Technology and the Search for Progress in Modern Mexico

Technology and the Search for Progress in Modern Mexico

by Edward Beatty


View All Available Formats & Editions
Eligible for FREE SHIPPING
  • Want it by Wednesday, October 24?   Order by 12:00 PM Eastern and choose Expedited Shipping at checkout.


Technology and the Search for Progress in Modern Mexico by Edward Beatty

In the late nineteenth century, Mexican citizens quickly adopted new technologies imported from abroad to sew cloth, manufacture glass bottles, refine minerals, and provide many goods and services. Rapid technological change supported economic growth and also brought cultural change and social dislocation.

Drawing on three detailed case studies—the sewing machine, a glass bottle–blowing factory, and the cyanide process for gold and silver refining—Edward Beatty explores a central paradox of economic growth in nineteenth-century Mexico: while Mexicans made significant efforts to integrate new machines and products, difficulties in assimilating the skills required to use emerging technologies resulted in a persistent dependence on international expertise.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520284906
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 05/05/2015
Pages: 360
Product dimensions: 8.80(w) x 5.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Edward Beatty is Associate Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame and the author of Institutions and Investment: The Political Basis of Industrialization in Mexico before 1911.

Read an Excerpt

Technology and the Search for Progress in Modern Mexico

By Edward Beatty


Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96055-8



DURING THE 1970s and 1980s, "dependency" provided a common paradigm for Latin America's condition, and "dependency theory" dominated much of the scholarship on the region. The dependency approach argued that Latin America's development was adversely conditioned by the economic and political power of the industrialized world. Deeply entrenched unequal relations between the Latin American periphery and a European and US core constrained local development paths, producing poverty, inequality, authoritarian politics, and underdevelopment.

By the late 1980s and 1990s, however, new scholarship marked the sharp decline of dependency's influence as an explanatory paradigm. Empirical studies failed to support some of dependency's central claims, and a new generation of scholars moved in other directions: many historians turned to cultural and local studies, while many social scientists took up the study of national institutions and actors in search of local explanations for political and economic outcomes in Latin America. Since then, both historians and social scientists have explicitly or implicitly dismissed the notion that Latin America "depended" on the industrialized core, centered in the North Atlantic, and have often emphasized local agency within the region. Dependency has become a word that most Latin American historians have assiduously avoided for nearly two decades. Nevertheless, the story of technological change in nineteenth-century Mexico is fundamentally one of dependence. Through Mexico's nineteenth century and into the early twentieth, nearly every local effort to innovate, to adopt new ways of doing things in mining, agriculture, and manufacturing, critically depended on access to imported hardware (tools, machines, and parts) and imported technical knowledge and expertise (know-how) from the countries of northern Europe and the United States. Examples of Mexican expertise, ingenuity, and technological capabilities were not altogether absent from the nineteenth-century experience: they were most famously centered in Monterrey but were also present in individuals and firms throughout the country. However, these were isolated and exceptional across a broader landscape in which growing interest and investment in new technologies focused overwhelmingly on the well-publicized availability of global goods: new machines, processes, and expertise developed in and exported from England, France, Germany, Belgium, and the United States—what I will refer to as the "North Atlantic." In this, Mexico's experience differed little from that of many other countries around the globe.

This book argues that dependence on imported machines and know-how was the defining trait of Mexico's history of technology in the nineteenth century and that dependence would remain an important legacy into the twentieth. Built on a broad survey of innovation across the Mexican economy and several detailed case studies, the book examines the nineteenth-century origins of that dependence. In contrast to the assumptions implicit in the more iron-clad nature of the older dependency approach, however, this dependence was not structurally determined by an unequal relationship of exchange between Mexico and the United States and Europe. Nor was it uniformly prescriptive: individuals, firms, industries, and even regions could and did develop independently, with substantial local capacities for technological creativity. Dependence was not hegemonic or inevitable but rather contingent on conditions within Mexico. The particular course of technological development in nineteenth-century Mexico made persistent dependence a likely but not inevitable outcome in the twentieth.

Mexico's technological dependence arose in the gap between adopting new technologies and assimilating new knowledge and expertise. On one hand, importing, adopting, and using new technologies from the countries of the North Atlantic proved relatively easy, at least after 1870. Over the previous half century (ca. 1820-70), persistent economic malaise and low consumer demand in Mexico had consistently discouraged investment in new machines and expertise, with some important exceptions. After about 1870, however, more propitious social and economic conditions in Mexico combined with a dramatic increase in the availability of new machines and knowledge in the North Atlantic as the country reintegrated into an expanding Atlantic economy. Together with gradual social and cultural changes in Mexico, these conditions increased incentives to invest in innovation by adopting machines, tools, and production systems as well as new technical knowledge and expertise embodied in print materials and in people themselves. The result was a massive wave of technology imports between roughly 1870 and the outbreak of revolution in 1910. New technologies, in turn, pushed further social change, increased productivity, and underlay economic growth.

