The economics of colonialism part two

As we have seen in part one of what we titled the economics of colonialism, a decade ago, we mentioned the importance of gunpowder technology in the context of colonialism, including why European rulers relied on private entrepreneurs and what the consequences were. Whereby another question is what the developments meant for Imperialism and what the cost or/and the profit of conquest where.


The important Congress of Vienna

After 1815, the incessant warfare that had bedeviled Europe for centuries virtually disappeared. Diplomats at the Congress of Vienna had fashioned a coalition that discouraged armed conflicts within Europe until late in the century. The European powers fought in the rest of the world, and their military rivalries within Europe lived on. But the only wars they waged on the continent itself were shorter and sent fewer soldiers and sailors to their graves. Between these abbreviated conflicts, the continent could bask in peace (albeit an armed one) until the onset of World War I.¹

With warfare subsiding within Europe, did the tournament fade away too, and with it the advances in the gunpowder technology that had been sustained since the late Middle Ages?

It might seem so. Nonetheless, military technology continued to evolve. Rifled handguns and artillery replaced smooth-bore muskets and cannons, and armored battleships and steam-powered gunboats took the place of sailing ships, advances that gave the Europeans an even bigger edge in colonial wars.² 

There are also three critical things that changed in the nineteenth century. The first was the different incentives that rulers and political leaders faced when they considered going to war. Glory, a military goal that could not easily be divided up, diminished in importance among rulers' ambitions, as did another indivisible goal, trade monopolies. It became much easier therefore to negotiate peaceful settlements to disputes, and there was more reason to do so, for the devastating experience of the Napoleonic wars made it clear that defeat would now impose massive penalties on losers and even threaten their very existence.³ Sovereigns themselves had, for the first time to face the risk that military defeat might topple them from the throne or bring their powers to an end. The down-side to war became even more apparent later in the century, as foreign policy came under the control of politicians or legislative leaders who stood to lose more from hostilities than any Old Regime monarch. They had to heed the sentiment of legislators or the people. Although they could exploit public opinion, by, say, fanning nationalist demands, it could turn on them, force their hand, or even push them from power after a catastrophic loss, as happened to Napoleon III in 1870. 

The second significant change in the nineteenth century was political and administrative reforms that cut the administrative cost of mobilizing resources. During the Napoleonic Wars, states got rid of most of the particularism that had characterized taxation under the Old Regime and made their financial systems uniform. Then, later in the nineteenth century, representative assemblies gained a voice in budgetary decisions. Cumulatively, the reforms made it easier to raise taxes and hence diminished the political obstacles that leaders confronted when they sought revenue for military spending or assembled men and supplies for war.⁴


Nationalism and Technological Change and Armed Peace in Nineteenth-Century Europe

After 1815, the incessant warfare that had bedeviled conscription had the same effect. As a result, the total cost of mobilizing military resources fell in Europe. The lower overall cost, in turn, offset, at least partially, the effect of the new incentives leaders faced, which reduced the value of the prize they were fighting for. So although nineteenth-century statesmen were more likely to negotiate peaceful settlements, they could marshal more resources when the hostilities broke out, and even in peacetime they would, as we shall see, spend large sums on the military.⁵ 

One final difference distinguished the nineteenth century, a critical one. It was now clear that military technology could be advanced not just via learning by doing during wars, but by research and development, research and development that could be undertaken in peacetime by the military itself or by private entrepreneurs eager for military contracts. Although some research had always been done, it grew more common in the eighteenth century, as the Enlightenment encouraged the collection of useful knowledge. That made it possible to improve military technology without actually fighting. The task grew easier still in the nineteenth century, with the growth of engineering know-how during the Industrial Revolution.⁶ It relaxed the limits that available knowledge imposed on technological change and spurred innovation to an even faster pace. 

