The Economic History Review

Fuelling the urban economy: A comparative study of energy in the Low Countries, 1600–1850

Volume 76 Issue 1
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Pages: 221-256Authors: Wouter Ryckbosch, Wout Saelens
Published online: August 12, 2022DOI: 10.1111/ehr.13187

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What was the role of energy in shaping modern economies and fuelling the transition to sustained economic growth? In the historiography on the industrial revolution, the transition to fossil energy carriers plays a central role. Despite recent efforts to gather new empirical evidence, long-term comparative studies on energy transitions and their economic impact before and during the first industrial revolution remain rare. As a contribution to this literature, this article presents new quantitative data on energy consumption from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries in the Low Countries. To explore differences in the chronology and impact of energy transitions, we compare the total levels of energy consumption, the energy mix, and the prices of fuels between two cities in the northern and southern Low Countries: Leiden and Ghent. This analysis enables us to explore more clearly which factors played a key role in the interaction between energy, economic growth, and industrialisation. The transition towards a cheap-energy economy in Holland was associated with economic growth, but not with mechanisation. On the other hand, the rapid mechanisation process in Ghent was associated not with a cheap-energy economy (relative to that of Leiden), but more specifically with a cheap-coal economy.