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Adam Smith, Watch Prices, and the Industrial Revolution

Listed author(s):
  • Morgan Kelly
  • Cormac Ó Gráda

Although largely absent from modern accounts of the Industrial Revolution, watches were the first mass-produced consumer durable and were Adam Smith’s preeminent example of technological progress. In fact, Smith makes the notable claim that watch prices may have fallen by up to 95% over the preceding century, a claim that this article attempts to evaluate. We look at changes in the reported value of over 3,200 stolen watches from criminal trials in the Old Bailey in London from 1685 to 1810. Before allowing for quality improvements, we find that the real price of watches in nearly all categories falls steadily by 1.3% a year, equivalent to a fall of 75% over a century, showing that sustained innovation in the production of a highly complex artifact had already appeared in one important sector of the British economy by the early eighteenth century.

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File URL: http://hdl.handle.net/10.1093/qje/qjw026
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Article provided by Oxford University Press in its journal The Quarterly Journal of Economics.

Volume (Year): 131 (2016)
Issue (Month): 4 ()
Pages: 1727-1752

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Handle: RePEc:oup:qjecon:v:131:y:2016:i:4:p:1727-1752.
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  1. Gregory Clark, 2005. "The Condition of the Working Class in England, 1209-2004," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 113(6), pages 1307-1340, December.
  2. Morgan Kelly & Joel Mokyr & Cormac Ó Gráda, 2014. "Precocious Albion: A New Interpretation of the British Industrial Revolution," Annual Review of Economics, Annual Reviews, vol. 6(1), pages 363-389, August.
  3. Broadberry,Stephen & Campbell,Bruce M. S. & Klein,Alexander & Overton,Mark & van Leeuwen,Bas, 2015. "British Economic Growth, 1270–1870," Cambridge Books, Cambridge University Press, number 9781107070783.
  4. Jones, Eric, 2011. "Industrialisation and de-industrialisation: England divides," MPRA Paper 29247, University Library of Munich, Germany.
  5. Broadberry, Stephen & Campbell, Bruce M.S. & van Leeuwen, Bas, 2013. "When did Britain industrialise? The sectoral distribution of the labour force and labour productivity in Britain, 1381–1851," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 50(1), pages 16-27.
  6. Crafts, Nicholas, 2014. "Productivity Growth during the British Industrial Revolution: Revisionism Revisited," CAGE Online Working Paper Series 204, Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy (CAGE).
  7. Allen,Robert C., 2009. "The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective," Cambridge Books, Cambridge University Press, number 9780521868273, December.
  8. Sara Horrell & Jane Humphries & Ken Sneath, 2015. "Consumption conundrums unravelled," Economic History Review, Economic History Society, vol. 68(3), pages 830-857, August.
  9. Vries,Jan de, 2008. "The Industrious Revolution," Cambridge Books, Cambridge University Press, number 9780521895026.
  10. Bilias, Yannis & Chen, Songnian & Ying, Zhiliang, 2000. "Simple resampling methods for censored regression quantiles," Journal of Econometrics, Elsevier, vol. 99(2), pages 373-386, December.
  11. Vries,Jan de, 2008. "The Industrious Revolution," Cambridge Books, Cambridge University Press, number 9780521719254.
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