This paper analyzes the elimination of hand spinning in Britain during the Industrial Revolution and shows that it was one of the earliest examples of large-scale technological unemployment. First, it uses new empirical evidence and sources to estimate spinning employment before the innovations of the 1760s and 1770s. These estimates reinforce and expand upon the findings of Muldrew (2012): spinning employed up to 20% of women and children by c. 1770. Next, the paper systematically analyzes the course, extent, and locations of technological unemployment produced by mechanization using more than 200 detailed qualitative sources. It first presents an estimate of job loss in hand spinning of cotton by the late 1780s. It then uses evidence from more than 2200 observations by contemporary social commentators, county agricultural surveys, and the 1834 Poor Law Commission’s Rural and Town Queries to show the breadth and duration of unemployment produced by mechanization.
There’s bad history, and then there’s WWI bad history.