Could Great Britain have built the British Empire if it was not the pioneer of the Industrial Revolution?

Put another way: Was the Industrial Revolution the single key over-riding factor to its superpower status in the 19th century? If so, who should get more credit - engineers or soldiers or businessmen or politicians or even bankers?

  • That's good question. That's a very good question. I'm currently stumped. I'd love to put a bounty on this if no one looks into it. Oct 3, 2013 at 1:48
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    The British Empire for a large part existed before the industrial revolution, so yes. Would they have been able to hang on to it during the industrial revolution? Now there's another question (seeing as Spain and Portugal lost most of their possessions).
    – jwenting
    Oct 3, 2013 at 3:21
  • Could Europe have conquered Asian and Africa without an industrial revolution: Probably not. Could England have done it if the pioneers were, say France, instead? Yes, probably. Could they have done it if the revolution happened in China? No. This question is interesting, so +1. But I fear that if it doesn't get focused it will get closed as "too broad". Oct 3, 2013 at 6:04

2 Answers 2


Besides Britain there were other colonial powers with great empires, Spain and France. They had similar number of colonial possessions. Spain had nearly entire South and Central America, while France had most of Africa.

It was much later (after WWII) when France lost most of its possessions in Africa, although in North America they lost their possessions to Britain much earlier (the result of the Franco-British war was determined mostly by other factors, and not directly connected to the industrial revolution).

Spain lost the possessions because of independence movements in the 19th century.

You may also consider Russia who also conquered large areas of Central and North Asia and America starting in 17th century while not being an industrial pioneer.

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    Considering the extent of the British Empire in 1901, are we truly sure that the Industrial Revolution was incidental? Oct 3, 2013 at 8:32
  • @LateralFractal Industrial revolution happened before 1901.
    – Anixx
    Oct 3, 2013 at 9:05
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    and there's the Dutch, who owned a good chunk of Asia, parts of central America, and had for a time pieces of south America and South Africa (traded with or conquered by others over time), the Germans, the Belgians, etc. etc.
    – jwenting
    Oct 3, 2013 at 9:05
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    Let me put it another way: Empires take money to expand and maintain (Spain lost hers in part due to a lack of money). If Britain hadn't gained the productivity boost from being the pioneer of Industrial Revolution, I doubt her overseas holdings would have lasted long enough or expanded far enough (1901-1914 extent) to be what we usually think of as The British Empire. Oct 3, 2013 at 10:25
  • @Anixx The accrual of power and money from the Industrial Revolution had a lead-in time. Hence the seeming delay between the peak of the revolution in Britain and the peak of the empire. The self-same technologies had a diffusion rate (and an ever-accelerating one at that) which played a part in why it was a peak rather than a plateau. Oct 3, 2013 at 10:31

To credit the success the British Empire to a specific group of professionals isn't going to work. This was Britain's Golden Age.

To begin with, the independent countries of England and Scotland had successfully unified to create a more economically stable country. Also, being an island gave Britain a crucial vantage point over the rest of the European countries in a time which was vastly becoming reliant on naval forces as a means of power.

The above, combined with great inventors such as John Harrison and Richard Trevithick added to their advantage.

My conclusion is that it was a combination of good politics, revolutionary thinkers and hard workers. The position of Britain itself, of course, is a big factor. Very comparable to Rome's position within the Mediterranean and its internal politics which allowed it to expand rapidly.

  • Hi, welcome to the site!
    – Voitcus
    Oct 3, 2013 at 9:03
  • I forgot toe mention Wales, apologies.
    – user2948
    Oct 3, 2013 at 9:22
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    This is all a bit too vague but you've got a good point re:island. Oct 3, 2013 at 9:26
  • My main aim was to highlight that it was a combination of elements more than anything.
    – user2948
    Oct 3, 2013 at 9:34
  • If this argument ("This was Britain's Golden Age.") isn't simple begging the question, I cannot think what would be. Oct 6, 2013 at 1:42

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