Deprecated: iconv_set_encoding(): Use of iconv.internal_encoding is deprecated in /home/histor71/public_html/libraries/joomla/string/string.php on line 27

Deprecated: iconv_set_encoding(): Use of iconv.input_encoding is deprecated in /home/histor71/public_html/libraries/joomla/string/string.php on line 28

Deprecated: iconv_set_encoding(): Use of iconv.output_encoding is deprecated in /home/histor71/public_html/libraries/joomla/string/string.php on line 29
Great Britain as the Homeland of the Industrial Revolution

Great Britain as the Homeland of the Industrial Revolution

User Rating: 3 / 5

Star activeStar activeStar activeStar inactiveStar inactive

The Industrial Revolution occurred in England in the latter part of the eighteenth and the early part of the nineteenth centuries. In the next 150 years, the Industrial Revolution freed the economies of the European states from the shackles that had limited their productive powers and had determined a steady increase in real incomes per capita of the population in industrial nations.

It took place a drastic change in the technology and organization of manufacturing industry. A new type of economy was created that was no longer primarily agrarian and that devoted more and more of its resources to producing nonagricultural goods and services. Except for the United States, where industrialization started in the early nineteenth century, this process was specifically European up to the late nineteenth century.

The Industrial Revolution was a cumulative process of inventions and demonstrative effects. It started in textile industry on the one hand, in mining and metal industry on the other. Improvements often provided mutual support for each other, and many inventions could not have succeeded without previous or simultaneous progress in other fields.

The most obvious aspect of change was mechanization, the systematic and generalized use of machinery which substituted for the efforts and skills of man at all stages of industrial production. The most famous macroinventions of the late eighteenth century were the cotton-spinning machines and the steam engine.

The textile industry had some special problems. It took four spinners to keep up with one cotton loom, and ten persons to prepare yarn for one woolen weaver. Spinners were busy, but weavers often had to be idle for lack of yarn. In 1733 John Kay, a Lancashire mechanic, patented his flying shuttle. Weaving could then be done more quickly, but it still was delayed until yarn was available in more abundance. In 1771 Richard Arkwright's ''water frame'' was producing yarn. About the same time, James Hargreaves (d. 1778) patented a spinning jenny on which one operator could spin many threads simultaneously. Then in 1779 Samuel Crompton combined the jenny and the water frame in a machine known as ''Crompton's mule,'' which produced quantities of fine, strong yarn.


Besides new machinery there were new processes of production. For instance, the puddling which was a process throughout the pig iron was decarbonized in order to obtain iron. As a consequence, iron became much cheaper and its use increased, especially from 1760 onward, when John Smeaton invented the blast furnace. Cheap iron was an achievement of the early phase of the Industrial Revolution and the fundamental technological basis of its later phase. But methods of producing cheap steel did not come into use until the second half of the nineteenth century.






Another aspect was the increasing use of a new form of energy, steam, following the invention of the steam engine (Newcommen and after him James Watt, from 1769 onward). By converting heat into power, the steam engine opened a new and seemingly unlimited supply of energy; it made possible large-scale mechanization, as it could drive any kind of machinery. Moreover, it also made possible a revolution in transport, both on land and at sea, through the locomotive, the railroad and the steamship. Technological change was cumulative because each step forward opened the possibility for several further steps.


The Industrial Revolution was also characterized by innovations in organization, by the emergence of the factory system. In contrast to the small workshops of traditional industry, a factory gathers in the same premises large numbers of machines and workers, with a central source of power (particularly a steam engine), plus division of labour and a unified production process based upon machinery. The whole process required very important investments and we can see here a divorce between labor and ownership of the means of production.

With the adoption of the factory system, there was a shift in population. Settlements grew around the factories. In some cases, housing was provided to workers by their employers, thus giving the factory owners greater control over the lives of their workers.

The integrated industrial regions often sited on or near coalfields. They included a number of urban centres, some of which became regional metropolises (for example Manchester). Some regions were specialized but others had a wide range of industries. Conversely, some traditional regions of manufacturing deindustrialized (e.g., the West of England woolen district).