These three changes ensured that the gunpowder technology would continue to advance despite a century of relative peace in Europe. Innovation even accelerated at the end of the nineteenth century, when Europe's military rivalries intensified during the buildup to World War I. Adding to Europe's military might was the transformation of her civilian economies, which magnified the prowess of European forces both at home and in faraway colonies. Telegraphs and newly constructed railroads could now direct huge armies, speed them to battle, and keep them supplied. Spreading industrialization, by boosting GDP, let countries devote increasing sums to their armies and navies, even when the military's share of the government's total budget declined. And medical advances such as quinine helped Europeans survive the devastating diseases of tropical Africa. With all this military power in their hands and the medical advances at their disposal, and with the diplomatic revolution doing nothing to discourage colonial wars, the Europeans found it much easier to conquer distant territory, and they expanded their empires in Africa, Australia, and Asia. If we add their erstwhile colonies in the Americas, the Europeans had, by 1914, taken over some 84 percent of the globe.⁷ 


Continued Improvements in Military Technology

What then is the evidence for continued productivity growth in the military sector of the economy during the nineteenth century? We should look at it first before we start tinkering with our model to take into account the century's economic and political changes. At first glance, one might think that measures of productivity growth would be easy to assemble, for government data are far more abundant for the nineteenth century, notably, after governments established statistical offices and ministries began issuing periodic reports. The trouble, however, is that the new and improved gunpowder technology was better in so many dimensions that a simple comparison with an older version of the technology from, say, the eighteenth century is complicated. How, for example, do we compare an eighteenth-century smooth-bore flintlock musket with a World War I breech-loading rifle, which not only fired more rapidly but also had a more extended range and much higher accuracy? The problem looms even more substantial for other weapons or navies. 

How, for instance, does the flintlock stack up against a machine gun, or a wooden ship of the line against an armored battleship with rifled artillery that fired explosive shells and steam power that made it faster and more maneuverable? And how do we assess interchangeable parts, which facilitated repairs on the battlefield? Or the considerable improvements in supply and transportation made possible by railroads?⁸ 

The comparisons we can make, such as the rate of fire for handguns understates the magnitude of the technological change and therefore underestimate the rate of productivity growth. If we limit ourselves to this single imperfect measure, then the labor productivity of infantrymen increased at a price (under 1.1 percent annually) that was a bit slower between 1750 and 1911 than it had been during the preceding 150 years (1.5 percent annually between 1600 and 1750). But the firing rate ignores a host of other improvements, such as the useful range of handguns, which had jumped by a factor of 5 over the nineteenth century, a growth rate of 1.5 percent per year.   

A more accurate index of productivity would take into account both the range and the rate of fire, plus other measures of a weapon's performance too. Such a yardstick does exist; it amounts to a theoretical estimate of how lethal a particular weapon is, at least under ideal circumstances. If it is used to gauge the effectiveness of military labor, then the labor productivity of an infantryman with a handgun climbed 1.6 percent per year between 1750 and 1903. World War I era machine guns, a more capital-intensive weapon, were deadlier still, although they required a crew of more than one man. The implied labor productivity growth might have reached 2.0 percent per year over the nineteenth century. It was even higher for field artillery. The best field cannon of the late eighteenth century (the one that Gribeauval devised in France in the aftermath of France's defeat in the Seven Years War) gave Napoleon a great advantage. Still, it paled by comparison to the rifled, breech-loading 75 mm guns deployed at the end of the nineteenth century. They yield labor productivity growth rates of as much as 5.1 percent annually for nearly a century and a half. That result and the others derived from this lethality index are all comparable to or higher than long-run labor productivity growth rates in advanced modern economies.⁹

Theoretical effectiveness, it is true, did not always mean victory on the battlefield. Military success depended on a host of other factors, from tactics, strategy, and organization to the size and behavior of the enemy's forces. A 75 mm gun, for instance, could cut down charging infantry, yet it was of little use once troops had dug into trenches, a significant drawback, it turned out, in the opening days of World War I.¹⁰ Tactics, in particular, took time to work out. But if tactics were right, then a new weapon could devastate troops who carried outmoded equipment and had not yet adjusted their own manner of fighting. In the 1866 Austro-Prussian War, for example, rapid-fire from Prussians' breech-loading rifles slaughtered the unfortunate Austrians. Unlike the Prussians, the Austrians had to stand to load their muzzle-loading rifled muskets, which not only slowed them down but also made them easy targets.¹¹

The contest between new and old could be just as lopsided at sea. In the Crimean War, the Russian navy wiped out the Turkish fleet at the Black Sea port of Sinope by firing new explosive shells instead of traditional solid cannonballs.¹² 

And when the new weapons were matched with the transportation technology of the Industrial Revolution, so Daniel Headrick has shown, the Europeans could wield power in territory that had long been beyond their reach. In China, steam-powered gunboats helped the East India Company bully its way into trade concessions during the First Opium War. British military action against China in the Opium War of 1839-1842 created a new precedence for Western penetration of Eastern markets. For states that refused to open their doors to Western trade on Western terms the military option now appeared absolutely justified As King William II of the Netherlands wrote to the Japanese emperor in 1844 advise to accommodate Western demands, "lest happy Japan be destroyed by war." Although the US never gave accolade to British aggression against China, and often railed against it, they knew that Britain would not hesitate to use the means of its military for commercial and hegemonic ends.

