Mills in the European Economy, Fifth to Eighteenth Centuries: the Limitations of Power

Contents:

Author Info

  • John Munro

Abstract

The water-mill, though known in the Roman Empire from the second century BCE, did not come to enjoy any widespread use until the 4 th or 5 th centuries CE, and then chiefly in the West, which was then experiencing not only a rapid decline in the supply of slaves, but also widespread depopulation, and thus a severe scarcity of labour. For the West -- those regions that came to form Europe -- the water-mill then became by far the predominant 'prime mover': i.e., an apparatus that converts natural energy into mechanical power. The classic study, as a monograph in technological and engineering history, is Terry S. Reynolds, Stronger than a Hundred Men: A History of the Vertical Water Wheel (Baltimore and London, 1983). Indeed he has calculated that even the early medieval watermills provided about 2 hp, enough to liberate from 30 to 60 persons from the wearisome task of grinding grain into flour, the mill's virtually sole use during the first millennium. He, and others, have neglected to note, however, that, apart from providing such economies in labour, water-mills also conserved on the capital and land resources (fodder crops) that would have been required to produce a comparable amount of power with animal-powered mills (horses, mules). The aim of this study is to analyse in greater depth the economic implications and consequences of the application of water-mills, their impact on European economic history up to the Industrial Revolution era, in those areas not well treated by Reynolds and other historians: in the fields of mining, metallurgy, and textiles -- including the cotton industry of the initial phase of the Industrial Revolution. The study also necessarily analyses as well the necessary technological innovations to achieve the productivity gains in these economic sectors: especially in the devices (cam and crankshafts) to convert the basic rotary power of mills into reciprocal power, initially to operate trip-hammers; and the more gradual, if only late-medieval, displacement of the original undershot wheels with the far more effective, if more capital costly, overshot wheels. The study thus begins with the late-medieval technological revolutions in both mining and metallurgy, providing the key transitions to the early-modern European economy. A demonstration of significant productivity gains is counterbalanced, however, in this study by an examination of the physical and economic limitations on the uses of water-power and, particularly in the field of woollen-cloth production, the negative consequences of water-powered machinery, in the form of both fulling-mills and gig-mills (cloth-finishing), in impairing the quality of the finer fabrics. In particular, cost-benefit analyses are provided to show why the late-medieval English cloth industry did indeed achieve significant gains in switching from foot- to mechanical-fulling, while, at the same time, the leading draperies of the late-medieval Low Countries were perfectly rational in eschewing such mills before the 16 th century -- when they did indeed adopt them, for rather different types of textiles. On the other hand, and indeed in striking contrast, the application of water-power in the medieval production of silks and then especially in the 18 th -century production of the new cotton textiles, with those major innovations of the Industrial Revolution era (water-frame and mule) had the opposite result: of greatly improving quality while also radically reducing production costs. Indeed quality-improvements in spinning cotton yarns was the chief goal of these entrepreneurs, with the ambition of displacing fine Asian textiles from world markets.

Download Info

If you experience problems downloading a file, check if you have the proper application to view it first. In case of further problems read the IDEAS help page. Note that these files are not on the IDEAS site. Please be patient as the files may be large.
File URL: http://www.economics.utoronto.ca/public/workingPapers/UT-ECIPA-MUNRO-02-01.pdf
File Function: MainText
Download Restriction: no

Bibliographic Info

Paper provided by University of Toronto, Department of Economics in its series Working Papers with number munro-02-01.

as in new window
Length: 64 pages
Date of creation: 11 Jul 2001
Date of revision:
Handle: RePEc:tor:tecipa:munro-02-01

Contact details of provider:
Postal: 150 St. George Street, Toronto, Ontario
Phone: (416) 978-5283

Related research

Keywords: technology; energy; hydraulic power; water-power; mills; textiles; cottons; woolens; silks; mining; metallurgy; blast smelters; forges; iron; silver; copper; Roman Empire; medieval Europe; Italy; Flanders; England; Industrial Revolution.;

Find related papers by JEL classification:

This paper has been announced in the following NEP Reports:

References

No references listed on IDEAS
You can help add them by filling out this form.

Citations

Lists

This item is not listed on Wikipedia, on a reading list or among the top items on IDEAS.

Statistics

Access and download statistics

Corrections

When requesting a correction, please mention this item's handle: RePEc:tor:tecipa:munro-02-01. See general information about how to correct material in RePEc.

For technical questions regarding this item, or to correct its authors, title, abstract, bibliographic or download information, contact: (RePEc Maintainer).

If you have authored this item and are not yet registered with RePEc, we encourage you to do it here. This allows to link your profile to this item. It also allows you to accept potential citations to this item that we are uncertain about.

If references are entirely missing, you can add them using this form.

If the full references list an item that is present in RePEc, but the system did not link to it, you can help with this form.

If you know of missing items citing this one, you can help us creating those links by adding the relevant references in the same way as above, for each refering item. If you are a registered author of this item, you may also want to check the "citations" tab in your profile, as there may be some citations waiting for confirmation.

Please note that corrections may take a couple of weeks to filter through the various RePEc services.