Why did the Industrial Revolution start in Britain?

Do you know why the Industrial Revolution began in Britain? It turned out that the nation was very fertile ground for it.
Christopher McFadden
  • The Industrial Revolution, which began in Britain in the late 18th century, marked a significant turning point in human history.
  • It transformed the goods produced, leading to widespread social and economic changes.
  • But why did the Industrial Revolution start in Britain and not elsewhere?

Why did the Industrial Revolution begin in Britain? Was it because they were particularly ingenious and industrial people or just luck of history? Various theories have been proposed, but which, if any, hit the nail on the head? Let's take a look at one particularly interesting one. 

What was the Industrial Revolution?

The Industrial Revolution is widely accepted to have occurred between the 1760s and the First World War. This period was marked by massive worldwide technological, socioeconomic, and geopolitical changes.

Throughout this period, society transitioned from a larger agrarian and handicraft economy to one dominated by industry and machine-based fabrication. Technological innovation throughout the period changed many aspects of life and how we work beyond all recognition. 

Why did the Industrial Revolution start in Britain?
The industrral revolution was a real turning point in history.

The term "Industrial Revolution" was first coined by early French writers but would become popularized by the English economic historian Arnold Toynbee in the 19th Century. 

While Toynbee's definition covered the period between 1760 and 1840, it is more widely applied to the process of economic transformation from an agrarian economy to a manufacturing economy rather than a rigidly defined period. 

This is why some countries today are sometimes described as undergoing their own "industrial revolutions." 

Why did Great Britain start the Industrial Revolution?

Historians have postulated various reasons why the Industrial Revolution began in Britain. But perhaps one of the most convincing is the argument put forward by Turkish-American economist Daron Acemoğlu and British political scientist James A. Robinson in their fascinating book "Why Nations Fail"

Why did the Industrial Revolution start in Britain?
There might be a very good reason it started in the UK.

By their estimation, it is no accident that the Industrial Revolution began in Britain. However, the very fact Britain had reached a point where it was fertile ground for the Revolution is part chance and part cultural development. In short, they argue that meaningful changes in history, like the Fall of Rome, the Black Plague, the signing of the Magna Carta, the break with Rome that occurred during the Reformation, and the Glorious Revolution, had initially small but cumulatively profound effects over time. In a sense, it can be likened to Chaos Theory, where small changes in initial conditions can result in a very different result when all else is equal.

Of course, the path of history is not always linear, if ever. There had been various regressive events in British history before the Industrial Revolution. The English Civil War and the following Puritanical tyrannical rule of Oliver Cromwell are notable examples. However, some have argued that this eventually led to a cementing of Protestant ethics in British culture and a transfer of power from the monarch to the British Government in its aftermath.

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According to Acemoğlu and Robinson, once the path had been set for a more significant rule of law, development of inclusive institutions in society, greater property rights, and an openness to creative destruction in social and economic institutions, the Industrial Revolution was all but guaranteed in the United Kingdom. In case you are not aware, creative destruction is the economic term that describes how capitalism leads to a constantly changing economic structure, including the dismantling of long-standing practices to make way for new production methods. 

Old industries and firms, which are no longer profitable, close down, enabling the resources (capital and labor) to move into more productive processes and areas. The so-called disruptive technologies like railroads, the internet, etc., are prime examples of creative destruction. 

Why did the Industrial Revolution start in Britain?
The Industrial Revolution ran between the 1760s and 1914.

As the authors put it, “inclusive economic institutions… are those that allow and encourage participation by the great mass of people in economic activities that make the best use of their talents and skills.” But this had been bought and paid for in much blood and political struggle beforehand — like many monumental historical events. 

Why did the Industrial Revolution start in Great Britain in the 1750s?

While developing inclusive institutions was vitally important in allowing the Industrial Revolution to happen, they were not the whole story. Inclusive institutions "bestow equal rights and entitlements and enable equal opportunities, voice, and access to resources and services. They are typically based on principles of universality, non-discrimination, or targeted action."

Other factors played their part too. The seeds were sown, quite literally, thanks to the English agricultural revolution, which included a move to high-yield crops, crop rotation, the clearing of woodland, and other new methods in agriculture, which enabled the production of food surplus and excess population growth.

Population growth led to an excess of labor, which was attracted to larger population centers in search of work and fortune. As a result of earlier changes, banks had become more inclusive institutions in that they lent money to those other than the aristocracy. They could provide capital to merchants and entrepreneurs to build new technologies and companies that they might previously have been able to afford to do.

Why did the Industrial Revolution start in Britain?
The unique characteristics of Britain at the time were fertile ground.

Importantly, the rule of law and greater property rights, stemming partly from a power transfer away from the monarch and toward the Parliament, also promoted investment and risk-taking. Large, capital-hungry structures like factories could now be built on credit. 

The granting of patents was also formalized around this time into a legally binding system. This further created confidence for investors and inventors to take a gamble.

Britain also had a wealth of coal, iron, and other resources in a relatively small area, which would help kick-start the Industrial Revolution. Its growing Colonial Empire also provided a ready-made (and captive) market for surplus goods, providing further impetus for entrepreneurs and new industrialists.

Initial developments occurred in the cotton industry with the development of the spinning jenny, flying shuttle, power loom, and the application of the steam engine to drive machinery, which sped up cloth production tremendously. Very soon, other industries would benefit from industrialization. 

Why did the Industrial Revolution start in Britain?
One invention to rule them all, the Spinning Jenny.

The Industrial Revolution was one of human history's most essential and transformational periods. For good or bad, the modern world would not exist without the events that laid the foundations for it and its aftermath. 

Perhaps, if Britain's history had run more parallel with that of mainland Europe, where monarchies held more power for longer, it would have happened much later, begun in a different place, or even not occurred at all. But, of course, like any discussions on alternative histories, we will never know for sure. 

And that is your lot for today.

The Industrial Revolution in Britain was a complex phenomenon shaped by various factors, ranging from the availability of natural resources to the cultural and institutional landscape of the country. The interplay of these factors created a unique set of conditions that allowed for rapid technological and economic progress.

While the Industrial Revolution brought many benefits, such as increased productivity and living standards, it faced challenges and negative consequences. Understanding the lessons of the past can help us navigate the complex challenges facing our world today and build a better future for all.

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