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Technology and Learning by Factory Workers: The Stretch-Out at Lowell, 1842

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  • Bessen, James

Abstract

In 1842 Lowell textile firms increased weaving productivity by assigning three looms per worker instead of two. This marked a turning point. Before, weavers at Lowell were temporary and mostly literate Yankee farm girls; afterwards, firms increasingly hired local residents, including illiterate and Irish workers. An important factor was on-the-job learning. Literate workers learned new technology faster, but local workers stayed longer. These changes were unprofitable before 1842, and the advantages of literacy declined over time. Firm policy and social institutions slowly changed to permit deeper human-capital investment and more productive implementation of technology.

Suggested Citation

  • Bessen, James, 2003. "Technology and Learning by Factory Workers: The Stretch-Out at Lowell, 1842," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 63(1), pages 33-64, March.
  • Handle: RePEc:cup:jechis:v:63:y:2003:i:01:p:33-64_00
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    1. “Technology and Learning by Factory Workers: The Stretch-Out at Lowell, 1842,” J. Bessen (2003)
      by afinetheorem in A Fine Theorem on 2013-08-20 13:49:04

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    Cited by:

    1. Sascha O. Becker & Erik Hornung & Ludger Woessmann, 2011. "Education and Catch-Up in the Industrial Revolution," American Economic Journal: Macroeconomics, American Economic Association, vol. 3(3), pages 92-126, July.
    2. James Bessen & Alessandro Nuvolari, 2019. "Diffusing new technology without dissipating rents: some historical case studies of knowledge sharing," Industrial and Corporate Change, Oxford University Press, vol. 28(2), pages 365-388.
    3. Erik Hornung, 2012. "Humankapital, technologische Diffusion und Wachstum - Entwicklung in Preußen," ifo Beiträge zur Wirtschaftsforschung, ifo Institute - Leibniz Institute for Economic Research at the University of Munich, number 46.
    4. Peter Thompson, 2012. "The Relationship between Unit Cost and Cumulative Quantity and the Evidence for Organizational Learning-by-Doing," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 26(3), pages 203-224, Summer.
    5. MacDonald, Daniel & Mellizo, Philip, 2017. "Reference dependent preferences and labor supply in historical perspective," Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics (formerly The Journal of Socio-Economics), Elsevier, vol. 69(C), pages 117-124.
    6. Leunig, Tim, 2003. "Piece rates and learning: understanding work and production in the New England textile industry a century ago," Economic History Working Papers 22360, London School of Economics and Political Science, Department of Economic History.
    7. Prados de la Escosura, Leandro & Rosés, Joan R., 2010. "Human capital and economic growth in Spain, 1850-2000," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 47(4), pages 520-532, October.
    8. Conrad, Daren, 2017. "Education's Contribution to Economic Growth," MPRA Paper 77365, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    9. Becker, Sascha & Hornung, Erik & Woessmann, Ludger, 2009. "Catch Me If You Can: Education and Catch-up in the Industrial Revoluti on," Stirling Economics Discussion Papers 2009-19, University of Stirling, Division of Economics.
    10. Thompson, Peter, 2010. "Learning by Doing," Handbook of the Economics of Innovation, in: Bronwyn H. Hall & Nathan Rosenberg (ed.), Handbook of the Economics of Innovation, edition 1, volume 1, chapter 0, pages 429-476, Elsevier.
    11. Martin Fleming, 2021. "Productivity Growth and Capital Deepening in the Fourth Industrial Revolution," Working Papers 010, The Productivity Institute.
    12. Crafts, Nicholas, 2011. "Explaining the first Industrial Revolution: two views," European Review of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 15(1), pages 153-168, April.
    13. Hendel, Igal E & Spiegel, Yossi, 2013. "Tweaking and the Horndal effect," CEPR Discussion Papers 9289, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
    14. Paul Beaudry & Patrick Francois, 2010. "Managerial Skills Acquisition and the Theory of Economic Development," Review of Economic Studies, Oxford University Press, vol. 77(1), pages 90-126.
    15. James Bessen, 2009. "More Machines, Better Machines...Or Better Workers?," Working Papers 0803, Research on Innovation.
    16. James Bessen, 2008. "Accounting for Productivity Growth When Technical Change is Biased," Working Papers 0802, Research on Innovation.
    17. Peter Maw & Peter Solar & Aidan Kane & John S. Lyons, 2022. "After the great inventions: technological change in UK cotton spinning, 1780–1835," Economic History Review, Economic History Society, vol. 75(1), pages 22-55, February.
    18. Diane Coyle, 2021. "The idea of productivity," Working Papers 003, The Productivity Institute.
    19. Daren, Conrad, 2007. "Education and Economic Growth: Is There a Link?," MPRA Paper 18176, University Library of Munich, Germany, revised 2009.
    20. Mehdi Senouci, 2014. "The Habakkuk hypothesis in a neoclassical framework," Working Papers hal-01206032, HAL.

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