Inventions and innovations were generally labour saving and generated large increases in labour productivity (e.g. the spinning machine). In a competitive environment, the fall in costs and prices forced entrepreneurs to look unceasingly for new productivity gains, through innovations in techniques or organization. It also widened the market: cotton fabrics had been a luxury in the eighteenth century; in the nineteenth they were mainly worn by ordinary people. Mass consumption and mass market were emerging and everything may have resulted from better techniques and better equipment. But the full impact of technological developments was only built over time. At the beginning, the innovation and productivity growth were confined to a few industries and a few regions and afterwards extended to other branches of industry. Despite the fact that large areas of the economy preserved for a long time a traditional shape, there was an unstoppable advance of mechanized factory industry. On the other hand, there is no doubt that the industrial revolution had its roots in processes of change that had developed during the preceding centuries. Nonetheless, we can define the whole process as a “revolution” because the developments we are considering were unprecedented and had long-term consequences; they also were concentrated within a short span of time relative to the preceding centuries of slow change.

A new technical and economic system, deeply different from the one in which Europe had lived since the Middle Ages was thus born. This was an industrial economy in which, for the first time, a majority of the population in a large state, Great Britain, was employed in industry and industry-related services.


The industrial revolution meant a transfer of labour and other resources from agriculture to the other sectors. However, such a transfer was only made possible by significant improvements in the productivity of agriculture (“agricultural revolution”), which benefited in the same time by the progresses of Industrial Revolution. The increase in agricultural productivity enabled a smaller proportion of the labor force to produce the necessary food and agricultural raw materials. Consequently, a larger proportion of the total labor force became available for industrial employment. The English farmers were able to grow enough grain to feed a rapidly increasing population. Without this revolutionary change in agricultural productivity large imports of food would have been required, and the process of industrialization surely would have been impeded. In fact, without the increase in agricultural productivity, the Industrial Revolution would not have occurred.

This veritable “agricultural revolution” had started in the late Middle Ages in the Low Countries, spread gradually to England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and flourished there. Tha manorial system had disaggregated earlier in England than on the Continent. Landowners had to rely now upon the economic and not the feudal exploitation of their estates, which they were stimulated to improve if they wanted to increase their income.

Many men had accumulated surplus funds of modest proportions and British financial institutions were probably better prepared for mobilizing money capital than those of any other country except Holland. The most common device used by the new industrialists was the formation of partnership with men who possessed capital. Two kinds of capital were needed by these industrialists; long-term capital to expand present operations, and short-term capital to purchase raw materials, maintain inventories and pay wages to their employees. The long-term capital needs were met by mortgaging factory buildings and machinery. It was the need for short-term capital which presented some problems. The need for short-term capital for raw materials and maintaining stock was accommodated by extending credit to the manufacturers by the producers or dealers. Often, a supplier of raw materials had to wait from 6 to 12 months to collect the payment of his goods, after the manufacturer was paid for the finished product.

Industry in this period was seldom organized on a joint-stock or corporate basis. The corporate form of business, although developed in the seventeenth century, did not become characteristic of industrial organization until the age of mass production of the late nineteenth century.

The Industrial Revolution had a strong impact upon society in general. It created two new social classes: an industrial bourgeoisie of factory masters on the one hand and an industrial proletariat of factory workers on the other. Though some industrialists became quite rich, most of them were less wealthy than bankers, merchants and large landowners. If political influence is considered, the industrial bourgeoisie was not the ruling class of the nineteenth century in Britain. Almost everywhere, aristocratic large landowners retained a great deal of wealth, prestige and power.

But the situation of industrial workers was in many situations very difficult. The factory was more than a new place of employment for wage-earners; it involved a new way of life. The workers owned nothing but their bodies and their capacity for labor. Discipline and regimentation were imposed by the nature of the technical processes of machines operating from a central source of power in a highly complex and regulated system of production.

In England during the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth century, there was a free competition in the labor market which operated to the advantage of employers because their resources and bargaining power were greater than the resources and bargaining power of individual workers. Efforts on the part of workers to organize in order to bargain collectively, instead of individually, were suppressed in the eighteenth century by employers and by legislative authority. Labor unions were considered illegal conspiracies under English common law.

Life generally improved, but the industrial revolution also proved harmful. Pollution increased, working conditions were harmful, and capitalists employed women and young children, making them work long and hard hours.

Why Britain first?

The industrial revolution started in Britain, which was the only country where it was spontaneous, without outside example or help. The small island of Britain became the first industrial nation and thus played a decisive role in the economic history of Europe and of the world. Almost all the inventions that created the nineteenth-century economy were made, perfected and introduced into practice in Britain. On the other hand, Britain had shared many changes with one or several continental countries. Britain didn`t have a monopoly on inventions: a number were made in France.


