Coppering the Industrial Revolution: History, Materiality and Culture in the Making of an Ecological Regime
Keywords:copper, Industrial Revolution, ecological regime, Figure-ground movement
No copper, no Industrial Revolution. Although accountants listed it in the very last position in the table of “value added” per sector in 1831, the British copper industry was essential for the Industrial Revolution, the period of British hegemony over the world-economy. In this article, I use the figure-ground method proposed by Terence K. Hopkins to show that the copper industry played key roles in the ecological regime of the 1700-1840 period, due to its material properties and related historical contingencies and cultural valuations. By focusing in on particular production processes, historical contingencies, and cultural phenomena in which copper played an important and unique role, and then zooming out again to the world-economy as a whole, I show that an Industrial Revolution would not have happened without copper. From sugar production in the Caribbean to textile printing, from the slave trade to the Battle of Saintes, from the development of the steam engine to gin and rum production, from the telegraph to buckles and buttons, copper was conspicuous. This demonstrates the ecological regime of the period, in which the removal of a single commodity from the picture—i.e., copper—disrupts the whole constellation of relations. This study also shows that a “copper boom” immediately before and at the start of the Industrial Revolution (~1700-1800), instrumental in the British struggle against France for the hegemony over the world-economy, has been overlooked in the literature. Additionally, the article includes a reflection on method.
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