“Technology” is the practical expression of accumulated knowledge and expertise focused on how to mediate and manipulate the world. Scholars and contemporary observers of Mexico have long characterized production methods there as unchanging and lagging well behind the standard in the Atlantic world, but there are few systematic studies of technology in Mexican history, and especially for the critical 19th-century era of early modernization.
Mexico’s first half century of independence (c. 1820–1870) saw relatively little technological change. In spite of a number of sustained efforts to introduce the technologies—such as railroads, steam power, and iron manufacturing—that were transforming economic life and production in Great Britain and the United States, production methods in Mexico remained small scale and artisanal. Textile manufactures were a partial exception, as there were several dozen large-scale factories, powered by water turbines and occasionally by steam, that spun and wove thread. But the substantial obstacles to innovation discouraged or undermined most attempts.
The next forty or so years, however, could not have been more different (c. 1870s–1920). As political stability slowly settled over most of the country, investment in economic activities picked up, slowly at first, then more rapidly into the 1880s and beyond. Initially focused on railroad transport and mining, new investments from both Mexican and foreign entrepreneurs diversified into a wide range of manufacturing enterprises, commercial agriculture, and urban infrastructure and commerce. Tightly linked to the concurrent dramatic expansion of the Atlantic economy—the so-called second industrial revolution—this expansion pushed demand for new technologies of production and swept across the country, transforming production, productivity, and the working and consuming lives of Mexicans at nearly all levels of society. The result was substantial modernization, manifest as economic growth as well as social dislocation.
Individuals and firms proved able to adopt and commercialize a wide range of new production technologies during this period. This success was not matched, however, by substantial local assimilation of new technological knowledge and expertise, that is, by a process of technological learning. Until the 1870s, Mexican engineers, mechanics, and workers had scant opportunities to work with and learn from production technologies appearing in the Atlantic world. When new machines, tools, and processes swept across Mexico thereafter, adopting firms typically hired technical experts and skilled workers from abroad, given the scarcity of expertise at home. This became a self-reinforcing cycle, perpetuating dependence on imported machines and imported know-how well into the 20th century.