The Industrial Revolution – Why did it happen in Britain first?

The Industrial Revolution, known to some as the First Industrial Revolution, was the transition to new manufacturing processes in Europe that took place between 1760 and somewhere between 1820 and 1840. It included going from hand production methods to a mechanised factory system using machines powered by steam. It led to an unprecedented rise in the rate of population growth and marked a major turning point in history whereby almost every aspect of daily life was influenced in some way. But why did the Industrial Revolution happen in Britain first? You’ll have to read on to find out.

Coal, which had overtaken wood as the primary source of energy, would be needed for fuel and power on a truly massive scale. Britain, fortunately, had it in abundance. Mines were near the sea so coal could be transported with ease to the most important cities like London. The profit motive drove the Industrial Revolution to invent steam engines to mine coal from deeper mines, giving inexhaustible supplies of cheap energy. This perpetual supply of coal was fundamental to Britain’s success.

The intellectual climate of Britain during this period led to a prolific exchange of scientific and technological ideas that contrasted markedly with the rest of Europe. This was the age of reason and the Enlightenment. Great thinkers such as Issac Newton had been placing science over religion and ideas over dogma. Britain was at the cutting edge of knowledge. Men came together to exchange ideas in what would be known as the Industrial Enlightenment. Groups such as the Lunar Society were set up to give industrialists and scientists the opportunity to meet and share their ideas, free thinking and creativity. It was a time of great innovation. When James Watt created a better version of the Newcomen Steam Engine, it revolutionised the power of industry. Factories, previously built alongside rivers, no longer needed to rely on water power, and as a result, were now being relocated in cities. This in turn led to a great population movement from rural to urban areas. As manufacturing was released from the constraints of natural power there was also a shift from small-time cottage industry to large-scale factory industry with machines and production lines. It meant that more goods were being made cheaper than ever before. The exchange of ideas, revolutionary new technology and the successful harnessing of energy, together with a constant quest for improvement were all factors that helped create the right conditions for the Industrial Revolution.

By the 18th century, the British Parliament had won much greater independence from its monarch than in any other European great power. And it was this political liberty that helped pave the way for the Industrial Revolution. Parliament passed the laws, controlled expenditure and created a political stability in which the rule of law was fundamental. This environment helped to encourage the pursuit of scientific breakthroughs as people set up businesses and, in turn, sought profit. Britain’s greatest rival, France, had an absolute monarchy, funded by Louis XIV, which wielded great control over economic and political life. The French state attempted to regulate scientific progress which slowed innovation and stifled the advance of industrial progress. In contrast to Britain, individuals were not free to come up with an idea, find a financial backer, and build a machine. In Britain, people began to realise that untold wealth could be created through industrial production, whilst in France they thought they could only become wealthier through conquest.

The British Government could see that new wealth could actually be created and saw it as their responsibility to make sure it happened. New businesses needed money if they were going to be able to expand successfully and the British Government helped to encourage the accumulation of the required capital. British political and commercial elites were closely entwined. Unlike in France, where the aristocracy gave very little support to mercantile interests, the British aristocracy were more pragmatic and willing to adapt to the often self-made men who made up the mercantile leadership. In particular, they supported the control of the oceans and the protection of Britain’s lucrative trade routes. Whilst continental rivals concentrated on building armies to fight and seize land on mainland Europe, Britain spent much of its revenue on building up the Royal Navy to protect and encourage private traders. As a result, from the start of the 18th century, Britain, with the world’s largest fleet, was the naval superpower and it was this that enabled its trading empire to expand and flourish.

With the greatest trading empire the world had ever seen, Britain brought sugar from the West Indies, tobacco from North America, spices from India and tea from China. A commitment to free trade had been a principal of the British government since the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Merchants could invest money and take profit as they wanted, with very little government intervention. France, by contrast, fiercely held onto its monopolies, thus suffocating entrepreneurship. For the British colonies, entrepreneurship was at the heart of its success. In the West Indies business was centred on plantations, giving a life of luxury to a small minority white elite. Free trade enabled them to buy large quantities of slaves from African rulers all too willing to sell them. Slaves were used as a natural resource to be used and exhausted in the quest for maximum profit. Conditions were unbearable and many slaves only lasted three years. It is estimated that in the 18th century, just under 2.5 million slaves were transported by the British across the Atlantic. Sugarcane was crucial to the prosperity of Britain’s West Indian colonies and played a major role in the economy of the Empire. Indeed by the 1790s, sugar was Britain’s leading import. Other commodities also poured into Britain, some of it destined for home consumption, and the rest bound for the European market. This huge trade generated billions of pounds for the country at today’s rates.

