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What factors made the United Kingdom the first to industrialize? Was it simply the importance and benefit of its position in the global community for trade?

Have you read The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith? He's a contemporary of the times and explains it quite well in a lot of detail. –  jfrankcarr May 23 '12 at 16:38
I have to take issue with the asssertion that the first steam engines were used for the mills, the first steam engines were used for pumping water out of tin mines in Cornwall. –  user995689 May 27 '12 at 14:36
This should have been a comment and not an answer, as it does not answer the question. –  David May 28 '12 at 9:20
The cost of labor was twice as high in Britain compared to continental Europe-due to everything being more expensive on an island. Higher wages meant that labor saving technology was much more valuable in Britain than the rest of Europe. –  JoeHobbit May 29 '12 at 22:13
I don't normally expect people to watch a video, but someone's already told us to read a book, so what the hell. Do check out crash course world history, here is their Industrial Revolution Video, at about 4.30 they discuss this question. –  Nathan Cooper Jun 18 '13 at 22:29

6 Answers 6

Several historians/economists hold several factors responsible. I know two works that discuss this in great depth:

  1. The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith.
  2. Nation, State and the Industrial Revolution: The Visible Hand, Lars Magnusson.

Personally, I believe the following factors played a crucial role:

Wars: Britain's isolation from continental Europe meant that Britain was relatively more peaceful than the rest of the Europe. It was difficult to invade. In the 16th century, England had thwarted a Spanish naval invasion and brought attention to the need to have a strong navy. Later monarchs invested a lot in naval technology and better ships. Not only this navy became a strong deterrent to an invasion, it also went on to protect merchant interests at sea. By the late 18th century, when most European countries were being plundered (the Napoleonic wars), Britain emerged with a naval superiority and a large protected merchant vassal fleet.

Markets: British merchants also had a sizeable market (in form of their first colonies). With a small labour supply at home, there was a strong incentive to automate as much manual tasks as possible. This started with textiles but then later moved onto other sectors as well.

Legal framework foundation: England's legal system also played a tremendous role here. Various laws that formalised the patent process introduced strong incentives. Religious freedom that followed Elizabeth I's rule also encouraged scientific/engineering revolution. Many modern day laws that protect corporations (such as those on taxation, property, ownership etc.) were passed during the early 18th century in the English parliament. Overall, England (and later Britain) became a good place to do business. For a more detailed account of how British legal system played a part in the industrial revolution please read Julian Hoppit's paper.

Scientific Discoveries: This is more of a follow on from the three I mentioned above but with enough wealth in hands and laws to protect intellectual rights, English engineers and scholars went on to create the first machines that revolutionised industry for the first time. The textile mill, steam engine, locomotives, steam ships etc. are all examples of such scientific discoveries.

You have to bear in mind that all these factors (and several other small ones) were all needed together. Many European countries had a few of them and they followed the suite when they achieved/got the rest. Also, for many of them a slight difference in factors can be seen (for example, Germany's market was mainly domestic and towards the East --not its colonies).

England had already undergone the first industrial revolution by the time the steam engine was invented. Other European countries were quick to follow.

But they were all tangled in the Napoleonic wars and had enormous interference from the Catholic Church back then. The factors I mentioned, all needed to be present. Read my response carefully, and cross reference them with the sources I have mentioned before voting up/down. –  Monster Truck May 24 '12 at 3:28
Royal navy ensured that the blockade was little effective. We have evidence that English trading ships, sailing under the protection of the royal navy, did sail to East India, China, and Africa. English involvement in the Napoleanic war was on the continent. England itself was left at peace. –  Monster Truck May 24 '12 at 3:33
And bear in mind, we are talking about a very small window. Other European countries did follow them shortly afterwards. That period is called the Second Industrial Revolution and was a mere 50 years after the first one. –  Monster Truck May 24 '12 at 3:36
And they did capitalise on them but 50 years later when peace followed. His question is why England industrialised first. Throughout history, the answer has always been the same --scientific innovation, protection of business rights, peaceful conditions at home, a strong market demand, and ample capital for investment. –  Monster Truck May 24 '12 at 3:43
@Anixx: Bear also in mind that Germany and Italy were not even "countries" during that time. This also hampered industrial development. –  Felix Goldberg Dec 5 '12 at 10:39

I'm going to take this a perhaps unexpected direction, Connections-style. Everything else I see in the other answers is IMHO just an effect (although RI Swamp Yankee comes close). What did England have that the rest of Europe didn't that ultimately caused it to become the first center of industrialization?


England, particularly the Scottish highlands, happens through a convergence of animal breeding and just the right (horrible) climate to produce the best and most wool in Europe.

