Emma Rothschild

The history of economic growth – and even of economic modernity – has been an investigation, for the most part, of national experience. The most familiar history is that of the “first industrial nation,” identified as Britain (or sometimes England.) As a French parliamentarian wrote in 1859, “the Englishman is the king of matter… If Great Britain be the first industrial nation in the world, she owes it in great measure to her mineral wealth.”  

One of the difficulties with this old story has been that English economic growth anticipated, by one or two generations, the large-scale use of inorganic (or semi-organic) energy. There was intense economic activity within what E.A.Wrigley describes as “the advanced organic economy,” or the period from, approximately, 1701 to 1792, in which individuals in Britain made a lot of money, and accumulated a lot of power, but before they used coal on a large scale for anything other than heating buildings.

This project reconsiders the economic history of eighteenth-century Britain by seeking to include wind, water, and sunlight. It is concerned, in particular, with “free” energy, its distribution over space, and its consequences for economic life in eighteenth-century Britain and the British empire.  

Winter, Hiems, and De vier jaargetijden by Gerard de Lairesse, 1675. Rijksmuseum, Netherlands. Odysseus metgezellen openen de zak met winden and De werken van Odysseus by Theodoor van Thulden, 1632 - 1633. Rijksmuseum, Netherlands.


“Green” or renewable energy has been incorporated in the impressive time series of long-term energy consumption for both the early-modern period (mostly estimates of uses of wood, windmills, watermills and peat) and the late-modern period (electricity production from “renewable sources, excluding hydroelectric.”)  This is what the leading historians of energy describe as “energy consumption in the economic sense,” or energy whose use “has an opportunity cost;” “solar heat is… a free source of energy from a human’s perspective, because we do not need to do anything to make it flow [and] it is not included in our economic definition.”

The free energy project starts with two ways of thinking about the map of the world. The first is a depiction of wind and solar insolation – sunlight –wherever it is. It is a map of free energy, in the energy historians’ sense; an uneconomic map.

Global Winds. William Putman/NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.
Average solar insolation. NASA's Surface Meteorology and Solar Energy (SSE) Project compiled these data--collected from July 1983 to June 1993--into a 10-year average for that period.

The second is a map of the British empire, in the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century sense not of territory which was subject to British sovereignty, but of the extent of influence or power -- political, military and commercial. It is a map of sea as well as land. The transport of goods “thro’ the trackless Waves, by the Power of the Clouds” was the most surprising “of all the Wonders which the white Men perform,” a Choctaw negotiator was reported to have exclaimed in West Florida in 1765. The winds were a familiar personification of British (and earlier of Dutch) power; “a maritime people ... by her industry submitted the earth to the sea.”

The economist Adam Müller imagined a space of influence which included the British isles, the surrounding seas, and the proximate littorals; England was an unnational, city-like state, and its frontiers were other cities, "Petersburg, Danzig, Gothenburg, Copenhagen, Hamburg, Amsterdam, Bordeaux, Oporto, etc."

In a more radical reimagination of the cartography of power, the publicist Alexandre d’Hauterive wrote that the “vessels of England cover all seas; she sends soldiers, arms, money, agents to the four parts of the Earth.” In this “empire of her commerce,” England could be thought of as a country with a vast “exterior population,” constituted by all the individuals around the world who consume English goods, for “consumers belong less to the nation in which they live, than to the one whose productions they consume.” The English national wealth included the subsistence of the “Chinese, Indians and Russians whom her yearly consumption keeps alive, and the wages and expenses of the German, Italian and Ottoman soldiers whom her subsidies support.”

There are traces of these unfamiliar world maps even in the orderly universe of territorial sovereignty of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, or of the rose-tinted empire.

The British Empire at War. The Men of the Empire: their Homes and their Battlefields, R & L., Ltd. Europeana Collections, 1914-1918. National Library of Denmark. Map from "A Historical Geography of the British Colonies (of the British Empire)." 1888. The British Library.


