What was it about Britain that gave rise to the Industrial Revolution?


I have just finished watching a lecture by Robert C. Allen explaining why the Industrial Revolution started in Britain. The talk at Oxford University is based on his book The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective (New Approaches to Economic and Social History).

North Western Europe (Netherlands, as well as Britain) had won a large empire by the seventeenth century. One up shot of this were the high wages people earned. Britain also had large amounts of coal, coal that could be used to power primitive and inefficient steam engines. Efficiency didn’t matter so much in coal mines as coal was easier to come by than people who could do the work. Over time and with research the steam engines were tweaked and improved to the extent that they could be profitably to power other industries, and were coal was far more expensive.

Britain’s higher wages also supported a number of consumer industries, namely clock and watch making; an exacting technology which was which was of great use in developing the first machines used to profitably spin cotton.

Of course people had no idea how each technology could give rise to other technologies, and their overall repercussions; I doubt they had the vision to see how their contributions could change the world. Which does make one think of what is going on today? The Industrial Revolution of the 18th century has its echoes in past few decades of  Silicon Valley and the development of the Computer, and on the cusp of genetic engineering revolution. Whatever next?


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~ by zeristor on October 26, 2009.

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