Why did the Industrial Revolution begin in Britain? Before the 18th century, most people lived off of the land, as they had done so for many generations. But in the next 150 years, there was an explosion of new ideas and technological inventions that changed the way we work, live and play.1 This period of time was known as the Industrial Revolution, and it began in Britain. There are many reasons as to why this is so. Coal in Britain was plentiful, and had many applications, which was integral to the Industrial Revolution.
Furthermore, its subsequent applications paved the way for technological advancements such as the steam engine. Beyond this, Britain had a form of government that supported industrialisation. Finally, capitalism, the new economic system in place, further stimulated Britain’s economy. All of these factors combined together allowed Britain to be the centre for the Industrial Revolution, and to eventually become the world’s industrial superpower. Coal was an essential mineral to the Industrial Revolution, as it was a powerful fuel source, and it was readily available for the British Empire.
Coal was much more powerful than timber, the resource used at the time. 2 If Britain were to transition successfully into the Industrial Revolution, it would need a cheap, abundant fuel source to power its machines. Luckily for Britain, coal was both of those things. Coal deposits in Britain were shallow, making it easy to mine. 3Furthermore, the mines were located near the sea, which allowed Britain’s strong navy to carry the coal cheaply to the markets.
This was in stark contrast to other countries at the time, where it was difficult to mine and expensive to transport. However, Britain did run into a problem with its coal extraction; deeper mines were prone to flooding. Whilst a horse drawn cart was able to pump out water, it could only do so up to a depth of about 30 metres. The need for more coal, and the applications of coal, spurred the mind of Thomas Newcomen, who invented a machine that would be an essential part of the Industrial Revolution.
The steam engine was first designed by Thomas Newcomen. He created it to fix the problem of flooding mines. The engine could pump water out of mines, but it was highly inefficient, requiring tons of coal to power, and thus was limited in its use. 4 James Watt, a self-taught scientist, was able to improve the steam engine, making it more efficient, and allowed it to have many practical applications outside of mining. For instance, the steam engine could now be used in factories 5 and increased production of goods.
This new use of the steam engine allowed Britain to make goods at a cheaper cost, and spurned a profit for British factories. The steam engine revolutionised power, and made coal the most valuable and sought after resource in the world. Furthermore, factories did want to invest in steam engines, as the cost of labour in Britain was extremely high.6 This made the steam engine a staple in almost every factory. However, the steam engine could not have been built had there not been an incentive to do so, and the British government was partly responsible in encouraging scientists and inventors.
Charles Colville. The Industrial Revolution. (England: BBC Productions, 2013) Maureen Anderson et al., Retroactive 9: Australian Curriculum for History. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012) 3 Colville, The Industrial Revolution 4 Colville, The Industrial Revolution 5 John Green. Coal, Steam and the Industrial Revolution. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zhL5DCizj5c (2012) 6 Ibid 2
1 The form of government in Britain was known as a parliamentary monarchy. This form of government was radically different to many of the other countries at the time, and was also partly responsible for allowing industrialization to occur in Britain. In a parliamentary monarchy, a monarch still exists, but they are more of a figurehead than of an absolute ruler. Parliament, a body of elected leaders, is what held the true power.
7 This new system was brought into place after a civil war, which occurred hundreds of years before Watts improved the steam engine. This new system turned out to be quite beneficial for the Industrial Revolution.
The basis of parliament is laws, and these laws were upheld and enforced. As a result, this new form of government encouraged entrepreneurship, as it allowed them to be free and not have their wealth taken away by the government. Property rights were strictly enforced, meaning that once a businessman owned something, whether it be a machine or an idea, that was theirs and could not be taken away.
Everything that happened in the Industrial Revolution occurred because people had incentives to do so. These incentives were extremely important in promoting growth and innovation, and the parliamentary monarchy was exceptionally good at encouraging the populace to do so. Another integral part of the Industrial Revolution was the freedom to pursue wealth. This was what drove innovation, and would not have been possible without capitalism.
According to historian Joyce Applebee, capitalism is “an economic system that relies on investment in capital in machines and technology that are used to increase production of marketable goods.” Capitalism gave people the freedom to pursue wealth, within the boundaries of the law. 8 An important aspect of capitalism was the fact that you had to compete with others. Whilst this may sound bad, it gave the all too important motivation for people to innovate.
Farms and businessmen were always competing with each other, creating machines that could make goods faster, plough fields faster, and increase production. This competition gave birth to such inventions as the spinning jenny,9 among other inventions. Furthermore, the strong property rights enforced by the government gave people financial security, so they were more able to take risks and reap the rewards, without little to no government interference. In conclusion, the Industrial Revolution began in Britain, for numerous reasons.
The combination of Britain’s geographical luck, mineral wealth, political liberalisation and capitalism all combined to ensure that Britain would be the first country to successfully industrialise. An important thing to note is that the Industrial Revolution was born out of need; the need to compete with others and the need for cheap labour. It can be said that Britain was the only country that not only had the resources to industrialise, but also the ever growing necessity to industrialise, and this is why Britain became the industrial powerhouse of the 18th century.
Colville, The Industrial Revolution John Green. Capitalism and Socialism. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B3u4EFTwprM (2012) 9 Green, Coal, Steam and the Industrial Revolution
References BBC. 2013. Why the Industrial Revolution happened in Britain. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/0/20979973 (Accessed 9 April) Colville, C.
2013. The Industrial Revolution [Documentary] England: BBC Productions crashcourse. 2012. Coal, Steam and The Industrial Revolution. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zhL5DCizj5c (Accessed 9 April) crashcourse. 2012. Capitalism and Socialism. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B3u4EFTwprM (Accessed 18 April) Anderson M., Keese, O., Low, A., Harvey, K. 2012. Retroactive 9: Australian Curriculum for History. John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd. Australia. Pask, R. 2009. Heinemann Atlas: Fifth Edition. Pearson Australia, Australia