FC111: The Start of the Industrial Revolution in Britain (c.1750-1800)


FC111 in the Hyperflow of History;
Covered in multimedia lecture #1656.

Although the four-field system and steam engine provided the basic foundations for the Industrial Revolution, it took other factors combined with these to create this phenomenon.  As it happened, Britain in the 1700's was the place where all these factors converged to make it the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution.

Much of Britain's favored position came from the English Revolution of the 1600's and the triumph of a wealthy middle class with both the money and willingness to invest in new ventures.  This created five basic lines of development that together would trigger the Industrial Revolution.  The first of was the new steam and textile technology.  Second, there was the new agriculture and population growth crating both the labor force for the new industrial factories and the markets to buy their manufactured goods.  The third factor was Britain's colonial empire, which provided raw materials for the factories as well as more markets for their goods.

Fourth was the development of a superior transportation system for getting raw materials to the factories and finished products to markets.  Britain was especially favored in this respect, being an island with navigable inland rivers further enhanced by a well-developed system of canals.  This, along with its colonial empire, prompted the British to build an excellent merchant marine for transporting its goods.  Also, as the nineteenth century progressed, a new form of technology, the steam locomotive traveling on steel rails, would make overland transport increasingly economical and efficient for the first time in history.

The fifth and final factor was a large surplus of capital along with the willingness to spend it on new machines and technology.  Central to this was the Bank of England, which encouraged investment, stability, and economic growth in both the public and private sectors.  Consequently, when the machines and opportunities to exploit them came along, British businessmen were in by far the best position to take advantage of the situation, making Britain the banker of the world for the next century.

Two other factors also helped Britain.  One was its excellent position as an island, which not only helped its trade, but also insulated it from continental wars.  Also, Britain was blessed with extensive coal and iron deposits.  By 1850, one-half of the world's iron and a full two-thirds of its coal production would come from British mines.  Along with providing the resources for producing steam power and heavy industrial machinery, it also triggered a dramatic migration from the more agricultural south to the industrial north where the coal and iron fields lay.  In addition to coal and iron, Britain also had access to plentiful supplies of Scottish wool for its textile mills.

Later, Britain would rely on cotton from America.  Once Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin (1793) solved the problem of cleaning the seeds out of the fiber, the southern United States became a primary cotton producer for British factories.  However, the cotton gin had unforeseen and far-reaching consequences since it prolonged the life of slavery in the United States, making it a red-hot issue in American politics and a major factor leading to the American Civil War.

All these various factors (the new steam and textile technology, a large labor force, extensive markets at home and in its colonies, a superior transportation system, plenty of capital, extensive raw materials, and an excellent position for trade) combined to create a textile industry that could produce, transport, and sell vast quantities of cheap cloth by the late 1700's.

The result of all this was an industrial revolution of vast importance in a number of ways.  For one thing, it would spawn the steam powered locomotive and railroads which would revolutionize land transportation and tie the interiors of continents together to a degree never before imagined.  It would trigger massive changes in people's living and working conditions as well as the structures of family and society.  And its momentum would generate a rapid-fire chain reaction of new technologies, a process that is still accelerating today and shows no signs of slowing down.  Nor would these dramatic changes be confined to Europe. Rather, their power would spread across the globe to change the way the entire human species lives, for better or worse.