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?

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    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
    Commented May 23, 2012 at 16:38
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    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
    Commented May 27, 2012 at 14:36
  • This should have been a comment and not an answer, as it does not answer the question.
    – David
    Commented May 28, 2012 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.
    – Dale
    Commented May 29, 2012 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
    Commented Jun 18, 2013 at 22:29

10 Answers 10


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.

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    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.
    – Apoorv
    Commented May 24, 2012 at 3:28
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    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.
    – Apoorv
    Commented May 24, 2012 at 3:33
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    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.
    – Apoorv
    Commented May 24, 2012 at 3:36
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    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.
    – Apoorv
    Commented May 24, 2012 at 3:43
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    @Anixx: Bear also in mind that Germany and Italy were not even "countries" during that time. This also hampered industrial development. Commented Dec 5, 2012 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?


Great Britain, 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.

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    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.
    – Apoorv
    Commented May 27, 2012 at 12:15
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    @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.
    Commented May 27, 2012 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.
    – o0'.
    Commented May 28, 2012 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
    Commented May 28, 2012 at 11:50
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    @T.E.D - It's tenuous at best. In any case, it still doesn't answer the question asked. What factor made the United Kingdom the first to Industrialise? Answer: Religious tolerance. Nothing to do with sheep, mills, looms or coal, sorry. Commented Dec 5, 2012 at 15:37

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

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    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).
    – Apoorv
    Commented May 27, 2012 at 12:20
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    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. Commented Dec 5, 2012 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/… Commented Dec 5, 2012 at 12:36
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    No, we are talking about the modern era of Western Civilization (you're living in it), and the first society to industrialize was the Dutch Republic. The English came later, and were ultimately more successful.. but they trod along the path the Dutch had blazed. English textile mills used Cornelis Corneliszoon's reciprocating crankshaft, when they were built a century later. Any book on the Dutch Golden Age will cover emigration of windmill builders to other parts of Europe, and the Dutch attempts to stop it. Maybe you should read some of them? Commented Dec 6, 2012 at 12:53
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    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. Commented Dec 6, 2012 at 21:10

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
    – mmmmmm
    Commented May 25, 2014 at 13:29
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    @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. Commented May 26, 2014 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
    – mmmmmm
    Commented May 26, 2014 at 15:38

I'm going to disprove some of the argument's above. (Then later give my own explanation). First of all I quote some great answers here.

Apoorv khurasia's Scientific discoveries argument

Okay this has nothing to do with England industrializing first. First of all, all the examples of "Scientific discoveries" of Apoorv Khurasia are actually not scientific discoveries. They are basic inventions, and kind of ancient engineering. Most of the inventors were not even scientists themselves. (Actually not even one of them). What they did was engineering which is DEFINITELY NOT SCIENCE. Here is a definition of science:

Science is the process of forming arguments which are falsifiable (Karl popper)

Engineering on the over hand, is basic pragmatism. Counter arguments :

  • Engineering/invention had to happen due to the factors that caused industrialization. Engineering/invention did not cause industrialization, may have fastened the process though. (Which is clearly not what OP is asking for, OP is asking for why U.K. first)

  • Science is not followed by industrialization. Think about the Ancient Greek civilization where science flourished. Ancient Greek were perfectly capable of producing engineering, however they did not. Because they did not need it (economy was slave based). This extra time they had led to science.

Apoorv khurasia's War's argument

I agree that England ending up being a huge naval power after Napoeolonic wars contributed to industrialization due to the existence of the extra surplus which can be gathered by utilizing the market properly. (I completely agree on the market argument). However, isolation from the continental Europe (or isolation from the wars) did not contribute. Isolation is a bad thing, England built up that huge naval power because of the fact that Europe was in competition. Wars led to better machinery, better navy and better weapons which later expanded the market. Wars actually made this a reality. Why did China did not have any naval power? Because they didn't NEED to. There was almost no one to compete against. Can wars cause less incentives for people to invest in capital? Nope, think about the continental Europe (germany) after post-industrialization for instance.

Tyler Durden's steel argument

Maing contribution to industrialization was not the cheap prices of inputs, was the incentive to get prices cheaper. If prices are cheap - you are doomed. Remember we are talking about why U.K. indutrialized FIRST, not how this process gained a momentum. (Cheap steel prices would be a great example for German industrialization in this case). U.K. industrialized first because of the incentive to lower prices. Then prices became lower. (Important note to you: Correlation does not imply causality, causality is the other way around in this case.)

spiceyokooko's tolerance argument

Nope just nope. Almost has nothing to do. World had pretty much no tolerance back then (Except the Ottomans).

to tj1000

Invention of the steam engine IS a RESULT of INDUSTRIALIZATION.

to Jason Hutchinson

Wealth per capita levels in the world were almost the same between England - Middle East - Netherlands - France - China - India pre-industrialization. It's not because of WEALTH, It's because of INCENTIVES.

