Why did the First and Second Industrial Revolutions start in Europe?

Both revolutions were very similar, or at least they were connected. They weren't very far apart (1st: 1760 - 1860 | 2nd: 1870-1914) in terms of years, and revolutionized literally the world.

Both had technological and scientific advancements (see previous link), and had major shifts in the way society lived.

However, why did both of them start in Europe? And why not China for example?

I heard a few points, but I'm still not so sure on them.

  • Geography
    • Europe was abundant in natural resources like coal, making it easier for them to develop
  • Political
    • Europe at that time could be considered more politically suitable for developments
    • Limited government involvement also helped ordinary people progress with their ideas
  • Society (relates to limited government involvement)
    • Europe's society was experiencing a modernization in some ways, less poverty and more opportunities
  • Power
    • Europe had massive power, controlling major trade routes and colonizing valuable land such as the Americas
    • Europe also indirectly controlled other countries' economies (like opium in China for example)

Other countries lacked these traits. For example, China's poor interest on overseas trade limited their interactions. They also had major economic activity South (near the sea), but their majority of natural resources was North (coal).

However, are these factors definite in deciding the events of a country, or was it just because of coincidence? Could the industrial revolutions have started in another place? Or are the above factors just too solid of a method in which determins where change will take place?

  • 2
    Are you sure the industrial revolution is actually the appropriate approach to the social phenomena occuring? Is it the railway, or is it the limited liability railway company, or is it the value and form of the wealth circulating? Commented Dec 13, 2019 at 6:20
  • 1
    So are you saying that it's the individual events that matter?
    – user41226
    Commented Dec 13, 2019 at 22:52
  • 1
    The other major narrative is the development of capitalism and wage labour as a social relationship and social system. The development of ornate looms didn’t produce mechanisation. The enslavement of thousands of girls to machines and putting thousands of hand loom households into poverty did. Creating machines didn’t make the European transformation happened: new ways of people relating to each other and doing things did. Commented Dec 14, 2019 at 1:37
  • Ah, okay. So you're referring to the social status at that time?
    – user41226
    Commented Dec 14, 2019 at 2:20
  • Just for the record, in my opinion 'Why' questions are difficult for SE
    – MCW
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 15:52

4 Answers 4


William McNeil, in his excellent (and neglected) The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society since A.D. 1000, argues that Europe's advantage was in no small part due to the Fall of Rome. (Somewhere, McNeil said that it could have been subtitled "the effect of macroparasitism on history" in parallel with his better-known book Plagues and Peoples. Governments being the macroparasites)

Basically, McNeil describes how stable empires tend to suppress innovation -- China ending the Cheng Ho (Zheng He) explorations, Japan forbidding firearms, etc. He speculates that Rome, had it survived, would have done the same, but because it fell, Europe was hopelessly fragmented, and when innovation sprang up there it couldn't be suppressed. Nations had to adopt firearms or disappear; A king might try to control the printing press and books, but they flourished elsewhere and leaked in anyway. Etc.

Harry Turtledove, a Byzantine historian, wrote an interesting alternate history based on McNeil's theory called The Gunpowder Empire where Agrippa survived Augustus and became the second emperor and founded a dynasty more stable than the Julio-Claudians (easy!). Rome flourished, but 2000 years later, Roman Europe is nearly stagnant.

  • @DenisdeBernardy: Pretty much. Note that McNeil stresses inter-state competition more than competition between people within a state.
    – Mark Olson
    Commented Dec 14, 2019 at 0:37
  • Yes, that's the one I meant -- and an important distinction. An additional reason I've also seen put forward to explain why there was so much competition: the lack of large river valleys/flood plains that require a centralized authority to manage to grow food. In Europe you could very much chop trees to clear a field and start planting. Commented Dec 14, 2019 at 4:12
  • 2
    @Denis de Bernardy Good point. It's hard to overemphasize how complicated history is and how rare it is for something to depend on only one factor.
    – Mark Olson
    Commented Dec 14, 2019 at 14:07
  • So what is detrimental to significant industrial progress is stable governmental centralization? The Byzantine empire was also like China a stable centralized empire?
    – Starckman
    Commented Mar 22, 2023 at 6:07

There's no consensus here.

