Why Did the Industrial Revolution Start in Britain?

It turns out Britain was ripe for the birth of the Industrial Revolution.
Christopher McFadden

Why did the Industrial Revolution begin in Britain? Was it because they are particularly ingenious and industrial people or just a happenstance of history?

Various theories have been proposed over time, 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. It was a period of time marked by massive technological, socioeconomic, and geopolitical changes across the world.

Throughout this period of time, 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 work beyond all recognition. 

industrial revolution in britain why
Source: Petar Milošević/Wikimedia

The term "industrial revolution" itself 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 in history between 1760 and 1840, it is more widely applied to refer to the process of economic transformation from an agrarian economy to a manufacturing economy, rather than a rigidly defined period of time

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

Why did Great Britain start the Industrial Revolution?

Various reasons have been postulated by historians as to 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"

industrial revolution in britain docks
Source: Tama66/Pixabay

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, their argument is that momentous 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.

According to Acemoğlu and Robinson, once the path had been set for greater 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.

Creative destruction, in case you are not aware, is the economic term that describes the way that capitalism leads to a constantly changing economic structure, including the dismantling of long-standing practices in order to make way for new methods of production. 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. 

industrial revolution in britain tank
The Industrial Revolution ran between the 1760s and 1914. Source: Aloahwild/Wikimedia Commons

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 so many monumental events in human history. 

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

While the development of inclusive institutions was vitally important in allowing the Industrial Revolution to happen, they were not the whole story. Inclusive institutions are those that, "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 a huge 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, and could provide capital to merchants and entrepreneurs to build new technologies and companies that they might previously have been able to afford to do.

industrial revolution in britain
Source: myshkovsky/iStock

Importantly, the rule of law and greater property rights, stemming partly from a transfer of power 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 happened to have 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. 

industrial revolution in britain spinning jenny
One invention to rule them all, the Spinning Jenny. Source: Clem Rutter/Wikimedia Commons

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

Perhaps, just 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 really know for sure. 

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