Hauterive’s imaginary map of 1800 can be thought of, in twentieth-century terms, as a fantastic depiction of the Gross National Product of Britain, including the activities of the employees, still tenuously resident in the British Isles, of the great public-private companies trading to the East and West Indies.The expressions GNP and GDP are part of the ordinary language of economic measurement. Their definitions are less familiar. GNP or gross national product is (on a US definition) the "market value of the goods and services produced by labor and property supplied by residents of the US." GDP or gross domestic product is the value of goods and services "attributable to labor and property located in the US." Both are measures of the economic activity of a nation, in a particular period. Both depend on concepts which were contested in the eighteenth century, as they are now: residence, location, attribution.

The free energy project is an attempt to juxtapose the two, very different maps. It seeks to explore the extent to which one kind of power which was not exactly economic (military, political, commercial) made it possible for individuals in Britain to exploit a different kind of power (the winds, the sun) which was uneconomic, in the sense that it was free and unused within the fuel technology of the times (“the capture of solar radiation by the means of some technical device,” in the energy historians’ account.) It seeks to outline a history of free energy and its consequences for economic life.

The project is intended as a contribution to a very longstanding debate about the importance of overseas activities to British economic growth and the British industrial revolution. The debate is at least as old as Dadabhai Naoroji’s effort, in 1870, to depict “the economical condition of India,” including the “drain” of resources from the dominion to Britain. The present project  is inspired, in particular, by major efforts to include worldwide political power in the economic history of eighteenth-century Britain:  the work of Eric Williams on capitalism and slavery, together with studies by Barbara Solow on the Williams hypothesis; and very recent work by Priya Satia on the role of gun manufacturing, principally in Birmingham, in the British industrial revolution.

Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database.


The project is inspired, too, by Pekka Hämäläinen’s work on the politics of grass, and on the success of the Comanche empire in “harness[ing], more directly than anyone before, the vast pool of solar energy stored in the plains grasses…  a spiraling energy stream of grass, flesh, and sunlight.”  Like Hämäläinen, the project uses conceptions which were not those of individuals at the time (“crucial savings of human and natural resources in Comanchería”);  it also, like Hämäläinen, seeks to recover contemporary conceptions and intentions which do not correspond to subsequent historical stories (the British of the early industrial revolution, like the Comanche conquerors, were in no sense “nonpolitical,” and in several senses “protoenvironmental.”)  

The project is of a material history; an environmental history that includes the sun and the wind in the history of economic change. But it is also a history that  seeks to describe economic life in eighteenth-century Britain as “it really was:” that is to say, as a set of economic relationships in which a large proportion of the non-agricultural population, female and male, worked in the “immaterial” industries of domestic service, trade, transport, and carrying; and in which the service sector, including finance, insurance, logistics and property, was an essential source of capital accumulation in a still “organic” economy.

It was organization, rather than manufacturing or coal, that recurred in contemporary explanations for British economic growth (or at least in explanations by those other than the British.) Hauterive attributed British success, in 1800, to the “faculty of giving a vast and powerful organisation to her credit; of subordinating the credit of all other nations; of attaching all foreign and domestic traders to her by the ties of credits and debts.” He defined industry, in the postwar world of 1817, as “the organisation which connects individual labour,” or storage, correspondence, loading, transport and retail. Industrial organization, “organisation industrielle,” was in his view essential to economic success.

Commerce was the “copious fountain” of British influence, James Madison wrote in 1799, in a sea-centered prospect of British organization and British power: “Every shipment, every consignment, every commission, is a channel in which a portion of it flows. It may be said to make a part of every cargo. Our Sea-port towns are the reservoirs into which it is collected. From these, issue a thousand streams to the inland towns, and country stores: which... [receive] a stock of British ideas and sentiments proper to be retailed to the people. Thus it is, that our country is penetrated to its remotest corners with a foreign poison vitiating the American sentiment, recolonizing the American character.”

The free energy project will be quantitative, in that it will seek to incorporate these contemporary conceptions in estimates of British economic life conceived of as both larger than the national, insular state (GNP plus, or the economy of the British empire) and smaller (the economy of the East India Company, or Liverpool, or of individual enterprises.)

