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date: 24 September 2017

Technology in 19th-Century Mexico

Summary and Keywords

“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.

Keywords: Mexico, 19th century, technology, technological change, technology transfer, economy, railroads, steam engines, iron and steel, modernization, development, dependence


Few historians have written on the development of technology in 19th-century Mexico. In many ways, this is not surprising. Historians’ attention has long been captured by other issues: the fitful, final decades of Spanish colonial rule; the twists and turns of repeated insurgencies; the endemic political struggles that plagued the new nation’s first half century, and the consequent interrelationship between political instability and persistent economic penury; the impact of a new political context on indigenous communities and recurrent episodes of riot, rebellion, and revolt; foreign interventions which ultimately cost the country half its national territory; and the eventual solution to chronic instability in the form of a dictatorship that would endure for thirty-four years, only to implode in revolution by 1911. Mexicans in the 19th century witnessed a tumultuous period of transformation—modernizing, and often wrenching and disruptive, but also with strong threads of continuity with the past.

But in all this, histories of technology are scarce. Only Ramón Sánchez Flores’s encyclopedic Historia de la tecnología y invención en México provides anything like a comprehensive account, together with a handful of synthetic and more focused studies. If not surprising, this should be of concern to historians, because the dynamics and patterns of technological change through the 19th century constitute a central and inseparable part of that history, with large implications for the country’s 20th-century development. This is good news for future historians, who face a field still wide open and full of research possibilities. In the end, central questions of social, cultural, political, and economic change in the 19th century cannot be understood without understanding the technology story.

Technologies are not simply artifacts, those machines and tools and processes that are both products of human construction but also used to produce, in turn, goods and services for human consumption. “Technology” is a complex of knowledge and expertise, generated by humans in a particular time and place, and thus “socially constructed.” In practice, then, technological innovation—actually putting in use new ideas or new ways of doing things—originates either from invention or from adopting and adapting the inventions of others. Three central currents run through the history of technology and technological innovation in 19th-century Mexico. First, technology imports—new technical knowledge embodied in machines, tools, people, and print material that were acquired from Europe or the United States—dominate the historical record. Second, Mexicans worked creatively to take advantage of market opportunities through investment in inventive activity and to modify or adapt imported technologies to meet local conditions. This activity, however, is somewhat more difficult to see in the historical record. Third, while in most cases it proved relatively easy to import and utilize technologies of production that were originally developed abroad, Mexicans faced many obstacles to working with and learning from those technologies. Local assimilation of technical knowledge and expertise by Mexican engineers, mechanics, and workers proved far more difficult than adopting and using technologies of production. Finally, there is still much that is unknown about the history of technology in Mexico, and many opportunities remain for historians’ work.

Technology After Independence, c. 1820s–1860s

Historians agree that through the first half century of independence, technologies of production in agriculture, mining, transportation, and manufacturing remained relatively unchanged, despite some important exceptions. Several contextual factors shaped the possibilities but also the constraints for innovation in this period. First, the slow demise of the colonial order meant that many of the earlier institutional constraints to innovation no longer operated. Second, increasing numbers of public men—politicians, intellectuals, and entrepreneurs—pointed to technological atraso (backwardness) as a national problem and advocated the adoption of new techniques from the industrializing North Atlantic countries. Third, market conditions remained little changed, and there was, quite simply, insufficient demand to generate incentives to innovate.

Over the colonial era (c. 1521–1821), Spanish economic policies that ranged from prohibitions on many forms of manufacturing and trade to the mining and commercial guilds had effectively discouraged technological innovation, in both direct and indirect ways. Late colonial reforms and then the trauma of independence loosened or swept away many of these, but it would take at least half a century before the Mexican state would adopt laws governing commerce, contracts, subsoil rights, and invention patents that could provide a more secure and certain environment for investment in innovation. More importantly, perhaps, Mexico’s transition from colony to nation did nothing to broaden the local supply of human capital. Opportunities to learn about and interact with the new technologies of the first industrial revolution, opportunities for scientific education, and opportunities for even basic training and apprenticeship in mechanics and metal working (for example), remained limited to a very few. Even the renowned Mining College in Mexico City had fallen on hard times relative to its late colonial status. Mexico’s cities all boasted small communities of scientific and technical expertise, and working Mexicans proved able to work and tinker with the few newly imported mechanical devices, but opportunities to do so, and to learn while doing, remained exceedingly scarce. After independence, the institutional constraints to innovation began to loosen, but did not disappear altogether, nor were they replaced by a new regime that might have provided positive incentives and created new opportunities.

At the same time, increasing numbers of prominent Mexicans began to comment on the wave of scientific and technological innovations appearing in Great Britain and elsewhere in the North Atlantic. Economic and scientific leaders were all active consumers of information about new developments. They argued vigorously about the nature of their country’s material wealth, and they disagreed on whether the country’s economic future lay, for instance, in agriculture, mining, or manufacturing. But they largely concurred that Mexico needed those “ingenious and powerful inventions” they saw emerging to the north rather than “the simple and imperfect machines” of the country’s colonial past in order to locate “the inexhaustible source of prosperity.”1 Men like Estevan de Antuñano bemoaned what they saw as a growing gap in knowledge, expertise, and capabilities between Mexico and the early industrializers, and called publically for the adoption of new technologies from the North Atlantic, and for the local development of tool and machine factories “to contribute to our national wealth and power,” and to “give occupation to our carpenters and blacksmiths.”2

But these voices and early efforts to adopt new technologies in mining, manufacturing, and commercial agriculture yielded few results. Overland (and overseas) transportation remained insecure and costly, and household incomes low. Most of the population lived too close to the subsistence economy to be able to support consumption at levels that would incentivize technological innovation. This was true for rural villagers, agricultural peones, and unskilled urban workers, for whom cash incomes were nearly non-existent. By one estimate, households in these groups purchased goods in the cash market on average only once or twice per year. Low incomes and local markets meant that all production remained small scale, artisanal, and generally home based. The anonymous author of an 1830 pamphlet noted that “it is impossible to profitably manufacture here, and no one will do things that lose them money.”3 There was, simply, very weak market demand for the ways that new technologies might increase productive capacity or make new (or better quality) goods available to consumers. As a consequence, until market conditions changed substantially, Mexicans invested very little time, energy, and capital in the risky and uncertain business of innovation.

