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Neither the elite, nor the mass. The rise of intermediate human capital during the French industrialization process


This paper investigates the development of intermediate human capital in nineteenth-century France. We perform panel and cross-sectional regression analyses to compare the effect of technological change on basic versus intermediate human capital accumulation. Our contribution reveals that a shift in the kind of skills required occurred in the second half of the nineteenth century. We show that steam technology adoption was conducive to the accumulation of intermediate human capital in the second half of the nineteenth century.

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  1. 1.

    On the relationship between industrialization and the rise of adult education, see Diebolt et al. (2019).

  2. 2.

    At this period, steam power remained the main source of energy for production. The first International Electricity Exhibition took place in Paris in 1881, but the use of electricity power in manufacturing was scarce (if null). According to David (1990, 356): “At the turn of the century, farsighted engineers had envisaged profound transformations that electrification would bring to factories stores, and homes. But the materialization of such visions hardly was imminent.

  3. 3.

    According to Grew and Harrigan (1991, 192), enrolments in secondary schools were only about 3 percent of the enrolments in primary schools in the 1870s.

  4. 4.

     « L'instruction primaire supérieure comprend nécessairement, en outre, les éléments de la géométrie et ses applications usuelles, spécialement le dessin linéaire et l'arpentage, des notions des sciences physiques et de l'histoire naturelle applicables aux usages de la vie, le chant, les éléments de l'histoire et de la géographie, et surtout de l'histoire et de la géographie de la France.»  (Guizot Law 1833, Article 1).

  5. 5.

    Figure 4 in Appendix 1 shows that the number of steam engines is highly correlated with the number of steam appliances, the number of industries in each French county that uses steam technology and the steam power in use.

  6. 6.

    The decline around 1870 is related to the Franco-German war. From 1870 onwards, Alsace-Moselle does not belong to France anymore, making the national record of steam engines decreasing mechanically.

  7. 7.

    Basses-Alpes, Hautes-Alpes, Ariège, Cantal, Corrèze, Corse, Creuse, Landes, Lot, Lot-et-Garonne, Lozère, Basses-Pyrénées, Hautes-Pyrénées, Pyrénées-Orientales, Haute-Vienne and Yonne.

  8. 8.

    We do not choose a more recent time period, like 1786–1790 or 1816–1820, because these two more recent measures can plausibly be correlated with the industrial era.

  9. 9.

    Due to the lack of available data, we use the number of primary schools per 10 000 inhabitants and the number of municipalities with no school in 1837 as a proxy for the density of the educational network in the 1840s. We make the assumption that the educational network varied slowly. To check robustness, we test the number of municipalities with no school in 1850. Estimates are very similar.

  10. 10.

    Due to data constraints, we consider enrolments in classes for adults in 1837 as a proxy for 1840. The relationship remains nonsignificant when considering a 10-year lag.


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We wish to thank Joerg Baten, Joyce Burnette, Alexandra De Pleijt, Chris Minns, Kevin O’Rourke, Alessandro Nuvolari, Douglas Puffert, Claudia Rei, Jacob Weisdorf and Jeffrey Williamson for helpful comments and discussions during the 8th World Congress of Cliometrics. We are also grateful to Robin Cowan, Michael Haupert, David Le Bris, Julien Pénin, the audience of the Cournot Seminar and the participants at the “Cliometrics” session during the 66th AFSE Congress. We are deeply indebted to the University of Lyon III, the University of Strasbourg (BETA), the Association De Dietrich and the Association Française de Cliométrie for their financial and scientific support.

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Correspondence to Charlotte Le Chapelain.

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Appendix 1

See Fig. 4.

Fig. 4

Number of steam engines in use in France (1839–1900), number of industries in France using the steam technology (1840–1900) and the steam power in use in France (1840–1900)

Appendix 2

See Fig. 5.

Fig. 5

Number of steam engines against distance to Fresnes, in 1839, 1861 and 1886: scatter plots and linear prediction

Appendix 3

Summary statistics for cross-sectional analyses

Variable Obs. Mean SD Min. Max
Steam engines
Steam engines (number in 1839) 87 29.21839 78.66923 0 500
Steam engines (number in 1861) 89 177.5843 339.6053 0 2195
Steam engines (number in 1886) 87 603.1149 818.2184 7 5156
Human capital
Basic skills      
Schools per 10,000 inhabitants 1837 86 16.37105 6.576636 4.87 35.41
Number of municipalities with no school in 1837 86 65.89535 58.81797 0 271
Proportion of conscripts in 1871–1875 86 65.74767 18.22843 26.1 96.3
Intermediate skills      
Number of men in classes for adults in 1837 86 429.814 775.1765 0 4354
Number of men in EPS in 1840 89 171.4045 288.0978 0 2317
Basic skills      
Number of municipalities with no school in 1863 89 9.191011 14.81697 0 94
Proportion of conscripts in 1851–1855 87 82.47241 11.13518 50.9 98.7
Schools per 10,000 inhabitants in 1863 89 19.93674 8.013606 1.99 61.79
Intermediate skills      
Number of individuals in EPS in 1882 86 348.0116 607.7334 0 4956
Number of individuals in classes for adults in 1863 89 1411.764 2178.488 0 15,017
Basic skills      
Schools per 10,000 inhabitants in 1886 86 24.28488 8.632967 6.4 59.1
Number of municipalities with no school in 1886 85 0.9411765 1.966099 0 12
Proportion of conscripts in 1886 86 94.97674 4.243214 80.6 99.7
Intermediate skills      
Number of individuals in classes for adults in 1886 89 2032.27 4082.784 0 32,370
Number of individuals in EPS in 1886 86 445.6512 686.3865 0 5616
Instrument and controls      
Distance to Fresnes (aerial distance in km) 89 497.5562 220.6439 43 999.5
Distance to Paris (aerial distance in km) 89 365.4663 188.7642 0 918.86
Literacy (percent of grooms who signed their marriage license in 1686–1690) 76 18.96816 10.87633 3.68 45.66
Latitude 89 46.42664 2.105079 41.9192 50.6292
Fertile soil (in 1837) 86 84,608.93 100,777.4 0 429,000
Cultivable land (in 1834) 86 215,814.2 90,405.15 29,278 416,770
Royal roads (number in 1824) 86 6.953488 3.184178 3 25
Population density (in 1801) 86 1314.895 2757.644 0 26,316
Maritime 89 0.258427 0.4402502 0 1

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Diebolt, C., Le Chapelain, C. & Menard, A.R. Neither the elite, nor the mass. The rise of intermediate human capital during the French industrialization process. Cliometrica 15, 167–202 (2021).

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  • Human Capital
  • Industrialization
  • Steam engines
  • Technological change
  • France

JEL Classification

  • A12
  • C18
  • C80
  • I21
  • N13
  • N33
  • N73
  • N93
  • O14
  • O33