Frontiers of Change is a fresh, challenging study on the growth of the Industrial Revolution in America by one of the foremost authorities on economic and business history. Thomas C. Cochran’s work has always been characterized by exhaustive research, trenchant insight, and challenging theses, and this book is no exception. Distilling material from a vast monographic literature on the development of technology, the author presents startling new conclusions regarding the Industrial Revolution in America. Many long-held beliefs about this subject are assailed: that invention is largely a response to market pressures; that from the late eighteenth century on Great Britain was the world’s leader in technology; and that the New England textile industry was the foundation of industrialization in the United States.
Despite his long interest in economics and business, Cochran views cultural factors as the basis for industrialization. He argues that preexisting social patterns in America aided by favorable geography created an environment that facilitated rapid industrial growth. The factors, all rooted in America’s colonial past, included the nation’s tradition of innovation, its willingness to shun tradition and accept the new, and its fundamental desire to improve upon industrial processes. The author also contends that the large influx of immigrants from Europe—as well as the general mobility of American society—helped to form a social milieu in which craftsmen and consumers were willing to cast aside traditional arts and crafts in favor of more rapidly produced, useful goods.
Blessed with an abundance of natural resources, enterpreneurs and technicians in the northeastern United States rapidly pushed back the frontiers of technology in the period from 1790 to 1825 so that this country was at least equal to Britain in industrial development. By 1840, America led the world in the mass production of goods in general, a fact not widely recognized except by specialists in the history of technology. Perhaps Cochran’s most challenging conclusion is that eastern Massachusetts from 1814 to 1825 was not the cradle of United States industrialism as most scholars believe. Rather, he offers compelling evidence to suggest that the fountainhead of this phenomenon was the Philadelphia-Wilmington area in the 1790’s and early 1800’s.
Cochran highlights the importance of American achievements in the early development of water power, iron machinery, and textiles. He also looks at American innovations in the development of the telegraph and railroad—innovations that accelerated the ever-growing internal market and contributed greatly to industrial expansion beyond the eastern seaboard. The book closes with an assessment of the influence of industrialization on American politics, labor, and education.
The scope of the book is far broader than the title suggests. The advent of industrialism in America is used as a test case to illustrate how societies create new institutions, value systems, and patterns of behavior. Cochran suggests that whether innovations take place in politics, religion, science, or technology, they are the result of people’s experiences, accumulated knowledge, aspirations, or what is generally referred to as “culture.” The author draws a close relationship between culture and geography, even going so far as to suggest boldly that “all of history is more or less the imperfect record of geo-cultural relationships.”
The book also implies that the options available to people of any culture are largely determined by geography and natural resources. Since national and even regional cultures always differ, individual responses will be unique. Thus, in some respects the...
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