Confirmation of this general stasis can be seen in the broader documentary record. Imports of capital equipment (machinery and tools, for example) comprised less than 0.5 percent of all imported goods, representing an investment of less than one centavo per capita. Low import levels and scant domestic production meant that tools and machinery were scarce and prohibitively expensive. New technical knowledge, embodied in people and in print materials, was also scarce. Patents averaged under five per year—a tiny number—for over half a century, and the same held true for immigrant human carriers of technical expertise. Although many of those who did come to Mexico brought with them important skills and knowledge, their numbers were small and their impact localized until the last third of the century.

This is not to say that Mexicans working in agriculture, mining, and in other fields did not innovate during this period. Farmers, workers, technicians, and entrepreneurs undoubtedly worked to modify the tools of their trades, and to develop new processes and products, inspired by new ideas gleaned from neighbors, pushed by necessity, or simply prodded internally by an innovative disposition. The historical record offers few glimpses into, for instance, experimentation with modifications of techniques to refine silver in mining camps, or the adoption of new cultivation methods on haciendas. Whatever the extent of such small-scale micro-invention and quotidian tinkering, it left virtually no footprint for historians to track. By all accounts, innovative activity was exceptional and, when present, largely isolated from the broader economy through mid-century.

Fifty years without significant change in productive technologies meant that there were few opportunities for Mexicans to expand their technical knowledge and skills, and consequently no expansion of technological capabilities within Mexican society. This was the case for professionally trained engineers as well as for mechanics and skilled workers. The mining school, for example, continued to produce smart and talented engineers, but more often than not they sought careers outside the mining sector. Only a very small handful of engineers, mechanics, and workers had the opportunity to handle, operate, repair, or otherwise work with and learn the basic principles of mechanics, gearing, and metal working, for example. In the eyes of those in Mexico who advocated technological modernization, this lost opportunity was compounded because it coincided with rapidly expanding innovation, mechanization, and industrialization in Great Britain, the United States, and the North Atlantic generally, expanding the distance between Mexico and the North Atlantic economies.

Technology Transformed, c. 1870s–1911

Beginning in the 1870s, individuals and firms working in Mexico began purchasing an increasing quantity of new production technologies from the North Atlantic. Physical artifacts—technological hardware in the form of machines, tools, implements, and their diverse parts—comprised only one part of an inflow that now represented fully one third of Mexico’s total imports. New processes, new forms of organization, and new ideas and skills embodied in print materials and in people themselves, also flowed increasingly into Mexico. Annual foreign patent applications grew from under five to a thousand or more, while tens of thousands of foreign “experts” (of one sort or another) found short- or long-term employment in mines, factories, haciendas, and cities across the country. This flood of machines and print and people swept through Mexico’s ports of entry and washed across the landscape, seeping into daily lives by transforming production, labor, and consumption for Mexicans at all social levels, in many corners of the country.

It was economic expansion in the North Atlantic countries—the so-called second industrial revolution—that created the international context for Mexico’s rising technology imports as European and US manufacturers sought overseas markets for their products. Imported technology provided the foundation for the era’s sustained economic growth, at roughly 2 percent per capita for nearly four decades, which in turn underwrote the enforced peace of Mexico’s so-called pax porfiriana (1876–1911).

By then, however, the technological frontier in Europe and the United States had moved toward more fully automated large-scale production systems and the industrial production and application of steel, chemicals, and electricity (for example). Mexico’s long isolation from the technologies of the so-called first industrial revolution meant that by the 1870s and after, when the conditions for massive technology imports became favorable for the first time, Mexican engineers, mechanics, and skilled workers had little accumulated experience or expertise. The 1870s and 1880s saw some new investment in expanded educational opportunities, from national engineering programs to trade schools for workers, but these reached only a few. Learning was not impossible, but it remained exceptional. As a result, firms, individuals, and policymakers who sought to adopt new technologies had little choice but to turn quickly toward foreign sources of both hardware and know-how—the tools and machinery of industrial production as well as the human expertise necessary to install, adapt, and operate new production systems. Government policy did little to support local learning or to alter incentives. Ready access to a highly mobile international pool of skilled, trained, and experienced workers greased the wheels for the commercialization of new production technologies in Mexico. It also weakened incentives to develop local sources of technical expertise.

Dramatic change came to transportation, mining, commercial agriculture, manufacturing, and urban infrastructure as Mexicans and foreigners invested hundreds of millions of pesos, dollars, pounds, and marks in new enterprises, and new technologies. Mexican engineers and workers had some opportunity to work with and learn from newly imported machines and processes, and participated in the process of adapting imported technologies to local conditions. But the general tendency was a persistent reliance on both imported innovations and imported expertise. Brief narratives of the Mexican adoption and diffusion of the three canonical technologies of the first industrial revolution provide an overview of this expansion. Railroads, steam power (and later, electricity), and the production and working of iron and steel lay at the center of early industrialization in Great Britain and the United States, and across the globe provided a critical foundation for the adoption of modern, mechanized systems of production. In Mexico, these three histories illustrate broad trends: early efforts to bring new technologies to the country, a half century or more of little change, rapid adoption and diffusion later in the century, and enduring constraints to the productive capacity of these new technologies as well as to the opportunities they presented for learning.