William_Johnstone-Pulteney (Thomas Gainsborough c. 1772) Yale Center for British Art. Google_Art_Project.jpg

William (Johnstone) Pulteney (1729-1805) can be taken as a case study of individual advancement. He was a figure from the heart of the improving  enlightenment; a friend of Hume, Smith and of the scientific societies of Edinburgh and London. He was described on his death as “the richest Commoner in the kingdom. His funded property amounted to near two millions sterling; and he was the greatest American stockholder ever known.” Pulteney’s his fortune was financial and organizational; almost immaterial. He married a wealthy woman; he invested in property in London, Bristol, the West of Scotland and the South of England; he bought slave plantations in Grenada, Dominica and Tobago; he and a group of partners bought (and in part resold) a tract of 1,300,000 acres in upstate New York; he invested in the ventures of servants of the British East India Company in Calcutta, with the proceeds to be remitted via bonds on the French East India Company. He was a specialist on what he described as the “exchange & change” of buying Portuguese funds with “Dutch or flemish money,” to be loaned to the West Indies on the security of estates in Jamaica; and on the jurisprudence of mortgages, including legislation and litigation relating to mortgages on slaves.

Pulteney never went anywhere near the West or East Indies (or anywhere further from home than the now Belgian resort of Spa.) But he was deeply involved in the details of his distant interests: in litigation against his brokers, in 1800, for having sold his Grenada sugar a few days early, “as he expected the market to rise;” or, in 1797, over the exchange of a single slave, called Pierre, on the Grenada plantation; “It does not occur to me that there can be any objection, to the Exchange which [the manager] proposes of another seasoned negro for Pierre, but he does not say, what negro he proposes, nor who shall judge, whether the negro he may offer, be equal to Pierre.” Sir William Pulteney’s vision of future prosperity was unindustrial: “Had we all the money in Europe at a reasonable interest, and could we actually employ it in trade, so much the better,” he declared in support of the West Indian loans; “We should thus be the bankers of Europe.”

Alphonse Esquiros, The English at Home, transl. Lascelles Wraxall (London, 1861, 2 vols.). The passage is a translation of Alphonse Esquiros, L’Angleterre et la vie anglaise (Paris, 1859).

Astrid Kander, Paulo Malanima and Paul Warde, Power to the People: Energy in Europe during the last five centuries (Princeton, 2013).

Speech of Nassuba Mingo, Mobile, April 1 1765, transcribed in Mississippi Provincial Archives English Dominion, ed. Dunbar Rowland (Nashville, 1911).

[Abbé Raynal], Histoire philosophique et politique, Des établissemens et du commerce des Européens dans les deux Indes (Amsterdam: 1774), vol. 7.

Adam Müller, Die Elemente der Staatskunst (1809) (Leipzig, 1936).

[Alexandre de Hauterive], Sur l'État de la France, à la fin de l'an VIII (Paris, 1800).

Dadabhai Naoroji, The Wants and Means of India (Bristol, 1870). British capitalism and Caribbean slavery: the legacy of Eric Williams, ed. Barbara L. Solow and Stanley L. Engerman (Cambridge, 1987); Slavery and the rise of the Atlantic system, ed. Barbara L. Solow (Cambridge, 1991).

Priya Satia, Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution (London and New York, forthcoming.)

Pekka Hämäläinen, “The Politics of Grass: European Expansion, Ecological Change, and Indigenous Power in the Southwest Borderlands,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd series, vol. 67, no. 2 (Apr. 2010), 173-208.

[Alexandre de Hauterive], Élémens d'économie politique, suivi de quelques vues sur l'application des principes de cette science aux règles administratives (Paris, 1817).

“Foreign Influence” (January 23, 1799), in The Papers of James Madison, ed. David B. Mattern, J.C.A.Stagg, Jeanne K.Cross, Susan Holbrook Perdue (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991), vol. 17, pp. 217-220.

On William Johnstone Pulteney, see Emma Rothschild, The Inner Life of Empires: An Eighteenth-Century History (Princeton, 2011).