My argument:

The main reason why U.K. went through industrialization was the incentives to lower pries for production inputs. After napoleonic wars, England has ended up being a global navy power with new input resources all over the world. European / Especially the English market all of a sudden grew when these inputs were able to be transferred to the continent. There was a demand from the market for the goods which had inputs located in overseas (especially india). There did exist people of motives, let us call them capitalists that wanted to extract this surplus of the market - through a mutual interest relationship. These people starting their production - which later increased the prices of inputs even more. What needed was lower prices. Labor was expensive compared to their surplus gained per good. However the most expensive was raw materials. Raw materials were bought quite cheaply from their homelands, but transportation costs almost 900% of the buying price.

These people of incentives, capitalists, had to get there prices low somehow, they did so buy invention of methods of production. However, these new methods of production were ancient enough, such that they did not require good amount of science in the beginning. Science was a necessity later on.

Now the main question's to ask are now :

  • Why these people of motives form in U.K (possible explanation is the legal invention and property rights)
  • Why keep pushing prices down? (Liberalism)


  • 1
    Sources to support your assertions would improve this answer. Commented Nov 19, 2017 at 0:44
  • @sempaiscuba you are right. You can discard my answer if you wish.
    – Kuantew
    Commented Nov 19, 2017 at 0:53
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    If you wanted to comment on various answers, you should have added comments.
    – Spencer
    Commented Nov 19, 2017 at 1:13
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    I'm a little confused by the first sentence of your argument which seems to be somewhat circular in its logic. However, if we accept your argument that the U.K. went through industrialisation because of the need to lower prices of production but wouldn't the same incentive exist for every other European power too?
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Nov 19, 2017 at 1:22
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    I was under the impression that Britain was already a global naval power well before the Napoleonic Wars. Logistical support of the navy was a significant industry in itself (in fact, the largest industry in the nation at that time). Commented Nov 19, 2017 at 2:56

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 the main staple foods shaped the culture and boundaries of 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 argument is logical and does not seem to be as partisan as Adam Smiths book "The Wealth of Nations" that was suggested in a comment.


Malcom Gladwell's Revisionist History mentions in passing an argument that Britain had more craftsmen who were capable of the engineering work. THe podcast doesn't explain why Britain had more craftsmen, but I would speculate that common law was more favorable to craftsmen. The podcast should give you enough to pursue research.


Religious tolerance

Without the United Kingdom's tolerance of different 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 of 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.


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    +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.
    Commented Dec 5, 2012 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. Commented Dec 5, 2012 at 20:15
  • So... England was first because of their intolerance of Catholicism then? Commented Jun 18, 2013 at 13:24
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    Same timeframe, Prussia, Frederick the Great, ... great tolerance towards other religions. What gives? Commented May 18, 2014 at 3:37
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    T.E.D. blaming catholic church for everything is very much thinking inside the box. Galileo was put on trial for teaching Copernicus (who was a priest) idea as fact. The idea itself was a step in right direction but was a wrong model that did not much the observations. Only later Kepler's model explained the planet's motion. Galileo did not argue against the Bible, but about against Aristotle's ideas that was taught for 2000 years.
    – user28033
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 8:45

The UK was already a very wealthy nation at the time. They had established trade routes and colonies all over the world from the Americas to the Far East. Her deep water ports and inland canal systems made it easy to transport goods from inland and export them all over the world.

It was also teeming with great scientific minds. The Royal Society had a great influence in many fields of scientific study. It was a community that brought many great minds together that existed quite some time before the industrial revolution was in full swing. Amongst its many prestigious members was Isaac Newton.

James Watt, a member of the Royal Society invented the modern steam engine. Early steam engines such as ones based on the Newcomen design were very inefficient and had limited usage. It wasn't until the invention of the Watt Steam engine, that it became possible to use steam in manufacturing processes as well as in vehicles such as canal boats and locomotives.

Watt Steam Engine

James Watt

Royal Society

Canals of the United Kingdom


Several factors came into play in the UK, that led to it pioneering modern industrial methods. Three that stand out are:

The invention of the steam engine was probably the greatest single factor. This was the first form of human generated power, that could be used anywhere power was needed, and could be scaled up. Animal power, the horse and ox, could be used anywhere, but it couldn't be scaled up. Water power could be scaled up, just build a bigger water wheel, but could only be used where water was running downhill. Wind power was unreliable. Without reliable, scalable power, industrial factories cannot be operated. The steam engine was invented, and refined, in the UK, and gave it a huge head start.

To a degree, religious discrimination played a role, specifically those people who refused to swear allegiance to the Church of England. They were referred to as dissenters, and had a number of their civil rights taken away. However, they were not forbidden to engage in commerce, an activity considered 'beneath' the landed Anglican gentry, so they gravitated towards northern England to escape the persecution, where the operation of whiskey distilleries led to a study of heat transfer that was to make the early steam engines more efficient, raw ores to make the metals needed for industrial equipment were widely available, and the interference from their dissenter status was minimal.

And finally, England being an island, it was necessity to make more efficient use of what they had, as transportation costs of raw materials from continental Europe to the UK were not cheap, plus disruption of such supplies from the almost constant state of warfare that Europe was in, at that time. The origins of the Industrial Revolution in the UK can be found in the need to work with what they had on hand.

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