Railroad Transportation

Nature “has denied us,” lamented Lucas Alamán in 1843, “all means of interior communication.”4 The country’s jagged landscape left the central plateau, home to most Mexicans, isolated from oceanic trade and internally fragmented. Most goods had long moved on the backs of mules or men, and regional autarky was the norm. This topography, Alamán explained, resulted in costly transportation, small markets, low levels of consumption, and few incentives to invest in large-scale or mechanized production.

Costly transportation had several implications for technology. It meant that only high-priced luxury goods could bear transport costs, and local markets were unable to generate sufficient aggregate demand that might incentivize innovation. It was also difficult to move new machinery overland to mining centers, haciendas, and urban areas. Estevan de Antunaño, for instance, lamented that the acquisition and installation of machinery in Mexico always “requires great risk, cost, and delay.”5 Little changed into mid-century, and in 1879, Matías Romero still identified transportation costs as the “greatest obstacle to the import of machinery.” Mexico, he argued, “cannot attain to the future … without the construction of railways to facilitate the transportation of machinery, tools, and necessary effects to increasing production.”6 Efforts to build rail lines began soon after independence, but without result until the 1870s. The tyranny of terrain continued to dictate the economic logic of production: markets for goods were nearly always local, small scale, and artisanal; much of the national territory was “almost inaccessible.”7

British investors completed Mexico’s first major rail line in 1873 between Veracruz and Mexico City. Over the next few decades, both federal and state governments developed programs to support and subsidize major investment to import the full technological package of managerial and technical expertise and hardware. The vast majority came from US investors, seeking to link Mexican markets to the newly completed transcontinental US rail lines. US-financed railroad companies completed Mexico’s main trunk lines by the late 1880s and then built out dozens of branch lines to mining, manufacturing, and agricultural districts. Although the trunk lines aimed to connect Mexican resources with export markets, the system carried more domestic than export-bound freight and created, for the first time, regional and national markets. Railroads’ advantages of relatively lower transport costs, reliability, speed, and bulk capacity provided a critical precondition for subsequent waves of technology imports and economic expansion.

On the other hand, however, railroad technology was not a panacea for the nation’s economic challenges. Freight rates remained a subject of constant concern and debate for producers in the country, and many districts remained off the grid, dependent on thousands of mules and arrieros to get goods to and from rail terminals and markets. Relatively high transport costs still constrained the adoption of new machinery. Further, the demand that extensive railroad construction generated for materials and human expertise was met primarily from foreign sources (though rising demand for fuel wood and rail ties had a devastating impact on forests close to rail lines). Nearly all inputs were imported, from individual nails to complete stations, as well as the personnel who conceived, planned, engineered, constructed, managed, repaired, and operated the system. The railroads did not generate many new opportunities for Mexicans to acquire technical knowledge and expertise, nor did they stimulate diversified domestic suppliers of parts and materials.

Inanimate Power: Steam

At independence, the power to move goods across the Mexican landscape, to haul rock and water out of mines, to pulverize ore and grind grain, to crush sugarcane and cut wood, and to spin and weave thread came overwhelmingly from animate sources: mules, horses, and oxen, as well as the labor and sweat of men, women, and even children. Entrepreneurs interested in expanding productive capacity could only do so extensively: by increasing, for instance, the number of mules and malacates—those hoists and whims and turnstyles that had constituted the common machinery of mechanical power in Mexico through the colonial era and well into the 19th century. Water provided the only alternative, and Spaniards had built several dozen water-powered mills to grind grain, press sugar cane, and power textile mills. But water was scarce through most of Mexico’s populated central plateau, and available only on a seasonal basis. As Fausto de Eluyar noted in 1807, “water scarcity … only rarely permits the application of water wheels.”8 Chronic water scarcity provoked frequent concern and motivated early efforts to economize. Of the several dozen new textile factories established in the 1830s and 1840s, a quarter relied entirely on animate power, while most of the rest used animals to heavily compensate for the irregularity of local water flow. Alongside costly transport, Mexico’s endemic water and power scarcity presented another major obstacle to technological change.

Across the Atlantic world, steam engines solved the problem of natural limits of animate and water power, making mechanization and industrialization possible on a wide scale. Efforts to introduce steam power to Mexico’s mines and manufacturing activities began in 1728 when a Pachucan miner sent an agent to London to investigate the “fire device”—a Newcomen engine—he had heard was pumping water from the River Thames. At mid-century, the polymath José Antonio Alzate again raised the possibility of importing steam engines, predicting each could replace “two hundred men or forty horses: it is undeniable that this machine will be not only useful, but necessary.”9 Between 1800 and 1820, Spanish officials, mine owners, and others undertook a more sustained and public effort to promote the introduction of steam power to Mexico, even presenting proposals to subsidize its costs. But not until the 1830s did British investors finally bring the first steam engine in Mexico, importing several dozen engines to pump water from mines, while local entrepreneurs introduced a few to power textile mills and sugar refineries. Yet this proved an ephemeral burst of investment. One 1843 census of forty-seven textile mills counted just three that had adopted steam power; fifteen years later, another census of thirty-seven mills reported that none used steam. Mexico’s annual imports of steam engines averaged under $4,000 well past mid-century, sufficient to cover only two or three machines yearly. By the late 1860s, only a small handful of steam engines operated in Mexico; in some districts, “not a machine” existed.10 Even Guanajuato, Mexico’s oldest and largest mining center, boasted just one old steam engine, imported in 1825 but abandoned until repaired in 1857. Incentives to adopt steam technology were not yet strong enough to overcome the substantial obstacles posed by the high cost of the machines themselves and were further encumbered by the cost of overland transportation, technical expertise, and fuel. Fuel presented a particularly intractable constraint: it was perennially scarce, as domestic sources of coal were yet unexploited. Without reliable inanimate power, the muscles of mules and men continued to power most economic activity until well after mid-century. Mechanization was scarce, and both mining and manufacturing activities remained small scale and artisanal.