The East India Company's steamers fought their way up the Yangtze River, towing armed sailing ships to bombard the shore until they reached the canal that brought Beijing its food. They then choked off the capital's supplies, which assisted the British in getting an extortionate settlement: not just trade on favorable terms, but an indemnity and a new colony, Hong Kong. Similarly, railroads, steamboats, and better weapons (including machine guns by the end of the nineteenth century) made possible conquest in parts of  North and South America where guerrilla warfare waged by decentralized Native  American societies had defied Europeans from the age of the conquistadores on.¹³

The gunpowder technology, in short, grew even more effective in the nineteenth century, widening the military gap between those who had cutting-edge weapons and supply systems and those who did not. The haves now included not just the Europeans, but European Americans in newly independent colonies like the United States, and also countries that adopted the technology and industrialized rapidly, such as Japan. What then explains the acceleration of technological change in the military sector? 


Technological Change and Armed Peace

We also should take into account three changes that put a distinctive stamp on nineteenth-century European politics, diplomacy, and technology. The first was the shift in the incentives that rulers and political leaders faced after Napoleon transformed the rules of war. Defeat now carried the risk that a sovereign would be deposed or that a country would lose its independence.¹⁴ At the same time, glory receded in importance as goal rulers and leaders pursued, having succumbed to Enlightenment attacks and the devastating experience of the Napoleonic era. One sign of glory's waning hold was the diminishing frequency with which the word "glory" (or its French equivalent, "gloire") appeared in texts, particularly when it was yoked to the word for "war". As it shrank in importance, the prize at stake in conflicts dropped in value too, and it declined even more as foreign policy came under the control of statesmen and political leaders who stood to gain less and lose more in war than any Old Regime monarch. That made the peaceful settlement for the leaders making decisions about war all the more attractive. 

The key difference, however, was that actually negotiating a peaceful settlement had grown far easier, for, with glory reduced to insignificance and the older indivisible goal of defeating enemies of the faith having faded away even earlier, the prize could now be divided up. Yet another unified goal, gaining a trade monopoly, also faded away in the nineteenth century, as protectionism receded and mercantile companies lost their role as proxy navies.¹⁵ For all these reasons then, negotiation and peace became much more likely outcomes than they had been before 1815, at least within Europe itself. If we set colonial wars aside, then the amount of time western Europeans spent fighting and the combat deaths they suffered both dropped by nearly 80 percent between 1650–1815 and 1816–1913.  

The wars considered include all conflicts that were fought at least in part in western Europe and that involved at least one of the following countries: Austro-Hungary, Belgium, Britain, Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Prussia, Spain, and Sweden. Naval campaigns and colonial wars were excluded. The figures for total years of war per century were calculated by summing the length of all the wars fought in each period and then dividing by the length of the period. Since more than one war could be going on in any given year, the total years of war could exceed the length of the period. The range of each battle was set equal to one plus the ending year minus the starting year. Deaths before the nineteenth century are subject to considerable uncertainty.  

Not that Europeans abandoned wars and military spending entirely in the interval between the Napoleonic Wars and World War I. They continued to fight colonial wars, particularly at the end of the century, and they used force (or the threat of force) to put down or discourage civil disturbances, which rocked Europe more than once during the nineteenth century.¹⁶ And wars were still fought within Europe: battles of nationalism, such as the Italian Risorgimento, which unified Italy, or great power conflicts, such as the Franco-Prussian and Crimean Wars. What reigned after 1815 was not a complete respite from hostilities within Europe, but rather an armed peace with occasional interruptions, an armed peace backed up by continued military spending. 

