Week 2: Benjamin Schneider, ‘Technological Change and Work: The Transformation of American Transport, 1750-1860’

Join us on Wednesday 29th January at 4.15pm for the first OxEARS of Hilary Term, where Benjamin Schneider will be joining us to present part of his doctoral research. We will meet in seminar room 1 at the Rothermere American Institute on South Parks Road, and head to the pub for a drink afterwards. All are welcome!

N.B. This will be a conference-style presentation, and there will be no pre-circulated paper.


This paper examines the impact of technological change on work in a dynamic sector of the early American economy. Interurban transport in the Northeastern United States was transformed by institutional and technical changes over the period 1750– 1860 as poorly-maintained municipal roads were replaced by turnpikes, canals, and finally railroads. The paper describes and measures the ways that conditions and work opportunities for transport employees were changed by the key inventions of the period. It uses quantitative and qualitative evidence from company and government records and an index that measures changes in the quality of work— whether occupations were good jobs—to determine how new technology affected this aspect of living standards. The job-level analysis is complemented by figures on the range of occupations available within firms and sector-level data on the change in total employment opportunities in transport.

‘The evidence from this multilayered approach suggests that the creation of increasingly large and sophisticated transport systems produced a greater division of labor, which resulted in rising inequality of living standards when viewed from an occupational quality perspective. Municipal roads in the 18th century were built and maintained by unskilled laborers, with occasional stints by skilled craftsmen. By the mid-19th century, large waterway systems such as the Erie Canal and trunk routes like the Pennsylvania Railroad required a wide variety of specialized workers, ranging from brakemen and lock-tenders to draftsmen and foremen. Opportunities for skilled workers increased, while the share of unskilled laborers fell. Many of the new jobs created, such as clerks and superintendents, were in higher-quality occupations that had safer working conditions and higher remuneration. Even so, the growth of the American economy, supported by improved transport, meant that the sector grew substantially. While workers’ fortunes diverged, this example of technological change did not produce significant technological unemployment.


Benjamin Schneider is a DPhil candidate in Economic and Social History at Merton College, Oxford. He has a BA in History & Government from Cornell University and an MSc in Economic and Social History from Oxford. His research focuses on work, labor markets, and living standards in the 18th and 19th centuries.

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