Beginning in the 1870s, however, these conditions began to change. Oceanic and overland transport costs declined dramatically, opening new markets. The steady expansion of North Atlantic demand for Mexican products—and growth in the Mexican domestic demand as well—increased incentives to invest in new methods, and new power sources. At the same time, steam engine prices fell rapidly as production matured in British and US factories. Mexican firms began importing ever larger numbers of steam engines from the United States and Great Britain, with quantities doubling in the 1870s, tripling in the 1890s, and doubling again into the early years of the 20th century. Most went to mining districts, but manufacturing plants and agricultural operations also invested heavily. If not ubiquitous, steam engines helped power the first wave of large-scale transportation, mineral excavating and refining, manufacturing, and agricultural expansion in Mexico. But the adoption of steam power continued to be burdened by the high cost of fuel and local expertise to repair, install, and operate the engines, and there remained few opportunities for local learning and supply linkages. Furthermore, the diffusion of steam power in Mexico came only at the very end of the global steam age. By the 1890s, electricity began to replace water and steam as the principle source of motive power in the Mexican economy, as it did throughout the North Atlantic. Electricity came to some mining districts in the late 1880s, then spread to urban lighting, transportation, and factories. Electricity lowered production costs by 50 percent or more compared to hydropower or steam. It also freed production from locational constraints, as electric motors could be placed nearly anywhere at mine sites, refineries, or factories. Electricity became an absolute requisite for adopting the new, large-scale production technologies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Iron and Steel

Like railroads and steam power, iron’s importance to the nation’s future was not lost on Mexican observers in the post-independence years. Antuñano called iron “the base material for all industry,” and Alamán described it as “the necessary element for all the others … and [the material] that makes the machines which all use.”11 A congressional committee argued in 1845 that the nation’s economic progress depended on iron “flowing among us like water in the desert,” an odd but compelling metaphor.12 Iron’s durability, versatility, and malleability made it indispensable for the production of nearly every new implement and machine for mechanized production. In colonial New Spain, farmers, hacienda peons, construction workers, and artisans had typically used rudimentary instruments in their trades, more often made of wood than metal. By all accounts, iron itself and metal tools like hammers, saws, chisels, shovels, and axes were scarce, although not entirely absent. The vast majority of households at every level of society owned few tools beyond ordinary kitchen items like a mortar and pestle to grind grain, a comal on which to cook tortillas, and a pot or two—usually ceramic, sometimes copper. Even nails were scarce, practically absent, so there was little need for hammers. The omnipresent and multipurpose machete served to cut and carve wood in place of saws and axes. Farmers in the village economy might own an iron hoe but more commonly relied on wooden implements, especially the traditional coa, or digging stick, or perhaps a single-handled wooden plow.

Metal tools were scarce because they were expensive. Nearly all iron had to be imported, and at a high price. Without a domestic source of cheap iron or plentiful wood-based fuel, blacksmiths’ work remained limited. Isolated examples of tool and machine construction in New Spain and Mexico never formed the basis for a domestic tool-making industry. It was not native abilities that constrained local workmen, but limited access to materials, and low demand for their products.

After independence, small-scale iron foundries using Catalan furnaces were established in the states of Mexico, Jalisco, Puebla, and Oaxaca. These supplied metal for local blacksmiths and were joined by several blast furnaces in the 1850s and 1860s. Nevertheless, the domestic production of iron, iron tools, and machine parts satisfied only a small portion of national demand at mid-century. A special commission established by the Cámara de Diputados reported in 1845 that “of our established iron works, some have closed, others are on the verge of the same fate, and even the best produce little iron, poor iron, expensive iron, iron that cannot be sold except with protection against foreign products; our inability to produce and our forced dependence on foreign supplies are the result.”13 By the mid-1850s, a national survey reported just five iron foundries, two of decent size but the others employing just ten workers. One visiting mine engineer observed that most tools in the industry were “constructed absolutely without iron; one does not find even a single iron nail.”14 Obstacles abounded: no large source of high quality iron ore had yet been located; new foundries always faced the high cost of construction materials, skilled labor, and especially fuel; and the government could do little to protect domestic iron workers, given the absolute necessity of imported iron for economic activities across the country.

Beginning in the 1870s, rising levels of investment in mining activity and, a bit later, in urban construction, commercial agriculture, and manufacturing gradually increased domestic demand for iron and steel. Imports of the metal in all forms—from unfinished bars and rods to structural shapes and finished products—grew rapidly through the next decades. So too did investment in domestic production, though at a much slower pace. Blast furnaces in Hidalgo, Jalisco, Puebla, and Durango expanded, and by the turn of the century, Mexico had between twenty and thirty iron foundries, although most were modest operations, producing pig iron and simple metal forms for local or regional consumers. After 1900, several modern, large-scale metallurgical foundries appeared. The best known is the Compañía Fundidora de Fierro y Acero de México, S.A. (the Fundidora Monterrey), established in 1903 as a massive, fully integrated steel plant that included blast furnaces, open-hearth furnaces, a Bessemer converter, and rolling mills. It was the first integrated steel plant in Latin America. Other large foundries appeared in Chihuahua, Aguascalientes, Monterrey, Torreón, and Durango. At the same time, nearly all the large railroad companies and mining operations operated their own metal-working shops, capable not only of repairing broken machinery but often of fabricating parts and sometimes machines to local specifications. In Mazatlán, the Fundición de Sinaloa stands out as one of the few Mexican firms that developed the capacities to manufacture machinery, principally steam engines and boilers but also stone crushers and air compressors for mining firms in the northwest. The firm produced several hundred engines over two decades, averaging about forty horsepower each. Yet firms like these were exceptional. Together—and including the mighty Fundidora Monterrey—they produced only a very small fraction of Mexico’s total demand for iron, steel, tools, and machinery.