Why England first?

First, the British economy of the mid-eighteenth century was the most advanced in Europe. Starting at least in the 1660s, England diverged from the Continent and taken a lead that increased during the century that followed. Britain had a truly national market, the integration of which was progressing thanks to the absence of internal customs and tolls, to internal transport improvements that started before the industrial revolution and to the impetus of the enormous city of London. Around 1800, London was the largest city in Europe and the biggest port in the world, a major center of consumption, manufacturing, distribution and finance. Within Britain, its influence was widely felt and greatly helped to unify the home market, to prepare the emergence of a mass market, to stimulate and organize local economies.

On the other hand, English agriculture had made a good progress. It was capitalist, profit and market oriented plus had a good deal of regional specialization. Its productivity was markedly higher than on the Continent. Thus it was possible a great transfer of manpower form agriculture to industry and services. This transfer was a development unique to Britain in that time. Britain had also overtaken the United Provinces to become the first trading nation and it consolidated its commercial, maritime and colonial superiority over its rivals. Britain was rich in human capital, of which the new technology was the product. England was a technologically creative society and the inhabitants of some parts of the country had a truly entrepreneurial culture without equivalent in Europe. They were skilled artisans, especially in mechanical crafts and they have had a strong willingness to experiment and innovate. They were used also to living in a culture of insecurity and risk.

Another reason for the primacy of Britain was its resources, especially the abundance of coal and iron ore. Steam power derived from coal and was being used to drive machinery made of iron. Moreover, in a century which was still without any means of cheap overland mass transportation, the coal and iron resources were fortunately located near each other. A noteworthy fact of economic development is that England was the only country which experienced an industrial revolution prior to the coming of the railway.

3766827410 034e3a1650 z

We can explain now the situation of Holland. Holland was in the seventeenth century the most highly developed capitalist nation in the world, but Holland lacked the natural resources to continue the leadership when industrial capitalism replaced commercial capitalism as the dominant form of economic organization. In another area of early capitalist development, northern Italy, coal was completely lacking and Italy was therefore severely handicapped. Southern Germany was landlocked and unable to develop industry on a massive scale prior to the coming of railways in the nineteenth century. France possessed both coal and iron, but the deposits were distant from one another and could not be brought together economically until railways developed.

The political and social system was also favorable. England`s middle-class revolution (1640-1689) came earlier than in any other country. This seventeenth-century revolution sealed the triumph of parliamentary government and assured to capitalists a political representation congenial to the growth of private business enterprise. Although England retained its class stratification, the movement of individuals between classes was freer than in Continental countries. For example, nobles with dwindling resources did not hesitate to marry their daughters to wealthy merchants and industrialists in order to restore the family fortune.

England had a contractual monarchy and a Parliament controlled by aristocracy for whom security and prosperity was an absolute priority. The public order was strictly maintained. Britain also had a stable legal framework, secure civil liberties and safe contracts. Property rights were well define and protected and the free play of market forces was institutionalized.

English economic development was also favored by the military posture of Europe. Geographical isolation and a powerful navy prevented any physical destructions in England, which Continental countries suffered during the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Wars increased the demand for goods, both for English armies and navies when England chose to participate in wars on the Continent and also when she remained at peace and merely sold goods to warring factions.

Therefore, human capital and liberal institutions, the accessiblity of coal resources and the naval power - are the keys to explaining why the Industrial Revolution was more likely to start in England than anywhere else. By 1815 it was the dominant economy and the only superpower in the world.



***, Illustrated History of Europe, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London, 1993.

***, The Industrial Revolution, Dryden Press, 1969.

Abernethy, David B., The Dynamics of Global Dominance. European Overseas Empires, 1415-1980, Yale University Press, 2000.

Crouzet, Francois, A History of the European Economy, 1000-2000, University Press of Virginia, 2001.

Dillard, Dudley, Economic Development of the North Atlantic Community, 1967, Prentice Hall, New Jersey.

Dopsch Alfons, The Economic and Social Foundations of European Civilization, H. Fertig, 1969.

Kellenbenz, Hermann, The Rise of the European economy: an Economic History of Continental Europe From the Fifteenth to the Eighteenth Century, Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1976

Landes, David S., The Rise of Capitalism, Macmillan, 1966

Pollard Sidney, The Integration of the European Economy Since 1815, University Association for Contemporary European Studies, 1981.

blog comments powered by Disqus