The returns to invention during the British industrial revolution

January 31, 2019 | Blog
Home > The returns to invention during the British industrial revolution

by Sean Bottomley (Max Planck Institute for European Legal History)

This article is published in 72:2 of The Economic History Review.


british industry
Ancoats, Manchester. McConnel & Company’s mills, about 1820. Available at Wikimedia Commons

Since the Victorian period, it has been commonly assumed that inventors were rarely remunerated for their inventions. To contemporaries they were ‘the miserable victim of [their] own powerful genius’, ‘Martyrs of Science’ who worked ‘alone, unfriended, solitary’, while ‘the recorded instances of the[ir] martyrdom would be a task of enormous magnitude’. Prominent examples of important inventors from the industrial revolution period, but who had the misfortune to die in penury (the steam engineer Richard Trevithick, for example), has meant that this view has passed into the modern literature almost without scrutiny.

This assumption, though, is significant, as it directly informs how we might explain probably ‘the’ big problem in economic history: what were the origins of the industrial revolution, and concomitantly, of modern economic growth. In particular, if inventors did usually fail to obtain financial rewards, this precludes potential explanations of the industrial revolution that invoke incentives to explain the actions of those who invented and commercialised the new technology industrialisation required. It also precludes the applicability of endogenous growth theory to the industrial revolution (theory which has earnt two of its progenitors 2018 Nobel prizes) as it assumes that profit incentives determine the amount of inventive activity that occurs.

In an attempt to determine the wealth of inventors, I have collected probate data for over 700 inventors born in Britain between 1660 and 1830, from a list first compiled by Ralf Meisenzahl and Joel Mokyr. This probate data indicates that inventors were in fact extremely wealthy. For instance, in one exercise, I compared the probated wealth of 422 inventors who died between 1800 and 1870, with that of the overall adult male population.


Table 1.           Probated wealth of inventors, 1800-1870

Probated wealth Adult male population (1839-1841) Adult male population (1858) Inventors
<£200 or no will 73302 (88.14%) 87043 (87.70%) 124 (29.4%)
<£1,000 5570   (6.70%) 6690   (6.74%) 39   (9.2%)
94.84% 94.44% 163 (38.6%)
<£10,000 4296 (5.16%) 4554 (4.59%) 104 (24.6%)
<£50,000 812 (0.82%) 95 (22.5%)
   £50,000+ 154 (0.16%) 60 (14.2%)
5.16% 5.56% 259 (61.4%)

Notes: For details on how the distribution of male probated wealth was estimated for 1839-41, and 1858, please refer to the appendix in the original article published in the Economic History Review.


The table above shows us that approximately 5 to 6 percent of adult males who died in 1839-41 and 1858 (years for when these figures can be collated), left behind wealth probated in excess of £1,000. The equivalent figure for inventors was over 60 percent. The disparity only increases as we move up through the wealth categories. Whereas only 0.16 percent of adult males left behind wealth probated in excess of £50,000 in 1858 (one in 650), for inventors it was 14.2 percent (one in 7).

It does not, however, automatically follow that the wealth of inventors was actually derived from their inventions. These were presumably talented individuals and their income may have been accrued over the course of a ‘normal’ business career and/or inherited. Unfortunately, this is a prohibitively difficult subject to approach directly: accounts rarely survive for these inventors and in any case, it is doubtful whether income from an invention could be neatly distinguished from ‘normal’ business income. As an indirect approach, I have also collected probate information for the brothers of inventors. Brothers are an especially apposite group for comparison: they would have enjoyed a very similar inheritance to their brothers (although inheriting financial capital appears to have mattered less than inheriting social capital) and they tended to enter similar occupations to their (inventive) brothers. Indeed, 24 of the inventors in the entire dataset were related as brothers – the talents and opportunities required to become an inventor were clearly not evenly distributed among the adult male population.

For 143 of the 422 inventors discussed in table 1, it was possible to confirm the existence of at least one adult brother who reached at least the age of 25 and who died in Britain between 1800 and 1870 (253 brothers in total). In the table below, the top row divides these 143 inventors into the same wealth categories as those used in the table above, with the number in parentheses denoting how many of the 143 inventors are in each category. The columns beneath this then show the distribution of the wealth of their brothers. So, there are 25 inventors in this exercise whose estate was worth less than £200. Of their 45 brothers, 31 were also left behind less than £200. Three had probated wealth between £200 and £1,000, nine between £1,000 and £10,000 and two between £10,000 and £50,000. None left behind more than £50,000.


Table 2.           Brother’s Probates, 1800-1870

< £200 (25) < £1,000 (11) < £10,000 (35) < £50,000 (44) £50,000+ (28)
     < £200 31 12 26 35 23
  < £1,000 3 3 7 7 2
< £10,000 9 2 14 31 13
< £50,000 2 2 3 9 8
    £50,000+ 3 2 6

Notes: as Table 1


Overall, if inventors were wealthier than their brothers, then the latter should be concentrated at the top and to the right of the table, and away from the bottom left corner. Clearly, they are – overwhelmingly so when one considers how important simple happenstance can be in influencing an individual’s financial success over the course of their career.

Previous work has relied on impressionistic evidence to suggest that inventors in this period rarely obtained financial rewards commensurate with their technical achievements. Probate information, though, shows that inventors were extremely wealthy relative to the adult male population. Inventors were also significantly wealthier than another group who would have received a similar inheritance (in terms of both financial and social capital) and entered similar occupations: their brothers. Their additional wealth was derived from inventive activities: invention paid.


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