In sum, the four decades running from the 1870s to the onset of revolution in 1911 witnessed widespread and transformative technological change. Economic expansion in Europe and the United States provided a vast reservoir of new knowledge available for adoption in Mexico (as well as expanding investment capital and demand for Mexican materials). Within Mexico, the adoption and diffusion of new technologies in railroads, steam power, and iron and steel production capture much of what happened across economic activities. Historians have produced a handful of recent studies of these and other areas of rapid and significant technological change, including the textile industry, electricity production, sugar refining, glass and cement manufacture, commercial agriculture, mining and mineral refining, and beer brewing, for example. This record of transformative, dynamic, and dislocative change swept across Mexico side-by-side with a powerful current of continuity—activities where older ways of doing things did not change, in spite of the availability of new techniques abroad.

Constraints to Technological Change

The relative ease with which Mexican firms acquired and used new production technologies suggests that the potential obstacles to adoption were relatively malleable rather than relatively obdurate. As a result, technological change came quickly in many sectors of the economy, increasing productive capacity, productivity, and economic growth at the same time that it created new opportunities as well as social dislocation. But this general trend of rapid adoption and modernization should not obscure the substantial limits to technological change in late 19th-century Mexico.

First, multiple obstacles delayed efforts to adopt, install, and operate new technologies in many fields. Railroads, steam engines, and iron working all waited decades between initial interest, early investment projects, and their eventual adoption and diffusion. Even when adoption and diffusion came, each of these examples remained hampered by high operating costs or weak markets. Among the technologies newly available in the North Atlantic between 1820 and 1870, only modern textile machinery (looms and spindles) established a broad foothold in Mexico. Later in the century, delays in adoption tended to shorten as market demand expanded and access to transatlantic goods, machinery, and expertise became easier. But few technologies could be quickly adopted “off the shelf,” and most required substantial time to troubleshoot unanticipated problems and to adjust the technology to local conditions, or vice versa.

Once adopted, new machines and production processes often operated at lower levels of productivity, or did not diffuse widely beyond the first adopters. Nearly all newly adopted technologies in Mexico served to increase the productive capacity of their industry, but total productivity remained well below the levels achieved with the same machinery in other parts of the world. This was the case in the textile industry, for example. Among other factors, the cost of overland transportation, fuel, technical expertise, and skilled labor all hampered installation and operating costs. By one estimate, the cost of establishing a factory in Mexico was 55 percent higher than establishing the same plant in Great Britain. Factory managers worked hard and sometimes in vain to cut operating costs in order to undersell imported goods, even with substantial tariff protection. Many new enterprises quickly discovered the difficulty in locating local sources of raw materials, intermediate inputs, and skilled labor, and frequently had to resort to suppliers abroad when local sources proved scarce, expensive, or of low quality.

Finally, some new technologies were not adopted at all, despite their availability in the Atlantic marketplace. Machine-tooling machines and techniques, along with finely calibrated metal working, are arguably most important among these, but the list extends to household technologies like cook stoves. Local factors—the obstacles inherent in moving technologies across borders, to new social contexts and new markets—fundamentally shaped the limits to technological change. Most efforts to establish new firms based on new imported technologies failed or remained barely profitable. Of the 311 applications to a federal program that provided tax and tariff breaks to “New Industries” in the 1890s, for example, over 80 percent were abandoned, and only 8 achieved commercial production.

Mexico’s patent applications provide one evidentiary window into the direction of inventive and innovative interest. Over five thousand Mexicans sought and received patent protection during the closing decades of the century (along with about ten thousand foreigners), capturing a portion of those who sought technological opportunities in the expanding domestic market. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, more sought protection for putative advances in food processing and construction techniques than in other fields. These were relatively low-tech fields, central to social and economic change in Mexico, and also connected to an Atlantic-wide wave of innovative activity. On the other hand, only a handful sought patent protection for advances in agriculture and industrial metal working. In agriculture, although recent work has shown that many large estates (haciendas) were commercially oriented and actively sought new technologies of production (from new seed and animal varieties to plows and harvesters), inventive activity proved relatively scarce across the sector, especially among the vast majority in the village economy. Rural Mexicans’ slow adoption of new tools, implements, and cropping systems owed partly to their isolation from the newly integrated markets of the urban, industrial, and export-oriented economy. Furthermore, subsistence production and small, local markets created powerful disincentives to expose oneself to the uncertainty and risk inherent in innovation. When railroads and creeping commercialization began to connect agricultural regions with broader market opportunities late in the century, those who could apply financial and technological capital (and political connections) to land quickly squeezed out those who could not, exacerbating the chronic insecurity and inequality of land tenure in places like Naranja, Michoacan, or Anenecuilco, Morelos. Given the dominance of the agricultural sector in the national economy (both commercial and subsistence production), low levels of agricultural innovation had large implications for the increasing divide and frictions between those individuals, firms, and groups with access to modernizing opportunities, and those without, and thus for a rising potential for social unrest.