Now initially the wool would be shipped to mills in Flanders to produce cloth. A large industry built up supplying all Europe with Flemish cloth using English wool. However, as the population of Europe (and thus demand for cloth) exploded after the end of the Black Death, and the Spanish Netherlands became the battleground of Europe, more and more of the milling started to be done at home England and Scottland instead.

With the market exploding, there was a trememdous pressure on producers to mill more cloth faster every single year. This meant the English mills kept getting bigger, and more efficient. Any innovation that one mill found which helped effenciency had to be adopted by the other mills too, or they couldn't compete and would go out of business. Eventually cotton from America and India started supplementing the wool, but it was still all being shipped to the large British mills. This processes then started spreading to anything else that could be similarly milled (eg: flour, steel).

The first steam engines were used for the mills. The first widespread use of coal was for the mills (the fact that England also had a lot of coal too certianly helped things along). Millions of people abandoned rural areas to work in the new mill towns. Railroads were initially invented to bring more coal to the mills. The first "programmed" devices were looms in the cloth mills. It was this transfomation of society William Blake was referring to when he wrote the line "dark Satanic mills" in Jerusalem.

But it all started because of the sheep.

Interesting analysis. That is what makes this site better than any forum/wiki out there. A follow up question though (and I am not doubting your analysis): Your analysis focuses on the fact that England had something unique to offer to Europe (viz. wool). But then Italy was supplying Egyptian paper, perfumes, wines, oil, silk, and wax to the Arab world and Asia back then. China was also supplying silk to all the world and was home to the world's largest silk production houses (save Italy of course). Why didn't they industrialise? China was a forefront of Science too. –  Monster Truck May 27 '12 at 12:15
@MonsterTruck - Silk was (and is) a luxury good in Europe. Wool was the material for everyday clothing, which means that when Europe's population hit 80 million, somebody needed to make enough wool clothing every year to keep 80 million people supplied with one or two outfits. As for why not China, that's a different question entirely, and IMHO has to do with the Printing Press. Before 1480 China enjoyed an information advantage due to their universal script. After the 1480's, Europe had a huge information advantage over the world. Notice how much started happening in Europe after that year. –  T.E.D. May 27 '12 at 14:20
@MonsterTruck as far as I understand from this answer, the focus of "sheep" wasn't production/export per se, it was that it promoted innovation. Those products you list in your comment didn't cause the same effect. –  Lohoris May 28 '12 at 9:31
@MonsterTruck China had its own problems during the industrial age RE: colonization and trade/wars with foreign powers. Still, its own internal conflicts and structure sort of eliminated its progression into an industrial age like as happened in Europe. –  MichaelF May 28 '12 at 11:50
@MichaelF, I meant why not earlier during the 11th or 12th AD when they were mostly at peace? At this point, I think this should become a question in its own right and I am sure a lot of interesting answers, theories, and debates will follow. One factor that may be responsible here can be that no one thought of industrialising at all --perhaps they had a large labour supply. –  Monster Truck May 30 '12 at 0:14

The Dutch actually beat the British to it by almost a century - their problem was a lack of deepwater ports and domestic resources, so the British were able to overtake them in the 18th century.

Now, if you want to ask why the Dutch were the first to industrialize, I can recommend "The Baroque Cycle" - historical fiction by Neal Stephenson that covers England's entry into the industrial age. The Dutch were doing innovative things with finance and trade, fueled by religious fervor (the Puritains were very serious about idle hands doing the devil's work), a strong legal system and a permissive government.

One of the advantages of the Dutch system was patent protections for new inventions - among these the reciprocating crankshaft of Cornelis Corneliszoon which allowed the Dutch to build mechanized factories. They were able to import raw materials from all over the globe, and export finished products to same, including gin, paper, refined sugar, linseed oil, ceramic goods, and, of course, ships and rope.

For a more scholarly treatment of Dutch industrialization in the very early 17th century, here is a chapter on the topic from "Dutch in World Trade: 1585-1740" By Jonathan Irvine Israel

Had they not had war with England and France during those times, the Dutch would probably have become the greatest European power (or at least the very first to industrialise). –  Monster Truck May 27 '12 at 12:20
Downvote: You are correct in pointing out that the Dutch were highly developed, but the basis of their power was mercantile rather than manufacture. That's one of the reasons, I think, that the English could beat them: you can take away a country's trade and colonis by beating its navy, but you can't take its industry - if it has any. –  Felix Goldberg Dec 5 '12 at 11:04
@FelixGoldberg - Do not downnvote when you don't understand the subject matter. The Dutch Golden Age absolutely did involve modernizing industry. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… –  RI Swamp Yankee Dec 5 '12 at 12:36
@RI Swamp Yankee: With all due respect, I beg to differ. I may not be an expert by I do have a general grasp of the issue. When I wrote my comment I was relying on my memory of a book by the famous Russian historian E. Tarle. Now I have googled to find more sources and came across this essay which captures the point well: eh.net/encyclopedia/article/harreld.dutch. <TBC> –  Felix Goldberg Dec 5 '12 at 14:18
Actually I see the point RI Swamp Yankee is making, but I think he's interpreting the question too literally. Let's say for arguments sake the Dutch were first to invent industrial machinery, if they did they either didn't see the commercial benefits of the machines they invented or they couldn't make them work. The UK was the first to do both those things - and that's what gave them such a substantial leg up in world commerce. –  spiceyokooko Dec 6 '12 at 21:10

