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The Industrial Revolution started in Great Britain in the 18th century. The precursor to the Industrial Revolution was the Enlightenment. This occurred when European scholars rediscovered Greek and Roman ideas. One outcome was the discovery of the scientific method, as well as an overall "rational" viewpoint towards scholarship, and Europeans applied it in their home countries with great results.

Great Britain seems to share many qualities with the Classical ancient societies of Greece and Rome, so I wanted to know what was specifically different about Great Britain that allowed it to develop the Industrial Revolution. The following are a few things that were the same:

1) Empires with wide trading networks

2 ) "Rational" science, technology and philosophy

3) Rome had a strong legal system. The British legal system was based on the Roman one and is an explanation for its protections of property rights.

4) "Democratic" societies (even if not everyone could actually vote)

5) Urbanization

6) Rome understood the concepts of an assembly line and specialization, which Great Britain rediscovered through Adam Smith

The following are things I believe might be dissimilar:

1) The invention of the internal combustion engine/ mechanization through steam power

I feel I am either overgeneralizing or have left things off the second list.

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This question is seeking an answer to this: history.stackexchange.com/questions/12141/… (But with a much more narrow scope.) –  Razie Mah Mar 22 '14 at 8:25
Could you give some sources and/or examples of 6? –  Jeroen K Mar 22 '14 at 11:29
@RazieMah: Note; Steam Engines are fundamentally different, thermodynamically, from internal combustion engines as steam engines are a dual phase external combustion engine: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/External_combustion_engine –  Pieter Geerkens Mar 22 '14 at 14:07
false premise. The Roman era saw a massive industrialisation effort. Just because a lot of their technology was lost during what's now called the "dark ages" doesn't mean they never had it. –  jwenting Mar 24 '14 at 15:18
Not quite worthy of an answer, but there's no way the Greeks or Romans could have had an industrial revolution. Their mathematics and science was deficient. They didn't have a concept of zero. No zero means no algebra, no calculus, and without those, heat was just magic. –  David Hammen Mar 27 '14 at 2:27

9 Answers 9

up vote 12 down vote accepted

The answer is threefold:

1) Transportation costs: agricultural societies had, since the beginning, been restricted by the amount of food one could produce locally. What 'freed' the British poor from having to work the land (please note I'm not arguing that this was in their favor) was the import of large amount of cheap food, as well as the materials to start producing fabrics in factories. In the Roman world, these would both have had to be produced locally, which puts severe strains on the amount you can sell. This also means selling stuff to far away places can only happen if the product is very valuable, especially over land. There are notable examples of food being transported long distances (see Rome for example), however these are exceptions and only possible due to its special political position. (I would also argue the Romans never imported more than one-half of the free grain, and thus even less of the total amount of food from Egypt.)*

2) Competition: there are some much better candidates for the industrial revolution to happen earlier, namely China, but also the large Muslim empires. What these all have in common with Rome is a large autocratic empire with little competition and strong lone rulers. In early modern Europe, if one ruler did not want to back you, you could go to another one (which is why Columbus could go to America, after the Portuguese king said no).

3) Different kinds of city: there is a notable difference between consumer and producer cities. Roman cities were the first kind: the nobles who had become wealthy with sustained (but essentially small) surpluses of their land spent much of these surpluses on craftsmen in the cities who used it to buy the food these nobles had brought to the city. The city did not produce any wealth itself. This became obvious when the Western Roman empire's cities steadily declined after the nobles started to live on their estates. (They were expected to spend their own money on the functioning of certain institutions in the city.) Medieval and early modern cities were dependent on merchants and craftsmen, the latter creating products while the former sold them. The wealth was created in and by the city, making this a producer city, which is a lot more viable then the first kind.

*Perhaps someone with more knowledge about transportation costs in both periods, and where and how Britain imported its raw materials, could expand on this.

P.S. As a small aside, there may also have been some fundamental differences in the thought of the higher social classes between early modern western Europe and the Roman empire, because of their background. Roman elites were very reverent of their ancestors, maybe because their wealth was a consequence of their birth. The bourgeoisie was a self-made elite who was thus more interested and fond of the future.

