Fighting for Growth: Labor Scarcity and Technological Progress During the British Industrial Revolution

We collect new data and present new evidence on the effects of labor scarcity on the adoption of labor-saving technology in industrializing England. Where the British armed forces recruited heavily, more machines that economized on labor were adopted. For purposes of identification, we focus on naval recruitment. Using warships’ ease of access to coastal locations as an instrument, we show that exogenous shocks to labor scarcity led to technology adoption. The same shocks are only weakly associated with the adoption of non-labor saving technologies. Importantly, there is also a synergy between skill abundance and labor scarcity boosting technology adoption. Where labor shortages led to the adoption of labor-saving machines, technology afterwards improved more rapidly.