Guns, Germs and Steel argues it's all due to geography. Some countries, like Japan, lacked metal, others lacked crops. But China's geography led to its being an anti-competitive society that didn't favor progress:

Diamond also proposes geographical explanations for why western European societies, rather than other Eurasian powers such as China, have been the dominant colonizers, claiming Europe's geography favored balkanization into smaller, closer nation-states, bordered by natural barriers of mountains, rivers, and coastline. Threats posed by immediate neighbors ensured governments that suppressed economic and technological progress soon corrected their mistakes or were out-competed relatively quickly, whilst the region's leading powers changed over time. Other advanced cultures developed in areas whose geography was conducive to large, monolithic, isolated empires, without competitors that might have forced the nation to reverse mistaken policies such as China banning the building of ocean-going ships. Western Europe also benefited from a more temperate climate than Southwestern Asia where intense agriculture ultimately damaged the environment, encouraged desertification, and hurt soil fertility.

But others may disagree.

  • Your answer is meh leaning on ok (bluntly, Diamond has interesting insights but I've come to view anything that quotes Diamond only as wrong/too simplistic), but itching to -1 because Mark's answer is much better. Commented Dec 14, 2019 at 23:05

I would argue that a major reason that the industrial revolution kicked off in the UK, rather than China, and the second industrial revolution thrived in Germany and the United States, was social, not geographic.

China, like most Asian nations of that time, had a fairly disciplined society that did not encourage independent initiative. After all, while the Chinese invented gunpowder, it took Europeans to show what could really be done with it... for better or for worse.

That same regimented society was prevalent in England in the 1600's, with the English nobility acquiring and holding wealth and power based on heritage, not ability.

At that time, it was virtually impossible for an Asian person to change their social status substantially during their lifetime... which by coincidence was also the situation in England at that time. Once a common laborer, always a common laborer.

In the 1600's, those that did not toe the line with English society and swear allegiance to the Church of England were labeled Dissenters, and had many of their civil rights taken away. They didn't lose the ability to engage in commerce, considered beneath the dignity of the English nobility, so the Dissenters moved away from the highly populated southern England (where they were forbidden to assemble in groups or organize independent churches), and towards northern England, where they weren't subject to as many restrictions, and an abundant supply of raw materials could be found.

It was these Dissenters that were to form the core of the first industrialists. They had no social barriers to success. One could be as successful as their ability and intelligence made possible.

A Quaker (and Dissenter), Abraham Darby, was probably the first major industrialist. He developed a method of producing very pure iron at a fairly low cost, using coke as fuel, plus the reverberating furnace that had been developed for glass production. Glassmaking had become quite popular in that area, as the Little Ice Age and its lower temperatures had created a huge demand for glass to let light (and heat) into buildings.

Also, a college in Scotland, the University of Glasgow, was to play a major role in the understanding of heat transfer (to help the distillers), and especially the improvement of the early steam engines that powered the first industrial revolution. James Watt was an instrument maker at that university, and got his idea for a separate condensing chamber when investigating a working model of an early Newcomen engine... working models being the 18th century version of film or video. Watt's early work was financed by another Dissenter, Matthew Boulton, who had made his fortune working with the metals that Darby was producing at a relatively low cost.

Ironically, by the time of the second industrial revolution, the Dissenters had become the proper British society that had rejected them... not because they had sworn allegiance to the Church of England, but because they had become fabulously wealthy.

One major player in the second industrial revolution was Germany. A parallel element can be found there in the casting off of centralized religion (the Catholic Church being essentially a second form of government at that time), led by Martin Luther, who capitalized upon the then new printing press to spread his ideas. Oddly enough, it was the Church's use of those printing presses to print up indulgences for sale that led Luther to write (and print) his 95 theses.

This breaking of tradition, combined with the lack of strict social castes in Germany in general, is a close parallel to the Dissenters, in terms of a critical ingredient in both industrial revolutions: a lack of intellectual restrictions. By the late 1800's, Germany had developed the concept of admitting people into universities and trade schools based on merit, not nobility.

A good deal of the second industrial revolution didn't even occur in Europe, but the United States. The US was the first nation to implement widespread distribution of electric power, once the problem of sending that power over great distances was solved by Nicola Tesla and his AC power, and built on an industrial scale first by Westinghouse. Tesla emigrated to the US to pursue his ideas, for the greater opportunities and lower level of government interference and rigid social expectations there... a lesser version of the situation that motivated the Dissenters.