Through Mexico’s first half century of national independence, low levels of technological innovation—the delayed adoption of railroads, steam power, and iron, for example—provided very few opportunities for acquiring experience and knowledge. Little changed through mid-century and beyond as the technology gap between Mexico and North Atlantic countries grew significantly larger. As a result, when demand for innovation rose rapidly in Mexico after after the 1870s, new enterprises, aided by the proximity of an expanding US market, sought new technologies and expertise abroad rather than at home.

Between 1870 and 1910, technology imports flooded the Mexican landscape in the form of new knowledge embodied in machines, print materials, and people. In scale and scope this wave exceeded any other in the country’s history before or since. New ways of producing goods transformed the productive capacity of the Mexican economy and laid the foundation for economic growth, while reshaping the everyday lives of Mexicans in profound and sometimes dislocative and destructive ways. Mexico was a technology importer at the extreme: all the hardware and new processes, along with the know-how necessary to install, operate, and repair it came from abroad, with just a few exceptions. This pattern fundamentally shaped development possibilities for the 20th century. While imported technologies created new opportunities for production and profit as they undermined older ones, clear limits also emerged to the introduction, commercialization, and diffusion of technological change. More importantly, this experience offered few opportunities for Mexicans across a range of occupations to learn and assimilate new knowledge and skills. If, in the short term, this wave of creative destruction supported substantial economic growth, its long-term impact on Mexico’s ability to generate sustained technological innovation, independent of foreign sources, was decidedly weak.

Continued dependence on technology imports was not universal. Individual engineers and technicians, some firms, and even entire regions successfully internalized and developed considerable technical expertise, built on local human capital and initial interaction with technology imports. The northern city of Monterrey and a handful of important industries there provide the exemplary case. Other bright spots include Mazatlán’s Fundición de Sinaloa and a handful of other metallurgical firms; the apparent ability of the cigarette manufacturer El Buen Tono to develop technical modifications to cigarette machinery; and the still unexplored record of dozens, or perhaps hundreds of local mechanics, engineers, and scientists who left fragmentary but tantalizing glimpses of their work in Mexico’s patent records and newspapers; as well as the more prosaic efforts of anonymous workers and tinkerers to modify existing practice. The tens of thousands of Mexicans who worked in factories and firms—from railroads to textile mills to sewing workshops—that adopted new technologies picked up expertise via learning-by-doing. While important—and still very much under-researched—these experiences were exceptional. Relatively few in number and generally isolated from each other, technicians of all sorts were not integrated into what a century later would be called a “national innovation system” that linked business, educational institutions, and government policy in either formal or informal ways.

In other words, Mexico’s late 19th-century flood of technology imports in the form of machinery, print materials, and people was not accompanied by a significant and widespread transfer of knowledge and skills to local individuals, firms, and organizations. Both entrepreneurs and the government found it cheaper to buy technological capabilities from abroad than to teach and grow such capabilities at home. Proximity to the United States’ skilled labor market played a role—the decidedly mixed “advantage of proximity”—and Mexican businesses benefited from the large spillover of US engineering talent, at least in the short term.15 However, as most opportunities for interaction fell to foreign engineers and workers, the benefits of learning soon left the country. Because the majority of Mexicans could not easily acquire technical skills, wages for skilled positions remained high and those for most laborers, very low. As a result, the distance between those few with privileged access to new opportunities and the excluded majority only increased. One result was declining material welfare: the average height of Mexican laborers fell through the 19th century, a proxy for declining standards of living, while the average height of upper class Mexicans increased. As La Union of Monterrey noted in 1899, “The scarcity of men who know how to manage the different machines that are coming with the expansion of business activity is every day more and more striking.”16 Mexico’s future would remain one of persistent technological dependence precisely because of continued reliance on both imported machinery and imported expertise.

Discussion of the Literature

Beyond Edward Beatty’s Technology and the Search for Progress in Modern Mexico (2016), there are few synoptic accounts of technology and technological change in 19th-century Mexico. Ramón Sánchez Flores’s encyclopedic Historia de la technología y la invención en México (1980) is the critical starting point for any work on the topic, along with the relevant volumes of Daniel Cosío Villegas’s massive Historia Moderna de México (1965) and the contemporary and majesterial work directed by Justo Sierra, México: su evolución social (3 volumes, 1902–1905), as a reference. More recent overviews include Leonel Corona Treviño’s La tecnología, siglos XVI al XX (2004) and Cambio tecnológico e industrialización: La manufactura mexicana y su historia (1997) by Mónica Blanco and María Eugenia Romero Sotelo, as well as general economic histories by Enrique Cárdenas Sánchez, Ernesto Sánchez Santiró, Enrique Llopis and Carlos Marichal, and Sandra Kuntz Ficker.

Given the relative scarcity of scholarly works focused on technology topics, often the best points of entry are found in studies of specific sectors or industries. On the mining and metallurgical industries, Marvin Bernstein’s The Mexican Mining Industry, 1890–1950 (1964) as well as Estado y minería en México (1767–1910), edited by Cuauhtémoc Velasco Avila et al., provide the essential starting point, but recent works by Juan Manuel Romero Gil, Rafael Orozco, Alma Parra, Nicolás Cárdenas García, and José Alfredo Uribe Salas offer important new regional accounts.

Manufacturing enterprises have drawn increasing attention recently. On textile manufacturing, begin with Dawn Keremitsis’s La industria textil mexicana en el siglo xix (1973), but see also Aurora Gómez-Galvarriato’s masterful Industry and Revolution: Social and Economic Change in the Orizaba Valley (2013). On beer, see Cruda Realidad: Producción, consumo y fiscalidad de las bebidas alcohólicas en México y y América Latina (2007), edited by Ernest Sánchez Santiró, as well as John Womack Jr.’s Trabajo en la Cervecería Moctezuma en 1908 (2012). On manufacturing generally, with special attention to the textile industry, the several articles and chapters by Stephen Haber offer insights into the effect of technological innovation on economic production and productivity, especially his early Industry and Underdevelopment: The Industrialization of Mexico, 1890–1940 (1989).