To incorporate the changed incentives, we again assume that pairs of rulers or politicians are selected and thrust into the same sort of repeated tournament, each pair engages in the tournament only once, with the tournament determining whether they are bellicose during their reigns or time in office.¹⁷ Now consider two of these rulers or statesmen who are willing to go to war: they have paid the fixed cost and mobilized their resources as in the original model. But then take into account the changed circumstances: the prize is now divisible. The easiest way to do that is to modify so that the two rulers can negotiate over dividing the prize before they start fighting.¹⁸ If they can both agree to a division, they can split the prize accordingly, but if not, they have to battle one another, as in the original model,  with the winner receiving a prize that is reduced by the damage and losses caused by war. If their agreement can be enforced by the resources they have mobilized, then they will settle. 

A tournament will have the same equilibrium as before, but with two differences. First, the rulers will now act as if the prize has been diminished by the harm war does. Second, and even more critical, the rulers will no longer fight, even when they both arm and pay the fixed cost. Instead, they will mobilize a number of resources that reflect their total cost and the lower value of the prize, but instead of using the resources to battle one another, they will arm themselves and watch one another warily in an armed peace. Rulers will still devote resources to their armies and navies, but war itself should be less frequent, although it may still break out because of other obstacles to reaching a settlement. That prediction fits nineteenth-century European history fairly closely. 

Supposing that rulers do not take into account the damage war does until after 1815 is, of course, an oversimplification. So too is the assumption that bargaining to divide the prize begins only after 1815. Without "glory", trade monopolies, or victory over enemies of the faith, it was easier after 1815 to negotiate a division of what rulers would otherwise fight for. Furthermore, a king who lost the war after 1815 risked his throne and so would bear more of the cost of war. So would the ministers or members of parliaments who increasingly made decisions about war. It was no longer the Old Regime, where two princes could battle one another for glory while foisting all the costs onto their subjects. For the princes, the war did little personal damage and brought them huge gains, but by 1815, all that had changed, making negotiation more likely. The outcome, an armed peace, was not wholly new either, but it did become far more likely. 

The second significant change in the nineteenth century stemmed from political and administrative reforms that cut the administrative cost of mobilizing resources. During the Napoleonic Wars, western European states eliminated most of the Old Regime's particularism. They made their financial systems uniform, and later in the century, representative assemblies gained a voice in budgetary decisions. On average, the reforms boosted a country's real per capita tax revenues substantially, even after we take into account the effects of economic growth and the higher taxation that war and foreign threats triggered, indeed, by over 62 percent.¹⁹ The reforms, in short, made it easier to raise taxes and hence diminished the political cost of mobilizing resources.

Nationalism and conscription had a similar impact. They cut the cost of military labor and made it possible to assemble much larger armies, particularly at the end of the nineteenth century, when railroads facilitated the task of transporting massive forces and keeping them supplied.²⁰ 

The result was a lower total cost, which would boost military spending either in war or in an armed peace. That could, in turn, offset the two forces that reduced the value of the prize and so had the opposite effect on military spending, glory's waning hold on leaders and the damage done by war.²¹ The bottom line was that although the nineteenth-century statesmen in charge of foreign policy would be more likely to negotiate peaceful settlements, they would still marshal substantial resources when hostilities actually broke out and even during the armed peace. 

The evidence on nineteenth-century military spending bears out that conclusion. In Britain and France, for instance, expenditures on the army and navy in the relatively peaceful period between the 1820s and the 1860s were roughly the same as or even considerably higher than they had been in the equally peaceful 1780s .²² The two countries' military spending climbed to still higher levels at the end of the century, as an arms race took hold of Europe and as higher incomes and tax revenues made sizable spending increases possible.²³ For the great powers in Europe as a whole, military spending in real terms rose on average at a 1.7 percent per year rate between 1816 and 1913, even if we filter out the temporary increases during wars.²⁴ That rate would translate into over a fivefold jump in military spending. However, it would still not take into account all the manpower that nineteenth-century states could commandeer by conscription, for unlike their Old Regime predecessors, they did not have to hire hordes of mercenaries or privateers. 

Silver conversions (see also: were done using the market price for silver in nineteenth-century Britain; otherwise, the mint price was used. If we include colonial wars, then France had four years with war in the 1780s and again in 1820–1824, and 10 years with war in 1835–1844 and again in 1855–1864. The figures for Britain with colonial conflicts included were four years with war in the 1780s, two years with war in 1820–1824, and 10 years with war in 1835–1844 and again in 1855–1864. Ignoring colonial wars reduces these numbers significantly.  