So what happened to the wealth that went into Britain’s coffers? Well, much of the profits from sugar and the other fruits of empire became capital that was invested in the development of Britain’s industries. This was a small cog in the great circle of growth that made up the British Industrial Revolution. By the end of the 18th century, Britain was exporting manufactured goods worth over 2.5 billion today. The explosion of such wealth flooding into London created its own financial revolution. New institutions like banks and the Stock Exchange were established, allowing people to invest in and profit from newly emerging businesses. All this new wealth dramatically improved the lifestyles for much of the population. GDP more than doubled during the 18th century and, for the first time, many people had extra money to spend. As the wealth of the country increased so did that of the rapidly expanding middle class. This provided entrepreneurs up and down the country with opportunities to make money by selling them things. Appetites were whetted by the arrival of a completely new range of luxuries from across the great trading empire such as tea from China, sweetened by sugar from the West Indies. Tea making equipment was introduced such as teapots, cups and teaspoons. Designed and produced in Britain, this consumer revolution helped to drive industrialisation. Josiah Wedgwood understood the opportunities better than anyone else. His talent for satisfying consumer demand made him one of the richest men in the country. He became one of the fathers of what today we call advertising and marketing. By the start of the 18th century shops were beginning to open in large cities. Wedgwood opened a showroom to display the great new products coming out of his factories.

Although it created opportunities, the consumer revolution also created a problem for manufacturers. Poor road systems and badly maintained highways meant that getting the raw materials to the workshops and also the finished product to market was problematic. To help combat this, Parliament passed legislation to allow local businessmen to build and run permanent turnpike roads. In return they could charge a toll for maintenance. In 1763 Josiah Wedgwood brought a transport revolution to Staffordshire. There were no reliable roads and wares had to be carried to market on mules. Many goods were broken on the way, pushing up prices. So he built a turnpike road from the Potteries to the national road network. From 1706 the length of turnpike roads increased from a mere 300 to an incredible 15,000 miles in just 70 years, creating an extraordinarily comprehensive trading network between small towns. This increased the movement of goods and ideas around the country dramatically. As the number of roads increased, journey times decreased, further stimulating the economy.  In France, by contrast, it was the government and not local businessmen who decided where to build the roads. As a consequence, they concentrated on connecting military, rather than industrial centres.

But it was the next great advance in transport technology, canals – the motorways of the 18th century, which truly enabled Wedgwood and his ilk to expand. Once again, private entrepreneurs led the way. To bring in the same quantity of materials that one canal barge could hold, with one man and one horse, at least 100 pack horses and mules would have been needed. Wedgwood relocated his factory alongside a new canal which he had constructed. By greatly reducing costs, the canal helped the Potteries become one of the great ceramic centres of the world and made its shareholders very rich. These canals were built across Britain linking coasts and navigable rivers. They transformed the profitability of British industry by drastically cutting the cost of transporting raw materials and taking goods to market. The very existence of canals reflected the way in which the industrial enlightenment brought a whole range of technical skills to fruition, and also, the capacity of Parliament to legislate for them. Of course, transport was revolutionised even further with the wide-scale use of locomotive engines which sped across the expanding railway networks, but this came a little later.

In the 18th century there was a commitment to, and an engagement with the new. There were new ideas, new devices, new machines, new processes. The resources of society and the resources of the country were unlocked, taking Britain into a new world of activity and energy. It was an almighty fusion of geological good fortune, the ascendancy of political liberalism and enlightened thinking, together with an ever growing imperial power, that meant change was more likely to begin in Britain than anywhere else. The Industrial Revolution happened because the economic conditions were right to ensure its sustained success. And finally, there was one important change that is still with us today; the conviction that the future will never again be the same as the past. Previously, people were essentially defined by their history and they looked back for their values. Most people did what their parents had done. This situation changed radically in the 18th century. New ideas and new machines made it possible to create the wealth thanks to which people could conceive of a new environment, a world in which people lived in cities. It isn’t really any wonder that we call this transformation the Industrial Revolution. It set the world in which we now live. We are in the shadow of the achievements of these people.

James Watt working on the improved steam engine that would change the world forever

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