On agricultural production, there are vast areas still unstudied. For the best recent account, see Alejandro Tortelero Villaseñor’s De la coa a la máquina de vapor (1995), but older works on regional rural economies are essential as well. On railroads, see John Coatsworth’s now classic Growth Against Development: The Economic Impact of Railroads in Porfirian Mexico (1981), but also Sandra Kuntz Ficker’s Empresa extranjera y mercado interno: El Ferrocarril Central Mexicano, 1880–1907 (1995) and Guillermo Guajardo’s recent Tecnología y trabajo en los ferrocarriles de México (2010). On urban infrastructure, see Claudia Agostini’s Monuments of Progress: Modernization and Public Health in Mexico City, 1876–1910 (2003) and Reinhard Lierh and Mariano E. Torres Bautista’s edited Compañías eléctricas extranjeras en México (2010).

For recent work on the cultural context for technological change into the early 20th century, see Justin Castro’s Radio in Revolution: Wireless Technology and State Power in Mexico, 1897–1938 (2016); Rubén Gallo’s Mexican Modernity: The Avant-Garde and the Technological Revolution (2010); Anna Rose Alexander’s Technology, Social Change, and the Hazards of Progress in Mexico City, 1860–1910 (2016); Michael Matthews’s The Civilizing Machine: A Cultural History of Mexican Railroads, 1876–1910 (2013); and Diana J. Montaño’s Electrifying Mexico: Cultural Responses to a New Technology, 1880s–1960s (PhD diss., 2015); as well as Technology and Culture in Twentieth Century Mexico (2013), edited by Araceli Tinajero and J. Brian Freeman.

Primary Sources

The evidentiary base for any research on the history of technology in Mexico is as diverse as the topics and themes within that history. All depends on what aspect of the history a scholar chooses: inventive activity by Mexicans; cross-border trade in new technologies; the acquisition and use of new technologies in households or by firms; government policies that structured incentives (or disincentives) to invest in new technologies; the social, cultural, political, or economic contexts for technological change; and so on. No single source or type of source stands as central to research projects on the topic.

Scholars interested in the ways that firms operating in Mexico adopted (or did not adopt) new technologies will focus primarily on firm-level archives and records. These are notoriously difficult to locate and access in Mexico, with some notable recent exceptions. The website of the Asociación Mexicana de Historia Económica provides one point of access to recent work and suggestions for archives and digital resources. Scholars interested in the social and cultural context for technological change will probably rely heavily on contemporary newspapers, which flourished in 19th-century Mexico and covered technology topics extensively, if often indirectly. Original copies are found in most Mexican and some US archives, with some digital access. Government publications also present a useful source for many themes, ranging from the annual Memorias of the Secretaría de Fomento (and its changing dependencies) to more irregular publications of various government offices as Anales, Boletines, Gacetas, and other editions. Winifred Gregory’s old but incredibly useful List of the Serial Publications of Foreign Governments, 1815–1931 (1932) offers a superb guide to these publications. Given the volume of cross-border technology imports from the Atlantic economies during the late 19th century, trade journals and industry-specific papers published in the United States or Britain provide indispensable evidence on the Mexican market for new technologies.

Hemeroteca Nacional and Paper of Record—Digital access to historical Mexican newspapers with extensive coverage of technological innovation.

Instituto Mexicano de la Propriedad Industrial—The Mexican Patent Office, with links to many of the historical gacetas issued by the office.

Technology in Latin America’s Past and Present—Database project with links to national patent databases.

Asociación Mexicana de Historia Económica—Useful information and links for research on economic history, including technology.

Guia de Memorias de Hacienda (1822–1910)—A guide to the publications of the Finance Ministry.

Further Reading

Beatty, Edward. Technology and the Search for Progress in Modern Mexico. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Beezley, William H.Judas at the Jockey Club and Other Episodes of Porfirian Mexico. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987.Find this resource:

Blanco, Mónica, and María Eugenia Romero Sotelo. Cambio tecnológico e industrialización: la manufactura mexicana y su historia, siglo xviii, xix, y xx. Mexico: DGAPA-FE-UNAM, 1997.Find this resource:

Candiani, Vera. Dreaming of Dry Land: Environmental Transformation in Colonial Mexico City. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Cárdenas Sánchez, Enrique. Cuando se originó el atraso económico de México: la economía mexicana en el largo siglo xix, 1780–1920. Madrid: Biblioteca Nueva; Fundación Ortega y Gasset, 2003.Find this resource:

Corona Treviño, Leonel. La tecnología, siglos XVI al XX. Mexico: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2004.Find this resource:

De la Concha, Gerardo, and Juan Carlos Calleros. Los caminos de la invención: inventos e inventores en México. Mexico: Instituto Politécnico Nacional, 1996.Find this resource:

Galarza, Ernesto. La industria eléctrica en México. Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1941.Find this resource:

Gallo, Rubén. Mexican Modernity: The Avante-Garde and the Technological Revolution. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Gómez-Galvarriato, Aurora. Industry & Revolution: Social and Economic Change in the Orizaba Valley, Mexico. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Gómez-Galvarriato, Aurora. “El primer impulso industrializador de México. El caso de Fundidora Monterrey.” Tesis de Licenciatura, ITAM, 1990.Find this resource:

