The Most Important Unanswered Historical Question in the World

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The economic historian Gregory Clark summarizes a remarkable fact.

. . . there is no sign of any improvement in material conditions for settled agrarian societies as we approach 1800. There was no gain between 1800 BC and AD 1800 – a period of 3,600 years. Indeed the wages for east and south Asia and southern Europe for 1800 stand out by their low level compared to those for ancient Babylonia, ancient Greece, or Roman Egypt.

Then, around 1800, this all changed. Economic growth began: about 2% per annum, compounded. That brought our world into existence.

We are the great beneficiaries of a process that few people understand. No one has explained cogently how it came into existence. A rate of growth so slow that no one could perceive it at the time has created a world that would have been inconceivable in 1800.

This change has taken a mere three generations. This is simply inconceivable.

My daughter gave me a great Christmas present in 2010. She scheduled an appointment for me to interview a man in her church. His name is Lyon Tyler. My daughter grew up in a city named after his grandfather: Tyler, Texas. His grandfather was John Tyler, the tenth President of the United States. He signed the law that admitted Texas into the Union in 1845.

John Tyler was born in 1790, the first full year of Washington’s Presidency.

Lyon Tyler’s younger brother, also alive, uses the ultimate one-upsmanship one-liner I have ever heard. After chatting for a while with a stranger, he springs it on him.

“As my grandfather once said to Thomas Jefferson. . . .”

You can try to top that one. You won’t succeed.

In 1889, the first volume of Henry Adams’ history of the administrations of Jefferson and Madison appeared. Adams was the grandson of President John Quincy Adams. He began his book with this paragraph.

According to the census of 1800, the United States of America contained 5,308,483 persons. In the same year the British Islands contained upwards of fifteen millions; the French Republic, more than twenty-­seven millions. Nearly one fifth of the American people were negro slaves; the true political population consisted of four and a half million free white or less than one million able-bodied males, on whose shoulders fell the burden of a continent. Even after two centuries of struggle the land was still untamed; forest covered every portion, except here and there a strip of cultivated soil; the minerals lay undis­turbed in their rocky beds, and more than two thirds of the people clung to the seaboard within fifty miles of tide-water, where alone the wants of civilized life could be supplied. The centre of population rested within eighteen miles of Baltimore, north and east of Washington. Except in political arrangement, the interior was little more civilized than in 1750, and was not much easier to penetrate than when La Salle and Hennepin found their way to the Missis­sippi more than a century before.

The world of 1800 would have been recognizable to Socrates, except for the printed book. In contrast, the world of 1889 would not have been recognizable to the young John Tyler.

By 1889, these post-1800 inventions had arrived: gas lighting, electric lighting (arc light), the steam powered ship, the tin can, the macadamized road, photography, the railroad, portland cement, the reaper, anesthesia, the typewriter, the sewing machine, the Colt revolver, the telegraph, the wrench, the safety pin, mass-produced newspapers, pasteurization, vulcanized rubber, barbed wire, petroleum-based industry, dynamite, the telephone, Carnegie’s steel mills, the skyscraper, the internal combustion engine, the automobile, and commercial electricity.

So, as I move toward the day when I am a footnote rather than a participant, I propose a thesis. One unanswered question above all others constitutes the most important historical question in recorded history. Here it is:

What happened around the year 1800 in Great Britain that led to approximately 2% per annum economic growth for the next two centuries?

Some economic historians think this began around 1780. Others, most notably Angus Maddison, believe it began in 1820. The year 1800 is a good middle-ground position.


Our world is not even remotely like the world of 1800. In contrast, 1800 was recognizably similar A.D. 1. Clark points out that in the Roman Empire in A.D. 1, information traveled at about one mile per hour. In 1800, this had increased to about 1.4 miles per hour. Compare that with the speed of light: 186,000 miles per second. That was what the telegraph did.

The world of 1876 was not remotely like 1800. Yet compare 1876 with today. A child in 1876 who read a newspaper account of Custer’s Last Stand lived long enough to see Neil Armstrong walk on the moon in 1969.

In 1967, I took a graduate seminar in economic history from Hugh Aitken. I had studied this subject as an undergraduate with him in 1962. Aitken was a great teacher. He is not famous, but several years after I took that seminar, he became the editor of The Journal of Economic History, one of the two major academic English-language journals in the field. In one session, he said this. “There is no agreement on what happened around 1800 to launch the Industrial Revolution.” There is still no agreement.

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March 31, 2011

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit He is also the author of a free 20-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

Copyright © 2011 Gary North