The final distinctive feature of the nineteenth century was that military technology could now be advanced not just via learning by doing, but by research and development. Some research, of course, had always been was done, but it grew more common in the eighteenth century, as the Enlightenment encouraged the collection and appreciation of useful knowledge. The research made it possible to improve the gunpowder technology without actually fighting. The task became even easier in the nineteenth century, with the advances in science and the growth of engineering know-how during the Industrial Revolution.²⁵ And the research was worth doing to make sure that potential enemies did not get a technological edge, which would give them an advantage in a real war or in negotiating the division of the prize in an armed peace.²⁶

When, for instance, the French navy added steam warships in the 1840s, British leaders grew fearful of a possible invasion and quickly jumped into a naval shipbuilding race with France. In a short time, the arms race led both the British and French navies to adopt the screw propeller, which was less vulnerable to gunfire than the original method of steam propulsion, paddle wheels. Yet Britain and France did not go to war to begin the process. They relied on research, including 1845 tug-of-war in Britain between a steamship with a screw propeller and another one with paddle wheels.²⁷ Similar research, spurred by fear of potential enemies, led  (along with advances in useful knowledge during the Industrial Revolution) to better handguns, artillery, and fortifications, all in the midst of what was, for Europe, a  time of peace.²⁸  Before we see how this research and development were carried out, along with the greater supply of useful knowledge. As we know, more helpful knowledge (particularly the new science and the engineering know-how from the Industrial Revolution) would relax the limit to learning by doing and magnify the innovation that learning by doing produces. It should presumably do the same with research. But how precisely do we link the research for military innovation? In the original model, innovation was driven by military expenditure, and that is why it was only possible in wartime, for rulers at peace spent nothing on war, at least in the model. But with the sort of armed peace that prevailed in the nineteenth century, political leaders will still be devoting resources to the military, even though they do not fight. One possibility would allow all the military spending in the armed peace to generate innovation, just as in the original model. If so, then innovation should accelerate in the nineteenth century, because military expenditures were rising and the effect of the spending would be enhanced by all the new useful knowledge.²⁹ 

That assumption, however, may seem too optimistic, because only some of the military spending went for research. An alternative would be to suppose that only the research money spawns improvements to military technology. Although it would be only a fraction of total military spending, innovation would still be possible, and the more significant the fraction was, the more innovation there would be. At the same time, the advances in knowledge would compensate for the fact that only a portion of military spending was advancing the gunpowder technology.³⁰ 

What would these two alternatives lead us to expect for military innovation in the nineteenth century? If research spending alone is doing all the work and if we ignore all new knowledge, then we would not predict much innovation, for research spending itself was not a large fraction of the total defense budget in the nineteenth century.³¹ But if total defense spending is what matters, then the nineteenth century should witness more advances than in the past, because of military expenditures rose to unprecedented levels by the 1860s and increased on average over fivefold by the start of World War I.³² The reality of course likely lay somewhere between these two extremes: some of the money that went for items other than research probably did make the gunpowder technology better, so we could expect some innovation. And even more important, the new knowledge would magnify the effects of the spending and keep innovation from slowing down. The armed peace in the nineteenth century could then do more to improve gunpowder technology than the incessant war of the early modern period.  If the new model were a crystal ball, it would, therefore, predict a different fortune for Europe in the interval between Waterloo and World War I:

  Europe would experience an armed peace, with fewer wars but continued military spending. 

  The military expenditure would rise, because of economic growth and because conscription and political reforms had cut the total cost of mobilizing resources. 

  Research and military spending would make it possible to improve the gunpowder technology without war, but more useful knowledge would be critical. It would keep military innovation from waning and drive the advances forward at an even faster pace. 

That was what happened. Despite passing less time on the battlefield, the leaders of the major European military powers were still competing in a repeated tournament in the nineteenth century, and their resources were still pushing the gunpowder technology forward. They kept their eyes glued on their rivals, with the French fretting about the Germans and the British worrying about the French, and they sought to replace outmoded weapons systems with better technology. Politicians and interest groups could even exaggerate threats to boost taxes and expand the military budget. In 1858, for example, France began building a new armored fleet that could do little more than attack British dockyards: the French ironclads could not control the seas or pave the way for an invasion of Britain. But the British prime minister could exploit the fears of a French attack to get a tax increase,  which paid for better fortifications at dockyards, ironclads for Britain's navy,  and, last but not least, improved artillery that could pierce the armor of the new  French vessels.³³

Europe's leaders ended up spending even more on the military than rulers had in the eighteenth century, and they eagerly acquired weapons and ships that would help them outdo potential opponents in Europe's nineteenth-century equivalent to the Cold War. Although they could not devote the bulk of their budgets to researching better versions of the gunpowder technology, their expenditures did keep technological change going and even accelerated it, particularly during the arms buildup before World War I because the money was coupled with the explosion of engineering and scientific know-how during the Industrial Revolution. That knowledge, so the model implies, was critical here, for it magnified the effect of the spending and released innovation from the limits imposed by the existing store of knowledge. 