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An important additional point is that in the ancient empires, even skilled slave labour was very, very cheap. There was little incentive for automation as the investment was so risky. Subsequent to the late Medieval plagues that swept through Europe skilled urban labour in particular became much dearer, providing both incentive for investment in automation and spurring the growth and development of producer cities through the increase in median urban income. –  Pieter Geerkens Mar 22 '14 at 14:18
There is a very big time gap between the great plagues of mediaeval Europe and the industrial revolution of the 19th century. –  fdb Mar 23 '14 at 23:40
@PieterGeerkens The Romans did invest heavily in mechanisation, at least in some areas where it made sense. Ruins have been found of large water driven mills for example that would not have looked out of place in 17th century England or Holland. –  jwenting Mar 25 '14 at 7:31

The primary mechanisms that motivated the industrial revolution were automation and efficient utilization of natural resources to generate power to drive automation. There were certainly also social factors, but I'd prefer to focus primarily on the technical, since this seems to offer a clearer path to an answer.

The Romans did harness power from gravity (aqueducts), and the flow of water (turbines). The Romans also had a reasonable understanding of hydraulics (Hero of Alexandria). Their primary limitation was having an efficient method of extracting power from fuel to run their machinery. There was certainly mass production in the Roman world (and in China, Greece, and the rest of the ancient world at earlier time periods), but everything in the ancient world was driven primarily by human or animal labor.

The industrial revolution was not triggered by any one event or invention (most history textbooks have an unfortunate obsession with Watt's steam engine), but rather by the collective progression of scientific understanding across the human race. For this reason I wouldn't agree with the premise that the British developed the Industrial Revolution.

In a very real way the Greeks, Romans, Indians, Egyptians, Persians and Chinese contributed with the basis of mathematics and physics. The Arabs followed up by safeguarding the knowledge obtained by civilizations before them and by developing the fields of physics, chemistry and mathematics (among others including medicine and botany) into strong practical and scientific disciplines. They also made breakthroughs in water wheels, which eventually spread to medieval Europe as the basis of medieval automation. The Arab conquest, the reconquista and the crusades all helped to bring Arab and Roman knowledge into Europe where it was eagerly absorbed.

Ultimately the Dutch and the French contributed heavily to improvements in automation (Vaucanson's card automated loom, known by its reincarnation as the Jacquard Loom, is a good example). Pan-European scientific breakthroughs in physics, instrumentation and measurement, energy utilization and resource gathering, as well as materials science and manufacturing all helped to advance technology to the point where energy (initially generated from burning coal) could be efficiently used to power semi-automated machinery.

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The Romans had access to fossil fuels. They did not think to use them. The Chinese used natural gas for cooking and heating homes, but never for machines. The fact that you're saying the Arabs were "safeguarding" knowledge is evidence it went unused for centuries. The question is why. Skirting around the question does not invalidate it. –  Razie Mah Mar 22 '14 at 13:33
The Arabs in no way let knowledge go "unused". They prolifically copied manuscripts and actively made discoveries and innovations. This is a simple question of threshold and access to knowledge. Unfortunately a perfect answer could be almost limitless. Simply put, it took a lot of development across various fields of knowledge to understand how to make an efficient energy generator to drive automation. I certainly didn't mean to invalidate your question or skirt around it. I think the key concept you are missing in your response is that of efficient use of energy. It's HOW you burn the fuel! –  user39075 Mar 22 '14 at 14:04
Sorry to spill into another comment. I think the problem is that your question presupposes a social context, as well as a British primacy in the industrial revolution. If your question is "what social changes allowed the industrial revolution to happen" that is different than what was specifically different between ancient Rome and the societies that participated in the industrial revolution. –  user39075 Mar 22 '14 at 14:14
I think you put to much emphasis on the technical part of the industrial revolution, e.g. technical advancements -> industrial revolution. The real change of the industrial revolution IMO is freeing up more people from producing food than could originally be achieved with local surpluses, getting those people to create valuable objects and then creating wealth by selling these objects everywhere. –  Jeroen K Mar 22 '14 at 14:30
@user39075 I still disagree with your answer, but I appreciate the thought provoking answer to this very difficult question. +1 –  Razie Mah Mar 22 '14 at 23:01

Wages. Labour was too cheap for an Industrial revolution. Early industrialisation must be profitable in order to be widely adopted and sustainable. With cheap labour the replacement of human labour with machines just isn't profitable. Research and development of early machines is expensive and slow, if there is no pay off, (trey making of money but cheaper machines replacing more expensive labour) this process simply will not start.

