How Sheffield became Steel City: what local history can teach us about innovation

As someone interested in the history of innovation, I take great pleasure in seeing the many tangible reminders of the industrial revolution that are to be found where I live and work, in North Derbyshire and Sheffield. I get the impression that academics are sometimes a little snooty about local history, seeing it as the domain of amateurs and enthusiasts. If so, this would be a pity, because a deeper understanding of the histories of particular places could be helpful in providing some tests of, and illustrations for, the grand theories that are the currency of academics. I’ve recently read the late David Hey’s excellent “History of Sheffield”, and this prompted these reflections on what we can learn about the history of innovation from the example of this city, which became so famous for its steel industries. What can we learn from the rise (and fall) of steel in Sheffield?


“Ther was no man, for peril, dorste hym touche.
A Sheffeld thwitel baar he in his hose.”

The Reeves Tale, Canterbury Tales, Chaucer.

When the Londoner Geoffrey Chaucer wrote these words, in the late 14th century, the reputation of Sheffield as a place that knives came from (Thwitel = whittle: a knife) was already established. As early as 1379, 25% of the population of Sheffield were listed as metal-workers. This was a degree of focus that was early, and well developed, but not completely exceptional – the development of medieval urban economies in response to widening patterns of trade was already leading to specialisation based on the particular advantages location or natural resources gave them[1]. Towns like Halifax and Salisbury (and many others) were developing clusters in textiles, while other towns found narrower niches, like Burton-on-Trent’s twin trades of religious statuary and beer. Burton’s seemingly odd combination arose from the local deposits of gypsum [2]; what was behind Sheffield’s choice of blades?

I don’t think the answer to this question is at all obvious. Continue reading “How Sheffield became Steel City: what local history can teach us about innovation”

Trade, Power and Innovation

Trade and its globalisation are at the top of the political agenda now. After decades in which national economies have become more and more entwined, populist politicians are questioning the benefits of globalisation. Meanwhile in the UK, we are embarked on a process of turning our backs on our biggest trading partner in the quest for a new set of global relationships, which, to listen to some politicians’ rhetoric, will bring back the days of Britain as a global trading giant. There’s no better time, then, to get some historical perspective on all this, so I’ve just finished reading Ronald Findlay & Kevin H. O’Rourke’s book Power and Plenty: Trade, War, and the World Economy in the Second Millennium – a world history of a millennium of trade globalisation.

The history of world trade is one part of a history of world economic growth. Basic economics tells us that trade in itself leads to economic growth – communities that trade with each other on an equal basis mutually benefit, because they can each specialise in what they’re best at doing.

But trade also drives innovation, the other mainspring of economic growth. The development of larger markets makes innovation worthwhile – the British industrial revolution would probably have fizzled out early if the new manufactured goods were restricted to home markets. Ideas and the technologies that are based on them diffuse along with traded goods. And the availability of attractive new imported goods creates demand and drives innovation to provide domestically produced substitutes. This was certainly the case in England in the 18th century, when the popularity of textiles from India and porcelain from China was so important in stimulating the domestic cotton and ceramics industries.

This view of trade is fundamentally benign, but one of the key points of the book is to insist that in history, the opening up of trade has often been a very violent process – the plenty that trade brings has come from military power.

The direct, organised,large-scale involvement of Western European powers in trade in the Far East was pioneered by the Dutch East India Company (VOC), formed in 1602. Continue reading “Trade, Power and Innovation”