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Invention and Technology

Great Britain provided the legal and cultural foundations that enabled entrepreneurs to pioneer the Industrial Revolution.[202] Key factors fostering this environment were:

  • The period of peace and stability which followed the unification of England and Scotland[1]
  • There were no internal trade barriers, including between England and Scotland, or feudal tolls and tariffs, making Britain the “largest coherent market in Europe”[1]:46
  • The rule of law (enforcing property rights and respecting the sanctity of contracts)[1]
  • A straightforward legal system that allowed the formation of joint-stock companies (corporations)[1]
  • Free market (capitalism)[1]
  • Geographical and natural resource advantages of Great Britain were the fact that it had extensive coastlines and many navigable rivers in an age where water was the easiest means of transportation and Britain had the highest quality coal in Europe. Britain also had a large number of sites for water power.[1]

“An unprecedented explosion of new ideas, and new technological inventions, transformed our use of energy, creating an increasingly industrial and urbanised country. Roads, railways and canals were built. Great cities appeared. Scores of factories and mills sprang up. Our landscape would never be the same again. It was a revolution that transformed not only the country, but the world itself.”

– British historian Jeremy Black on the BBC’s Why the Industrial Revolution Happened Here.[111]

There were two main values that really drove the Industrial Revolution in Britain. These values were self-interest and an entrepreneurial spirit. Because of these interests, many industrial advances were made that resulted in a huge increase in personal wealth and a consumer revolution.[111] These advancements also greatly benefitted the British society as a whole. Countries around the world started to recognise the changes and advancements in Britain and use them as an example to begin their own Industrial Revolutions.[203]

The debate about the start of the Industrial Revolution also concerns the massive lead that Great Britain had over other countries. Some have stressed the importance of natural or financial resources that Britain received from its many overseas colonies or that profits from the British slave trade between Africa and the Caribbean helped fuel industrial investment. However, it has been pointed out that slave trade and West Indian plantations provided only 5% of the British national income during the years of the Industrial Revolution.[204] Even though slavery accounted for so little, Caribbean-based demand accounted for 12% of Britain’s industrial output.[205]

William Bell ScottIron and Coal, 1855–60

Instead, the greater liberalisation of trade from a large merchant base may have allowed Britain to produce and use emerging scientific and technological developments more effectively than countries with stronger monarchies, particularly China and Russia. Britain emerged from the Napoleonic Wars as the only European nation not ravaged by financial plunder and economic collapse, and having the only merchant fleet of any useful size (European merchant fleets were destroyed during the war by the Royal Navy[206]). Britain’s extensive exporting cottage industries also ensured markets were already available for many early forms of manufactured goods. The conflict resulted in most British warfare being conducted overseas, reducing the devastating effects of territorial conquest that affected much of Europe. This was further aided by Britain’s geographical position – an island separated from the rest of mainland Europe.

William and Mary Presenting the Cap of Liberty to Europe, 1716, Sir James Thornhill. Enthroned in heaven with the Virtues behind them are the royals William III and Mary II who had taken the throne after the Glorious Revolution and signed the English Bill of Rights of 1689. William tramples on arbitrary power and hands the red cap of liberty to Europe where, unlike Britain, absolute monarchy stayed the normal form of power execution. Below William is the French king Louis XIV.[207]

Another theory is that Britain was able to succeed in the Industrial Revolution due to the availability of key resources it possessed. It had a dense population for its small geographical size. Enclosure of common land and the related agricultural revolution made a supply of this labour readily available. There was also a local coincidence of natural resources in the North of England, the English MidlandsSouth Wales and the Scottish Lowlands. Local supplies of coal, iron, lead, copper, tin, limestone and water power, resulted in excellent conditions for the development and expansion of industry. Also, the damp, mild weather conditions of the North West of England provided ideal conditions for the spinning of cotton, providing a natural starting point for the birth of the textiles industry.

The stable political situation in Britain from around 1688 following the Glorious Revolution, and British society’s greater receptiveness to change (compared with other European countries) can also be said to be factors favouring the Industrial Revolution. Peasant resistance to industrialisation was largely eliminated by the Enclosure movement, and the landed upper classes developed commercial interests that made them pioneers in removing obstacles to the growth of capitalism.[208] (This point is also made in Hilaire Belloc‘s The Servile State.)