But, that wasn't enough. It was JP Morgan who provided the financing to implement electric power on a large scale in New York City, and prove its economic viability. Morgan had bought out the Edison Electric Company when Edison stumbled by sticking with DC power, and renamed it General Electric. Happenstance also played a role in the electrification of the US before other nations... in the 1930's, Roosevelt created the Tennessee Valley Authority as a project to put people back to work, and tasked it with building dams in Appalachia to generate electric power.

The assembly line was pioneered by Henry Ford, when previously automobiles had essentially been hand built, resulting in the first inexpensive, mass produced auto: the Model T. Ford built on the work done by Eli Whitney in the late 1700's, who had come up with the concept of standardized, interchangeable parts produced on machines, to create standardized rifles. Ford had to break the patents on the automobile held by ALAM, but he was aided by another leader unconcerned with tradition: Theodore Roosevelt, who had overseen the breakup of Standard Oil and its monopoly on oil production.

There were many factors involved both industrial revolutions. One element common to both, and quite probably a major factor in where the revolutions emerged, was the absence of rigid social castes or other intellectual restrictions in the groups involved in both revolutions: the Dissenters, the Germans, and the United States in general.

  • The question of why the first industrial revolution began in Britain is a highly documented field of study, and I am a little surprised that you do not quote any bibliography here. You tend to make some quite bald generalisations e.g about Dissenters moving north. Recent scholarship on the subject places considerable stress on the "proto-industrialisation" of the 16th and 17th centuries, and the generally good road and canal systems, as well as market structures.
    – WS2
    Commented Dec 15, 2019 at 12:13
  • An important reason why industrial development was more effective in Germany, it has been argued, was that it began 100 years after Britain, and was hence able to make far more use of science. Britain's was essentially an "artisan" revolution, using less science and far dirtier than elsewhere - perhaps giving rise to the expression "where there's muck there's brass".
    – WS2
    Commented Dec 15, 2019 at 12:21

I WOULD SAY, that the emergence of the Industrial Revolution in Europe had to do with European domination of India. India from about 200-1750A.D. represented 1/3 of the world's GDP. The rise of European colonialism ended this scenario, and started a long term economic and political slide in India. Europeans stepped up and came up with ways to do what India did with much less manpower. The flying shuttle was the main invention that allowed textiles to become automated.

The Industrial Revolution started in Britain, and notably, Britain was surpassing other Europeans around the same time in the colonization of India, and arising as a global maritime power in general. The later Industrial Revolution, or the 19th century, happened under the political clout of "Pax Brittanica".

The Second Industrial Revolution, which had a lot to do with the momentum of the first, no doubt started in Europe because of the invention of steel. The Germans excelled at steel production more than anyone else, and this revolution was very German in character, with the British struggling to keep up.

Notably, the Tamils had produced steel for 2,000 years in southern India.

Economic History of India Wikipedia:

India experienced deindustrialisation and cessation of various craft industries under British rule,[9] which along with fast economic and population growth in the Western World resulted in India's share of the world economy declining from 24.4% in 1700 to 4.2% in 1950,[10] and its share of global industrial output declining from 25% in 1750 to 2% in 1900.[9]

During the period 1780–1860 India changed from an exporter of processed goods paid for in bullion to an exporter of raw materials and a buyer of manufactured goods.[91]

...the efficient Mughal tax administration system was left largely intact, with Tapan Raychaudhuri estimating revenue assessment actually increased to 50 percent or more, in contrast to China's 5 to 6 percent

After the decline of the Mughal Empire, Mysoreans embarked on an ambitious economic development program that established the Kingdom of Mysore as a major economic power, with some of the world's highest real wages and living standards in the late 18th century.

  • 1
    You confuse cause with effect. India’s deep dive is mostly coming from its inability to progress its economy, while Europe multiples their production. While colonization plays a role in slowing down India, It has much less effect the other way.
    – Greg
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 2:03
  • @Greg ...inability to progress its economy under colonization.
    – John Dee
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 15:32
  • India had zero sign of starting any industrial revolution, therefore nothing was prevented. Industrial revolution is not about some manufactures producing luxury goods using medieval manual labor. Also your argument was that it started in England because of colonization of India - which you still didn’t explain.
    – Greg
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 17:31
  • India had zero sign: that wasn't my point, but I'd challenge that on the basis of the reforms of Tipi Sultan. I plan to rewrite my question and it will probably have something to do with protestantism and the middle class.
    – John Dee
    Commented Dec 17, 2019 at 0:25

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.