Guajardo, Guillermo. Trabajo y tecnología en los ferrocarriles de México: una visión histórica, 1850–1950. Mexico: El Centauro, 2010.Find this resource:

Haber, Stephen H.Industry and Underdevelopment: The Industrialization of Mexico, 1890–1940. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1989.Find this resource:

Kuntz Ficker, Sandra, and Paolo Riguzzi, eds. Ferrocarriles y vida económica en México (1850–1950). Mexico: El Colegio Mexiquense, A.C., 1996.Find this resource:

Morales Moreno, Humberto. “Los molinos de trigo en los orígenes de la industrialización mexicana: historiografía, tecnología y conservación (1780–1910).” In Memoria del III encuentro nacional sobre conservación del patrimonio industrial Mexicano. Edited by Belem Oviedo Gámez y Luz Carregha Lamadrid, 193–211. Mexico: Comité Mexicano para la Conservación del Patrimonio Industrial, A.C., 2005.Find this resource:

Parra, Alma. “Experiencia, destreza e innovaciones en la minería de Guanajuato en el siglo XIX.” Historias 58 (May–August 2004): 69–82.Find this resource:

Recio, Gabriela. “El nacimiento de la industria cervecera en México, 1880–1910.” In Cruda realidad. Producción, consumo y fiscalidad de las bebidas alcohólicas en México y América Latina, siglos XVII–XX. Edited by Ernest Sánchez Santiró, 155–185. Mexico: Instituto Mora, 2007.Find this resource:

Sánchez Flores, Ramón. Historia de la tecnología y la invención en México: introducción a su estudio y documentos para los anales de la técnica. Mexico: Fomento Cultural Banamex A.C., 1980.Find this resource:

Soberanis, Jorge A. “Catálogo de patentes de invención en México durante el siglo xix (1840–1900). Ensayo de interpretación sobre el proceso de industrialización del México decimonónico.” Tesis de Licenciatura, UNAM, 1989.Find this resource:

Tinajero, Araceli, and J. Brian Freeman. Technology and Culture in Twentieth-Century Mexico. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Tortolero Villaseñor, Alejandro. De la coa a la máquina de vapor: actividad agrícola e innovación tecnológica en las haciendas mexicanas, 1880–1914. Mexico: Siglo XXI, 1995.Find this resource:

Velasco Avila, Cuauhtémoc, Eduardo Flores Clair, Alma Parra Campos, and Edgar Gutiérrez López. Estado y minería en México (1767–1910). Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1988.Find this resource:


(1.) Mexico, Memoria sobre el estado de la agricultura é industria de la República (Mexico: Imprenta de Lara, 1843), 25; and Lorenzo de Zavala, Viaje a los Estados-Unidos del Norte de América (Mérida: Castillo y Compañía, 1846), 52, 299–300.

(2.) Estevan de Antuñano, Pensamientos para la regeneración industrial de México (Mexico: Librería Manuel Porrúa, S.A., 1955), 33–34; “Discusión habida en la sala de sesiones del honorable congreso de la Puebla sobre el proyecto del Ciudadano José María Godoy,” February 26, 1829, in El comercio exterior y el artesano mexicano, 1825–1830 (Mexico: Banco Nacional de Comercio Exterior, S.A., 1965), 173.

(3.) Quoted in Richard J. Salvucci, “Algunas consideraciones económicas (1836),” Historia Mexicana 55.1 (July–September 2005): 77.

(4.) “Representación dirigida al Exmo. Presidente Provisional de la República por la Junta General Directiva de la Industria Nacional sobre la importancia de esta necesidad de su Fomento,” in Colección de documentos para la historia del comercio exterior de México VII: La industria nacional y el comercio exterior (Mexico: Banco Nacional de Comercio Exterior, S.A., 1962), 111–112.

(5.) Antunaño, Pensamientos, 33–34; “Representación dirigido al Exmo. Señor Presidente Provisional,” 180–181.

(6.) Matias Romero, Report of the Secretary of Finance of the United States of Mexico of the 15th of January, 1879, on the Actual Condition of Mexico, and the Increase of Commerce with the United States (New York: N. Ponce de Leon, 1880), 110. See also Juan Nepomuceno Adorno, Análisis de los males de México y sus remedios practicables (Mexico: M. Muguia, 1858), 114–115.

(7.) El Economista Mexicano, September 10, 1886, p. 65.

(8.) Quoted in Carlos Sempat Assadourian, “La bomba de fuego de Newcomen y otros artificios de desagüe: un intento de transferencia de tecnología inglesa a la minería novohispana, 1726–1731,” Historia Mexicana L 3 (2001): 441.

(9.) José Antonio Alzate, Diario Literario de México 5, April 19, 1768, p. 2.

(10.) Mexico, Memoria presentada á S.M. el Emperador por el Ministro de Fomento Luis Robles Pezuela (Mexico: J. M. Andrade and F. Escalante, 1866), 412.

(11.) Antuñano, Pensamientos, 26; and Mexico, Memoria sobre el estado de la agricultura é industria de la República (Mexico: Imprenta de Lara, 1843), 32.

(12.) “Dictamen presentado a la Cámara de Diputados por sus Comisiones Unidas de Minería e Industria” (Mexico: Librería Manuel Porrúa, S.A., 1955), 71–72.

(13.) “Dictamen presentado a la Cámara de Diputados,” 94–95.

(14.) Quoted in Brígida M. Von Mentz de Boege, “Tecnología minera alemana en México durante la primera mitad del siglo XIX,” Estudios de Historia Moderna y Contemporánea de México 8 (1980): 14.

(15.) Economista Mexicano, September 10, 1886, p. 63.

(16.) La Unión (Monterrey), quoted in El Economista Mexicano, July 1, 1899, p. 255.