However, it proved far more difficult for individuals and firms working in Mexico to assimilate the knowledge and expertise embedded within new technology imports. Most Mexicans were effectively excluded from opportunities to engage with new technologies in ways that might yield learning. Even for the relatively few with access to technical education and economic opportunity, the obstacles to learning and mastering new knowledge proved substantial. Because individuals and firms had only rarely adopted the technologies of the first industrial revolution before 1870, Mexico possessed an accumulated deficit of local experience and capabilities when faced with a flood of technology imports thereafter, ranging from iron, steam, and mechanized production techniques to the new advances in chemical, metallurgical, and electrical science and technologies of the second industrial revolution. By late century, then, the gap between Mexican capabilities and the North Atlantic technological frontier had widened considerably. Few in Mexico had the particular kinds of human capital necessary to assimilate the knowledge and expertise embodied in technology imports. As a result, both entrepreneurs and policy makers found it cheaper and quicker to import hardware and expertise from abroad than to develop it at home. Dependence on imported technology meant that there would be little demand for domestic sources of technology, and little stimulus to local technological capacities. There would be, in other words, relatively little pressure to invest in the local development of human capital, high-wage skills, and the local production of machines, tools, and their parts. This would depress the potential for both economic development and social opportunities in the long run.

Ironically, the origins of technological dependence are found in Mexicans' aspirations for economic independence. Throughout Mexico's first full century of independence (1820–1911), the country's political and economic elites largely agreed that that el progreso material—material progress, focused especially on new technologies—was crucial to the nation's future. Although they vigorously debated whether that future should be primarily agrarian, extractive, or manufacturing, most argued that acquiring and using new technologies would increase productivity and production, thereby generating new wealth. This view of the "inevitable law of progress" and the "enrichment of the nation" became especially vigorous and nearly unchallenged in the second half of the nineteenth century, when, with few exceptions, Mexican investors and public officials focused on adopting new technologies from abroad rather than inventing and developing them at home.

In this view, national wealth no longer simply lay in Mexico's untapped natural resources, in the country's soil and minerals and geographic diversity that Alexander von Humboldt had famously extolled at the beginning of the century. Instead, progress and wealth lay in the knowledge, skills, labor, tools, and capital required to extract and transform those resources. Nearly ubiquitous references to "material progress" offered a positivistic reference to the physical manifestations of economic progress—new buildings, new infrastructure, and especially the most modern machinery—that could drive the mechanization of economic activity, from the extraction, processing, and transportation of raw materials to the local manufacture of products in new factories. Though partly a vision of an imagined national future, this view also reflected a more concrete and immediate imperative. The alternative was clear: without material progress, Mexico risked succumbing to the threat of North Atlantic and especially US expansion, whether military or economic, and becoming dependent (or, as they put it, "tributary," or even "enslaved") to the country's northern neighbor. By midcentury and after, most observers fervently believed that without the generation of new wealth derived from the productive capacity of newly adopted technologies, Mexico would remain as weak and vulnerable as it had been over its first half century of independence (ca. 1820-70). Even the iconography of national wealth had become increasingly mechanical by century's end: the railroad, the anvil, and the factory, as we can see in the frontispiece to Justo Sierra's magisterial México: Su evolución social (1902-5) (figure 1), in Ireneo Paz's celebratory Álbum de la paz y el trabajo, published on the occasion of the country's 1910 centennial, or in the iconic landscape-with-railroad paintings of José María Velasco. In other words, el progreso material essentially captured what we think of as economic growth: a sustained increase in productivity and production, driven by the adoption of new technologies and measured in increased aggregate output and the generation of new wealth, both public and private.

Support for material progress came not only from Mexico's entrepreneurs, intellectuals, and government officials but also from across much of the social spectrum in direct and indirect ways. The pursuit of progress in Mexico was essentially an elite project and ideology, driven by a search for profit and for national improvement understood in both economic and cultural terms. Mexico's public men valued the "precision," "calibration," and large-scale productive potential of new technologies, as well as the moral attributes of progress, arguing that modern factories equipped with new technologies would become "august temples for the regeneration of men through work." At the same time, however, many tens of thousands of Mexicans entered those temples of progress as both workers and consumers over the last decades of the century. Although slow and uneven, the expansion of consumer markets for goods and services created new incentives to invest in technological innovation. As ordinary Mexicans bought more ready-made clothing, for example, women and garment manufacturers bought sewing machines. As more Mexicans drank beer instead of pulque, Mexican investors faced new incentives to establish domestic breweries and mechanized glass bottle factories. As global demand for gold, silver, and industrial metals rose, foreign capital brought a host of new machinery and refining processes to Mexican mining camps. And this demand was self-reinforcing as well: as new production technologies lowered the production costs of cloth, clothing, beer, bottles, and precious metals (for example), consumption rose still further.