Religious tolerance

Without the United Kingdoms tolerance to views and opinions that elsewhere would have been considered heresy (like much of Catholic Europe and the Islamic and Muslim kingdoms found elsewhere) innovation, invention, science and original thought could not have happened.

It is specifically this tolerance to original thought that allowed inventors free reign to experiment and publish ideas without fear of proscription and persecution from religious zealots, as was happening in the Spanish Inquisition in Spain that allowed the Industrial Revolution to occur.

Without the Industrial Revolution, the United Kingdom would never have been the first to industrialise.


+1 one, just for thinking outside the box. However, the UK during this period was rather intolerant of Catholics, was it not? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-Catholicism_in_the_United_Kingdom . Meanwhile, a German of just about any religous stripe (save perhaps anabaptist) could find a district ruled by a co-religonist. Admittedtly, that only did much good when they weren't fighting each other... –  T.E.D. Dec 5 '12 at 18:43
@T.E.D Very much so and for good reason too - catholicism and papacy was the antithesis to freedom of thought and invention which is precisely my point. Take Gallileo's case, he was imprisoned as a heretic for (rightly) pointing out the earth revolved around the sun. How are you supposed to be inventive with that kind of proscription? Please, give the answer more thought and credit than a mere 'thinking out of the box', you'll find it's the over-riding reason the Industrial Revolution happened in England and not elsewhere. –  spiceyokooko Dec 5 '12 at 20:15
So... England was first because of their intolerance of Catholicism then? –  NotVonKaiser Jun 18 '13 at 13:24
downvote. as people have said, england was actually very intolerant of catholics. –  Evil Washing Machine Feb 4 at 0:26
Same timeframe, Prussia, Frederick the Great, ... great tolerance towards other religions. What gives? –  0xC0000022L May 18 at 3:37

Since it wasn't brought up, I'll offer an alternative view that was only recently voiced in Science (see here): wheat and rice as main staple food shaped the culture and boundaries of the societies.

NB: this isn't about the United Kingdom in particular, but about the "Western world" as opposed to Asian empires of the time.

The question that came up was centering around why the Chinese weren't the first, for example. Their society was quite advanced and a lot of things were known to them before they were introduced to or discovered in Europe.

The conclusion seems to be that food shapes the culture and ultimately the mode of thinking. Throughout Asia community often counts more than in the Western world.

The causal relation isn't clear, but rice requires much more intensive care and cooperation while wheat is hassle free and requires little to no cooperation, even in a society before mechanization.

The arguments logical and they do not seem to be as partisan as Adam Smiths book "The Wealth of Nations" that was suggested in a comment.


Various factors, the major one being that the iron ore in England does not have phosphorus in it. I would identify two main factors:

(1) The largest integrated economy in the world. In 1850 England had the largest advanced, integrated economy in the world. Germany/Austria/Hungary had as good, or better technology, but was ruled by many different petty princes with complex trade and cooperation barriers that prevented the continent from acting as a unit. The US had a large economy, but not the global empire that England had, and also was not as technologically advanced as England.

(2) The real key to the industrial revolution was cheap steel. This is what makes everything else happen. The critical development was the Bessemer converter in 1856. Unfortunately for the Germans, the Bessemer process does not work on ores with a high phosphorus content, and all the German ores are of that type. This gave England a huge advantage and leg up on industrial development.

However the Industrial Revolution is usually considered to start much earlier than this usually in 1700s –  Mark May 25 at 13:29
@Mark Not by me. The industrial revolution is synonymous with big steel. Thats why it is a "revolution" because of cheap steel. The advent of cheap steel can be dated to a single year: 1856, the first year of production of the Bessemer converter. All other changes to industrial technology were "evolutionary", not revolutionary. Nothing can be really be compared to the effect of the Bessemer converter. –  Tyler Durden May 26 at 15:31
_ I have never seen anywhere that gives that definition - all I have seen start in 18th century or earlier including trains, mills, steam engine e.g. Princeton Encyclopædia Britannica –  Mark May 26 at 15:38

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