Nineteenth-Century Military Research and Development

How then was the research on new weapons carried out? And how were the improvements to the gunpowder technology developed and put into practice? Some of the research, and even more of the development of new technology, was done directly by the government. But many of the advances came from private entrepreneurs, who made a number of the significant discoveries that pushed the gunpowder technology ahead in the nineteenth century, from Dreyse's breech-loading rifle to Maxim's machine gun and Krupp's rifled steel cannons.³⁴ 

Military research itself was not entirely new. In the sixteenth century, King Philip II of Spain ran experiments to test military inventions and rewarded the inventors whose designs were promising.³⁵ But the experimentation grew more frequent and more effective when the Enlightenment spurred the systematic collection of useful knowledge. Eighteenth-century experiments with remedies against shipworms led the British navy to a solution, copper sheathing and fittings for hulls, that boosted the speed of ships by perhaps 20 percent and magnified the adequate size of the fleet by as much as a third.³⁶ And at the end of the eighteenth century, the physician Gilbert Blane drew on statistical evidence to argue for cleanliness and better diet in the British navy. His efforts (and those of others) cut shipboard mortality and thereby gave the British navy an edge because it could keep experienced crews at sea longer.³⁷ 

The engineering know-how of the Industrial Revolution, along with the growing base of scientific knowledge, made the Enlightenment research even more productive, but putting the knowledge into practice often had to wait until well into the 1800s. In the eighteenth century, for instance, the mathematician and military engineer Benjamin Robins invented the ballistic pendulum, which made it possible to measure the velocity of a projectile fired by a gun, and he and the Swiss scientist  Leonhard Euler worked out the mathematics of air resistance needed for a better ballistic theory. But until the nineteenth century, many of these insights could not be utilized, even though military reformers and leaders such as Napoleon considered them essential. Robins also investigated why smoothbore muskets were less accurate than rifles, but equipping infantrymen with rifles had to await nineteenth-century manufacturing techniques. Similarly, his insights could not be used to aim artillery, at least under battlefield conditions, because eighteenth-century metal casting turned out cannonballs that varied too much in size and weight to use Robins's new theory. And building a ballistic pendulum big enough to test cannons was too expensive, even for Napoleon.³⁸ 

But like manufacturing and engineering advanced, European states eagerly took advantage of the new techniques to bolster their armies and navies. When the United States perfected the mass production of handguns with interchangeable parts, the British government sent emissaries to America to study and then import the tools and procedures the Americans were using. The virtues of this American system of manufacturing were evident, for parts that could be interchanged on the battlefield would significantly reduce the cost and difficulty of supplying an army. But it required thorough inspections when the guns were being made, plus new gauges, jigs, and tools for working metal and wood. It also meant taking the manufacturing process, which had been in the hands of skilled artisans, and breaking it down into small steps done by specialized machines. To adopt the American methods, the British government constructed a new arsenal at Enfield in 1854, filled it with American machinery, and brought back Americans to help train British workers.³⁹ 

For private entrepreneurs who improved the gunpowder technology, the chief incentive was a lucrative government contract. Alfred Krupp, who pioneered rifled steel cannons, eagerly sought out deals from the German government. 

Other technologically advanced firms did the same in Britain and France.⁴⁰ Foreign sales of armaments or military technology became important as well for the big military contractors such as Armstrong-Whitworth, Krupp, and Vickers too, particularly at the end of the nineteenth century.⁴¹ But it was not just a tiny number of huge companies or great inventors that were chasing after profits from innovation. Consider, for instance, what happened when Britain began building its armored ships as part of its response to France's new ironclads. Although the British navy tested various types of armor to see what worked best, it also received proposals for ways to "shot-proof" ships from private entrepreneurs and inventors: 6 of them in 1857; 21 in 1858, when the  British navy first decided to construct armored ships; and over 590 in the following four and a half years.⁴² The explosion of interest was understandable. Since contracts to build armored ships were large, they offered the prospect of sizable rewards from any innovation that could serve as the design for a large production run. Entrepreneurs and inventors responded accordingly, as they did elsewhere when demand was high in the industrializing economies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.⁴³ 