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wrong. If you can put a dozen slaves to work milling grain using pounding stones, those same dozen slaves can be put to use filling the hoppers of a mill and extracting the flour at the bottom. They'll not only be more productive per hour, but can work more hours until exhaustion. –  jwenting Mar 25 '14 at 7:36
@jwenting: But what if you couldn't afford to buy a mill and a dozen slaves? –  dan04 Mar 28 '14 at 2:09
Wages effect the risk/reward equation of the investment. The Early Industrial experiments were costly, it's only high wages that made them profitable. There are many examples of trying to start factories methods in France and failing due to wages. You have to remember early experiments are costly. The rate of repayment is largely dependent on the cost of labour. –  pugsville Nov 19 '14 at 3:54

Remember that "necessity is the mother of invention". The Hawaiians had fresh water, fruits, vegetable, fish and meat and drinking & cutting utensils easily at hand and had no need for heating or warm clothing. They had so much leisure time that they did need means of diversion, so they invented the surf board and underwater swim goggles. They also invented outrigger sea-going vessels when needed, as well as superior navigation instruments. What would they have done with steam engines, internal combustion engines, power looms,bicycles, wheeled carts, etc.?

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More people. Europe in the era of the Romans has an estimated population of 30 million people, which increased to 100 million people in 1800 and now to 700 million people.

You do not produce goods just for fun. You must also have people who need to buy the products so you make a profit from producing goods. And if you invent machines to work for you, you must first invest money. Much money. You need to build big buildings to protect your machines, you need transportation to get raw materials (port, streets, storage rooms) and move them away, you need a special workforce which are solely responsible to maintain the machines and cheap workforce to work with the machines. And you must operate the machines always at a decent capacity, if they are not needed, they cost you money. Great Britain had a population which doubled every 50 years, a social class wealthy enough to make the necessary investments and with colonies and a growing population enough demand to use machines.
If you do not have such a big demand craftsman are in fact cheaper, more adaptable and deliver higher quality (This is the reason small firms still exist now). While technologically capable of building machines, Rome had simply enough capacity for their demands so they never needed an industrial revolution.

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@RazieMah: I do not know if a lower birth rate and a decrease in population rate was instrumental. In fact, noone knows the reason, so you asked the question in the first place ;-). I am pointing out that the absolute number of people was one order of magnitude higher than the people living during the Roman Empire. The old ways without industrial revolution were simply sufficient for the Romans/Greeks/Muslim Empire, so there was no need to proceed further. –  Thorsten S. Mar 25 '14 at 0:43

IMHO availability of cheap slave labour made mechanization unnecessary and scarcity of educated mechanics would make attempts of automation prohibitively expensive. We can see that not only in ancient times but also well into modern age in the places or industries where manual labour was much cheaper than the cost of automation and that stalled development of applicable machinery.

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I'll pose two alternate answers: Nothingness and Isaac Newton.

The industrial revolution occurred about 100 years after Newton. Without Newton or Leibniz (or someone of equal caliber), no calculus. Without calculus, no industrial revolution. Without a proper zero, no calculus.

Neither the Greeks nor the Romans could have had an industrial revolution. Their technology, science, and mathematics were fundamentally flawed. They did not have a concept of zero. While the ancient Babylonians did have a primitive concept of zero a placeholder, even this rudimentary knowledge was lost to the Greeks and Romans.

The concept of zero as both a placeholder and as a number in and of itself was an Indian invention, most likely by Brahmagupta (598-668). That revolutionary idea made its way from India to China and Persia, and from Persia, to western Europe. It took hundreds of years for western Europeans to fully develop those ideas (even Brahmagupta got some things wrong). It took a genius of the caliber of Newton to take that next step.

Genius of the caliber of Brahmagupta, Leibniz, Darwin, etc.: That happens once every few centuries, more frequently as of late simply because of population growth. Of the caliber of Newton? That happened but once. But even genius of Newton's caliber needs lesser giants to stand upon. Without the concept of zero Newton would have not been able to achieve all that he did.

"Why didn't the Greeks or Romans have an industrial revolution" is not quite the right question. A better question: Why didn't the Indians, Chinese, Persians, or Mayans have an industrial revolution?

