Colonies, copper, and the market for inventive activity in England and Wales, 1680–1730


  • This article has benefited from comments made at seminars at Oxford University and Johns Hopkins University as well as conferences organized by the Economic History Society, the British Group of Early American Historians, and the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. I also wish to thank Guillaume Daudin, Margaret Jacob, Christine MacLeod, Koji Yamamoto, and the anonymous referees for their helpful suggestions.


Between 1680 and 1730 the English and Welsh copper industry rose from the dead and by the mid-eighteenth century it had become Europe's leading copper producer. The revival followed the extension of sugar cultivation in England's colonies and the creation of a strong new demand for copper, which was reflected in rising exports and rising prices. Buoyant demand created a favourable market for the inventive activity needed to cut costs in the native industry, which encouraged investment in a systematic programme of research and development and culminated in important breakthroughs in smelting and mining technologies which transformed the non-ferrous metal industries. The story provides an insight into how the economic context shaped the way useful knowledge was produced and consumed. Colonial expansion not only provided England with additional resources overseas but also encouraged the reallocation of human and financial capital to make better use of slack resources at home. Empire and technical change intersected with positive consequences for economic growth.