DP11800 Rage Against the Machines: Labour-Saving Technology and Unrest in England, 1830-32

Author(s): Bruno Caprettini, Hans-Joachim Voth
Publication Date: January 2017
Keyword(s): Labor-saving technology; social instability; riots; welfare support; agricultural technology; factor prices and technological change.
JEL(s): J21, J43, N33, P16
Programme Areas: Labour Economics, Development Economics, Economic History
Link to this Page: www.cepr.org/active/publications/discussion_papers/dp.php?dpno=11800

Can the adoption of labor-saving technology lead to social instability and unrest? We examine a canonical historical case, the so-called 'Captain Swing' riots in 1830s Britain. Variously attributed to the adverse consequences of weather shocks, the shortcomings of the Poor Law, or the after-effects of enclosure, we emphasize the importance of a new technology - the threshing machine. Invented in the 1780s, it spread during and after the Napoleonic Wars. Using farm advertisements from newspapers published in 66 English and Welsh towns, we compile a new measure of the technology's diffusion. Parishes with ads for threshing machines had much higher riot probabilities in 1830 - and the relationship was even stronger for machine-breaking attacks. Threshing machines were mainly useful in wheat-growing areas. To establish a causal role for labor-saving technology, we instrument technology adoption with the FAO measure of soil suitability for wheat, and show that this in turn predicts unrest.