The actual "consumers" of new technologies—those who responded to rising demand for technology's products—ranged from the women and men who bought sewing machines, to entrepreneurs who built new factories to brew beer or manufacture glass bottles, and to foreign investors and mining engineers who pushed a more scientific and industrial approach to mining in Mexico. By 1910, hundreds of thousands of Mexicans worked with or in close proximity to industrial technologies, including roughly thirty-two thousand in textiles, five thousand in cigarette manufacturing, perhaps eighty thousand or so in mining, ten thousand in the electrical industry, over twenty-five thousand on the railroads (and another five thousand for the Compañía de Tranvías de México alone), and at least three hundred thousand sitting regularly or occasionally at sewing machines. New technologies, imported from the countries of the North Atlantic, had become deeply integrated into the social and cultural lives of many Mexicans. In factories, mines, public works, haciendas, and ranchos, as well as in many households, people increasingly substituted new machines, processes, tools, and products for traditional ones: steam and then electricity for the motive power of men and mules, reinforced cement for stone, dynamite for black powder and shovels, beer for pulque, glass bottles for ceramic jugs, and ready-made clothes for home-stitched apparel, to name just a few. These consumers, workers, engineers, entrepreneurs, and government officials were the primary agents of technological change in a society that embraced, contested, and endured material progress—what historians have often vaguely labeled "modernization." Although this book focuses narrowly on technologies used to mechanize economic activities, these were intimately linked to the broader needs, ambitions, dreams, and frustrations of Mexicans across the social spectrum.

Machinery and tools shipped from North Atlantic ports were unloaded on Mexico's docks and railway platforms; some were stored in local warehouses while the rest were reloaded onto branch railways or wagons or mules or the backs of men and boys and shipped to the interior.10 Print materials were packed in bags and pouches and sent onward to cities, offices, homes, and mining camps. Investors, engineers, supervisors, and young men (nearly all men) just out of college—"technicians" in one way or another—stepped off ships and railcars and traveled to the national capital, to provincial cities, or to haciendas, factories, and construction sites. Then the vast majority of these three types of technology imports disappear from our sight. Historians can glimpse bits and pieces of the inundation in the monthly and yearly reports of trade ministries on both sides of the Atlantic, or newly installed in some corner of the country: in almanacs and advertisements and aging photographs, in newspaper notices and travelers' accounts, in government surveys and sometimes in court cases, and ultimately as rusting relics of another age. We can observe the impact of technological change in new sources of employment, in the displacement of traditional livelihoods, in social dislocation and outbursts of protest, in changing relative prices, and—at least in some activities—in rising labor productivity. Indeed, it was the extensive adoption of technologies from the North Atlantic that made possible rapid economic growth in Mexico from the 1870s to 1910, at just over 4 percent per year. However, we have little understanding of the experience of adoption and diffusion of new technologies in Mexico, little clear sense of what differentiated typical from atypical experiences, and even less about the longterm consequences for the twentieth century.

This book traces the contours and patterns of technological change in nineteenth-century Mexico in order to better understand the sharp contrast between the scarcity of innovation before 1870, rapid technological modernization thereafter, and persistent dependence on imported knowledge and expertise into the twentieth century. It examines those factors that encouraged and facilitated the adoption of new technologies, as well as those that limited innovation—that delayed adoption, constrained diffusion, impaired their effective use, and sometimes prevented adoption altogether. Some machines and forms of technical expertise were widely embraced and became deeply integrated into Mexican society and culture, while others barely gained traction. Experiences of adoption varied widely across firms, sectors, industries, and regions. Scholars have until now focused on a handful of industrial settings or anecdotal accounts: the largest, best-connected firms, or industries and activities with the most dramatic change, or the least. In contrast, this book explores a set of representative cases ranging from everyday technologies to larger industrial-scale projects. From railroads, steam power, and iron to sewing machines, glass bottle manufacturing, and silver refining, it identifies central trends and patterns across the Mexican economy. Finally, it explores the apparent paradox of high adoption and low assimilation in Mexico.


Excerpted from Technology and the Search for Progress in Modern Mexico by Edward Beatty. Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


List of Illustrations, vii,
Acknowledgments, ix,
1. • Introduction, 1,
2 • Technology and the Emergence of Atraso, 1820–70, 27,
3 • Technology and the Imperative of Progreso, 1870–1910, 55,
4 • Sewing Machines, 83,
5 • Beer and Glass Bottles, 107,
6 • Cyanide and Silver, 134,
7 • Obstacles to Adoption, 157,
8 • Constraints to Learning, 181,
9 • Conclusion, 208,
Appendix One: Sources and Notes on Mexican Patents, 219,
Appendix Two: Sources and Notes on Iron, Steel, and Machinery Imports, 221,
Notes, 223,
Bibliography, 283,
Index, 313,

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews