The Division of Labor: Early Examples in China and India

Amy Willis for AdamSmithWorks

How does the story of the spindle wheel fit with what Adam Smith says about the rise of the division of labor? Amy Willis, drawing from Virginia Postrel's new book The Fabric of Civilization, zeroes in on the central role of decentralized innovation.
Since our site launched, we here at AdamSmithWorks have had lots to say about the division of labor. And rightly so, since the concept is so closely linked in the popular and scholarly imagination to Smith. We also point out in the first room of our animated pin factory:
Adam Smith famously described the manufacture of pins, but he was not alone. The marvelous cooperative production process of pins was also illustrated by Denis Diderot in the most famous of the Encyclopedias of the time. And yet, Adam Smith described the division of labor with a much deeper understanding than his predecessors, and more remains to be explored.
More indeed. And as the person who wrote the words above, I had no idea just how much more there is to learn about the division of labor--and how very much it predates Smith.
In his account of division of labor, there are [at least] two important truths Smith calls to our attention. First, that it “is not originally the effect of any human wisdom,” or the result of any individual mind, but rather an outgrowth of our natural propensity to truck, barter, and exchange. The division of labor is (usually) a bottom-up phenomenon, the result of people choosing to do things at the union set of what they’re good at and what is profitable. Second, though the principals of a particular firm profit mightily from increased productivity, the specific improvements are more often than not discovered much lower down the food chain. Recall the little boy in Smith’s fire-engine story
In the first fire-engines, a boy was constantly employed to open and shut alternately the communication between the boiler and the cylinder, according as the piston either ascended or descended. One of those boys, who loved to play with his companions, observed that, by tying a string from the handle of the valve which opened this communication to another part of the machine, the valve would open and shut without his assistance, and leave him at liberty to divert himself with his play-fellows. One of the greatest improvements that has been made upon this machine, since it was first invented, was in this manner the discovery of a boy who wanted to save his own labour. 
We know Smith was familiar with many such contemporaneous examples. Still, I was struck by a fascinating story in Virginia Postrel’s new book, The Fabric of Civilization. In her chapter on Thread, we learn of the development of spindle wheel: “the first and only labor- and time-saving device developed for the production of yarn and thread” before the fifteenth century (p. 53). Since ancient times, spinners had used drop spindles to draw out and twist filaments into thread. The drop spindle relies on gravity to draw down the fiber, while the spinner, well, spins, rolling the thread around the bobbin.
The spindle wheel story begins in China, the home of silk thread. Postrel describes how the spindle wheel was likely developed by a Shandong silk worker in the fifth or fourth century BCE. The spindle wheel was not “invented” again for another millennium in India, and did not make its way to Europe until the fifteenth century. In an improvement on the drop spindle, the spindle wheel added a drive belt which allowed a single turn of the wheel to spin the bobbin multiple times, vastly increasing the quantity of silk thread that could be spun in a given unit of time.
It’s a fascinating story, particularly in Postrel’s hands. (I know it’s early yet, but I feel confident that this book will go down as my top read for 2021…) But I’m also accustomed to giving Smith his due with regard to division of labor. So this story leaves me with lots of questions.
Why did this happen only in China? (We know from Smith that division of labor is limited by the extent of the market…. But we’re talking about a spread of centuries here.)
What other examples of productivity-enhancing innovations developed prior to the 18th century, akin to the spindle wheel, are similarly not that well-known today? Do those innovations complicate at all the usual stories we tell about the rise of the division of labor?
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