Big firms did come to dominate the European arms industry by the end of the century, with research that led to dramatic advances. They also sold weapons abroad and, particularly in the case of British firms Vickers and Armstrong-Whitworth exported armament technology to countries such as Japan, Italy, and  Russia. As in the past, innovation was international, and there were relatively few obstacles to the diffusion of cutting-edge technology. Armor plate provides a typical example. By the end of the nineteenth century, the wrought iron that protected the French and British ironclads in the 1860s had been superseded by hardened steel with over twice the resistance to artillery fire, in a process that involved firms,  inventors, and military officers in Britain, France, Germany, and the United States. 

The steel armor, introduced in 1876 by the prominent French firm Schneider, was initially combined with wrought iron to keep it from cracking when struck by artillery shells. Further innovation soon made the wrought iron unnecessary. Better ways of hardening the surface of the steel while maintaining its interior ductile eliminated the cracking, and the addition of nickel (pioneered by Schneider in 1889) and chromium made the steel tougher still. By 1893, the large Krupp family firm devised an improved process of heat treating and hardening nickel-chromium steel that became the norm throughout western Europe. A layer of that armor offered the same protection as over two times as much wrought iron.⁴⁴ 

The innovations that advanced the gunpowder technology in the nineteenth century did not all come from private entrepreneurs, however. Military officers also played an enormous role. In France, the artillery officer Henri-Joseph Paixhans introduced the explosive shells that could be fired in a flat trajectory during naval combat. His experiments showed that they were far more devastating to wooden sailing ships than solid cannonballs, and that convinced the French navy to begin adopting them in 1827. Other advanced navies gradually followed suit, while those that lagged, such as the Turkish fleet at Sinope, risked devastation. The equally innovative French officer Dupuy de Lôme, who persuaded the French navy to build its armored fleet, worked out the design and specifications for the ironclads.⁴⁵ 

Officers and government officials were particularly effective at making the new technology work in practice and at devising tactics and strategy that took advantage of the innovations.⁴⁶ They also created appropriate supply systems. Without this further development, and suitable tactics, strategy, or supply, new weapons could prove useless or, worse yet, backfire. Officers and officials of the Prussian army were perhaps lost successfully in getting all these ingredients right in the late nineteenth century. Under the direction of perceptive leaders such as Helmuth von Moltke, the Prussian army figured out how to adapt the military strategy to the railroad and how to use rail lines efficiently to deliver troops and supplies. It also devised the right tactics for new weapons, for instance, waiting to fire with the new breech-loading rifles, which the Prussians deployed with such success against the Austrians in 1866.⁴⁷ The efforts of von Moltke the elder, and other European officers and officials ended up reinforcing the undertakings of the private entrepreneurs, a complementary relationship with centuries of history in western Europe. 

As military technology advanced, the contractual side of the relationship between the government and the private entrepreneurs began to change too. For an entrepreneur, new weapons posed a considerable risk because they now required extensive research spending before production could even begin. If the research did not pan out, there would be nothing to sell, but also if it did yield an effective new weapon, there might well be only one buyer, the entrepreneur's government, mainly if authorities decided to block sales to rival foreign powers. All of these problems arose, for example, with the torpedo, which shook up naval warfare in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by giving small torpedo boats a way to sink large battleships. Soon navies were building destroyers, which could stop the torpedo boats and also launch their own torpedo assaults, but behind all these changes lay research by private firms and by governments to solve challenging engineering problems that combined chemistry, physics, metallurgy, and precise machining. The researchers learned how to use gyroscopes to increase the torpedoes' accuracy, and by improving propulsions systems, they boosted the speed of projectiles nearly 8-fold and their range 50-fold in the half-century before World War I. The research needed to achieve these advances was so extensive that governments either did it themselves or paid firms to undertake it, all before deciding whether to buy the torpedoes. Research and procurement were thus becoming distinct parts of defense contracts (at least for torpedoes), as in modern defense contracting.⁴⁸ 

