In the early days of the industrial revolution, inventors were often very forthright about the aims of their innovations. The co-inventor of the roller spinning machine, English mechanic John Wyatt, promoted it as a way for textile factories to downsize their labor forces. The contraption was so easy to run, Wyatt said, that businesses didn't need as many skilled craftspeople with spinning wheels; they could get by with children instead. "Adopting the machine, a Clothier formerly employing a hundred spinners might turn off thirty of the best of them but employ an additional ten infirm people or children," he wrote in 1741. The British attorney general was won over and, in granting a patent, noted how "even Children of five or six Years of age" could operate the machine.
Commending an invention for facilitating child labor is now a matter of distant history. By the end of the 19th century, child labor was on the decline in most industrialized nations. But globally the problem has not come to an end. In 2000, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO), 186 million children between the ages of five and 14--roughly one in six children--were illegal laborers, mostly in developing nations. Of these, 111 million did hazardous work, such as mining, construction and hard farm labor, with lifelong consequences for their health. Some eight million were slave laborers, child soldiers or prostitutes.
This article was originally published with the title The Economics of Child Labor.