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Why can't you have an industrial revolution without calculus? –  Jeroen K Mar 31 '14 at 18:33
@JeroenK - F=ma. That's calculus. The world fundamentally changed after Newton published his Principia. –  David Hammen Mar 31 '14 at 19:07
I'm not asking what calculus is. You did not try to answer my question: Why can't you have an industrial revolution without calculus? –  Jeroen K Mar 31 '14 at 20:40
Newton's ideas were truly revolutionary. Admittedly, we can't replay the clock to see what would have transpired had Newton not published his Principia. Would Watt have been able to develop his steam engine? I doubt it. Newton's Principia was a transformational event. –  David Hammen Apr 2 '14 at 0:19
@ChrisLively - Watt's steam engine was anything but an incremental update to the Newcomen engine. The Savery patent, the first semi-usable steam engine was 1698 (Newton's time). Newcomen made it usable in 1710, and there were virtually no improvements until Watt. Watt's engine was a radical change. Look at Watt's notebooks. The Greeks or Romans could not have done that; their mathematics was deficient. –  David Hammen Apr 10 '14 at 0:26

Because Greek intellectual giants failed to reproduce themselves, and thus died out. The following is a quote by Bertrand Russell:

The industrial revolution might have taken place in antiquity if Greek intelligence had remained what it was at its best. To this it is customary to reply that slave labor, being cheap, removed the incentive to the invention of labor-saving devices. The facts do not bear out this view. Modern methods of production began in the cotton industry, no only in spinning and waving, which employed “free” labor, but also in the gathering of cotton, which was the work of slaves. Moreover no slaves were ever cheaper than the wretched children whom the Lancashire manufacturers employed in the factories of the early 19th Century, where they had to work 14 or 16 hours a day, for little more than board and lodging, till they died. (It must be remembered that the death of a slave was an economic loss to his owner, but the death of a wage-earner is not.) Yet it was these same ruthless employers who were the pioneers of the industrial revolution, because their heads were better than their hearts. Without intelligence, men would never have learnt to economize hand labor by the help of machines.

I do not wish to suggest that intelligence is something that arises spontaneously, in some mystical uncaused manner. Obviously it has its causes, and obviously these causes are in part to be sought in the social environment. But in part the causes are biological and individual. These are as yet little understood, though Mendelianism has made a beginning. Men of supreme ability are just as definitely congenitally different from the average as are the feeble-minded. And without supreme ability fundamental advances in methods of production cannot take place.

Russell, Bertrand. Understanding History. New York: Philosophical Library, 1957

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Yes, yes, Rome had written record on this account. –  George Chen Apr 13 '14 at 10:57
Roman energy and intelligence were nowhere near the Greeks. The best they could do was to spread what the Greeks had invented. Nowadays Italians are towering intellectual giants. Modern science was created single-handedly by Galileo alone. Their energy and intelligence rival the ancient Greeks. It'll be interesting to find out what happened between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance. –  George Chen Apr 13 '14 at 12:26

People may say, what they may, but I think the fundamental precondition for the industrial revolution was the printing press. It made available to the masses cheaply obtainable knowledge, without which their intellect would have gone to waste. Archimedes had ideas about calculus, that others might have expanded on, before Newton and Leibnitz, but it is hard to do without easily accessible knowledge. And were Greeks not Romans as well? They could obtain Roman citizenship just like any other conquered nation and their part of the Roman world survived for longer than the Latin part. Give to the Romans the printing press and out of their primitive factories there would arise an industrial revolution.


The articles I've based my opinion on:

The only thing missing was persons combining this knowledge. A printing press could make this possible.

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They could build mighty siege engines, aqueducts, monumental buildings, but not the humble printing press. As far as having all they needed to build one; they probably had. –  user1095108 Apr 13 '14 at 22:28
This obviously isn't the only factor -- population seems crucial as well, both from the point of view of demand and from the point of view of resource scarcity. And I wouldn't say just "printing press" -- rather, I would say "print culture," including the development of mass literacy and distribution networks. But given those caveats, I think there's a lot to be said for this answer. –  senderle Jan 7 at 21:18
I'm not sure I understand your point. I'd have to be a little crazy to suggest that print culture could develop in a society without the printing press. Consider my comment with the principle of charity in mind. –  senderle Jan 8 at 8:45

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