Together, the government researchers, military officers, and private entrepreneurs pushed the gunpowder technology to new levels of destructiveness. By  World War I, infantry rifles were over ten times deadlier than eighteenth-century  flintlocks, machine guns nearly a hundred times more lethal, and artillery more  than a thousand times more destructive than the best field cannons available to  Napoleon.⁴⁹ On the oceans, steam power had liberated navies from the tactical constraints of sails (though strategy now depended on accessible fuel supplies),  and warships, now bristling with long-range ordnance, could battle on the high seas in a way that would have astonished eighteenth-century sailors.⁵⁰  The militaries were far more significant, too, thanks to conscription and even more so to the railroads that made transporting troops and supplying them much easier. In  World War I, the armies of most of the great powers in Europe swelled to nearly five million soldiers or even more, over twenty-five times the size of the average great power army in the eighteenth century.⁵¹ The huge armies and navies made it even harder for leaders outside Europe to join the ranks of the great powers at the beginning of the twentieth century: the hurdle, or in the language of the model,  the "fixed cost", would simply be too high, for they too would have to build a  giant navy and man a huge army. Either their economies would have to be as large and as advanced as that of the United States, or they would have to be as determined to industrialize and to adopt the latest military technology as Japan was.⁵² 


What the Innovations Meant for Conquest and Imperialism

Although Europe basked in relative peace between 1815 and the start of World War  I, at least by the standards of the past, the rest of the world, and the regions that became new European colonies, in particular, were not so fortunate. The nineteenth-century diplomatic coalition may have, discouraged fighting within Europe itself, but imperial wars were another matter, and by the last decades of the century, a race to add colonies was on, driven by lobbying and the widespread conviction among Europe's leaders and elites that they were engaged in mercantilist competition in which settlements were essential to their nations' success.⁵³ 

Whatever the specific motives were, one thing was clear: with the military innovations the tournament had produced (rifles and steam gunboats are prime examples, as Daniel Headrick has shown), it was now far easier to build or enlarge empires abroad. In the past, the gunpowder technology had proved ineffective against societies that lacked cities or had no centralized government, such as the central Asian nomads or the Plains Indians in the Americas. But by the second half of the nineteenth century, it no longer had such limitations. At the same time, medical advances allowed Europeans to survive tropical diseases such as malaria that had previously ravaged troops and officials in Africa. In 1823–1836, some 97 percent of the British forces in West Africa died or were obliged to leave the army. By 1909–1913, the mortality rate had plummeted to under 1 percent, and the prices dropped almost as much for Europeans in French West Africa and other tropical climates. Defeating disease opened the door to colonizing parts of the world such as the interior of Africa that had long been off-limits.⁵⁴ And the gunpowder technology was, if anything, even more, capital-intensive so that a small number of 

Europeans could conquer and hold territory in these new colonies, where there were usually few European settlers. 

Victory in these colonial campaigns still demanded the right tactics and strategy. Otherwise, the Europeans could still be beaten, as the British were in 1879 in the battle at Isandlwana against the Zulus.⁵⁵ Winning also depended on the ability to supply and transport troops. Difficulties getting supplies to troops undercut whatever advantage the gunpowder technology might have given the British in Afghanistan, and their tactics proved ill-suited for the rugged environment and for the sort of guerrilla war the Afghans were waging. Eventually, the British decided that they could never conquer and hold Afghanistan.⁵⁶ 

In Africa, by contrast, little now held the Europeans back, apart from their blunders. That was true even when the Africans had modern rifles because the arms the Europeans bore were more advanced. To double the size of the territory that his British South Africa Company controlled in modern Rhodesia, Cecil Rhodes merely needed to fund a force of 700 Europeans, whose machine guns decimated an army of 5,000 rifle-bearing Ndebele warriors in 1893. The Ndebele casualties were more than 30 times the number of Europeans killed or wounded.⁵⁷

Force or the threat of force also helped open the door to the interiors of India, of Australia, and Southeast Asian islands. With a dominant military technology in their hands, the Europeans pushed their colonies in Australia and South and Southeast Asia inland and seized control of most of Africa by 1914. 

This said indigenous peoples were not always averse to the arrival and settlement by outsiders. The colonial powers had metal tools, new military technology, and other material goods, making them valuable as trading partners. Colonial governments, for their part, learned from bitter direct experience or from the costly errors of their rivals that extended military campaigns against the original inhabitants carried enormous costs and rarely resulted in a peaceful settlement and devel­opment frontier.


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