The Industrial Revolution. Ready for Take Off

Why Did England Industrialise Before Anyone Else?

Seminar Paper, 2011

16 Pages, Grade: 2

T. Schlipfinger (Author)


Table of Contents Page

I | Introduction

II | Key Characteristics of the Industrial Revolution

III | Causes of the Industrial Revolution in England
Capital Accumulation
The Population’s Increasing Demand
Technical Innovation
Changing Worldview

IV | England’s Favourable Starting Position
The Need for a Revolution
Comparison England / France

V | Results of the Industrial Revolution in England
Economic Changes
Technical Breakthroughs
Sociological Changes
Working Conditions
North-South Divide

VI | Conclusion

VII | Bibliography

I | Introduction

Without doubt, the Industrial Revolution is one of the most important events in human history. For better or worse, it changed lives throughout England[1] and soon afterwards continued to do so also in Europe and the rest of the world. But already here lies one of the mysteries of the Industrial Revolution. Why did it start in England (or at least, in parts of England)? What was so special about this island off the European continent’s cost that made it possible for it to develop in the eighteenth and nineteenth century so much faster than any of its competitors (at least out of a technological point of view)? For there certainly were competitors – other countries like France or the Netherlands but also outside Europe, like China or Japan – that were in a similar position, but somehow failed to industrialise before England did. The aim of this paper is to look for an answer to this seemingly simple question.

In doing so, I have divided this paper into four main parts. In the first chapter, I briefly explain the key characteristics of the Industrial Revolution. The second chapter is about the factors that caused it. The next chapter deals with England’s favourable starting situation, and I am also going to compare England to other countries. In this chapter I try to explain why England experienced all the technical breakthroughs that made this crucial moment in history possible. The last chapter is about the effects the Industrial Revolution had on England, including sociological and economical changes.

II | Key Characteristics of the Industrial Revolution

In order to be able to talk about the Industrial Revolution, it is necessary to determine what the Industrial Revolution exactly was. In essence, with this term we refer to the major shift in economical and cultural structure, caused by technical breakthroughs that led to a growth in machine based modes of production and major advances in agriculture (O’Driscoll 2009: 25). The Industrial Revolution started at the end of the eighteenth century in England before spreading over Western Europe and the United States of America. It was accompanied by great sociological changes, mainly because the relationship between workers and their employers changed dramatically. As great parts of industrial work required less and less skill, employees became replaceable. Urbanisation and consequently a growth in population were results of that development.


It is important to know that neither the term “Industrial Revolution”[2] nor its temporary placement in human history is universally agreed upon. Already in 1933 Herbert Heaton, for example, pointed out the fact that many economic historians did not want to connect the sudden changes of a revolution to a slow and gradual changes of an economic evolution (Heaton 1980: 33). The same applies to the time period, which is usually defined between the 1750 and the mid 1850: in his pamphlet The Industrial Revolution in England Ronald M. Hartwell emphasises the difficulties of this peroidisation by presenting many different dates, all of which would make a plausible starting or endpoint for the Industrial Revolution (1966: 4). However, in order to avoid complicating matters too much, in this paper the standard definition and periodisation is used throughout. Nevertheless, awareness should be raised to the fact that this definition is not engraved in stone.

III | Causes of the Industrial Revolution in England

In order to be able to see why England underwent these major changes sooner than other countries, it is important to look at the causes that led to the Industrial Revolution. Out of a modern perspective, many scholars agree that it would be a mistake to try to determine the one and only key factor that triggered England’s Industrial Revolution. Instead, there are many different ones – some of them connected to others, some can just be called favourable circumstances. Taken together however, they all helped England to industrialise (Hartwell 1966: 9). Below are some of the most important factors.

Capital Accumulation

England had about two economically stable centuries to look back at. This led to a relatively rich (and also important, well fed) society. Thus, it can be said that England laid the foundation for its Industrial Revolution already in the centuries prior to the eighteenth century. In this climate, a middle class with massive spending power could emerge – something that is unique to England at that time (Dugan 2004). The rise in incomes can be called one of the key factors that triggered the revolution, especially as this resulted consequently in a steadily growing demand (Voigtländer 2006: 3).

The Population’s Increasing Demand

Sometimes there is to much emphasis put on the producing parts of the Industrial Revolution. But having the ability to produce a large amount of goods with modern technology is worth nothing without “the existence of large, accessible markets with populations willing and economically able to consume the products of capitalist industry” (Hartwell 1966: 7). This applies for foreign trade as much as for the domestic market and for luxury goods as well as for goods for the poorer classes (Dugan 2004). On the whole, richer people or people from higher classes started to invest more instead of focusing on raising their own living standards by buying country houses for example. People from lower classes on the other hand started buying consumer goods and invested less in “idleness, gin and a customary subsistence living standard”, as Hartwell calls it (1980: 72). The aforementioned rise in population functioned as a prerequisite for an increasing demand and consequently an increasing production. However, it is important to state that a rising population is not enough, as can be seen in many developing countries even nowadays. In order to achieve beneficial effects, not only the population size has to rise, but also the average income (Hartwell 1966: 8).

Technical Innovation

Increasing demand in England was the stimulus the industry needed to invent new and better ways of producing. The main mottos certainly were “wherever is a blockage, there is a loss” and “time is money” (Dugan 2004). So obstacles that hindered the goods from reaching the customer in a fast and cheap way had to be removed. The invention of the railway is one of the many examples: the canals could not carry the weight of goods which the cotton trade was generating. Consequently, it took cotton longer to travel from Liverpool to Manchester than it took that cotton to come from the United States, across the Atlantic, to Liverpool. As a result, the railway had to be invented (Dugan 2004).

Changing Worldview

It is hard to measure in exact numbers the effects a changing worldview has on a society, but it is certainly something that had a major influence on the English Industrial Revolution. Changes in philosophy, religion and science took place over a long time and resulted eventually in secularism and rationalism as well as the laissez-faire approach to economy, postulated by Adam Smith (Hartwell 1980: 59). Also the English perception of and dealing with nature was different from other nations. Many people were not interested in living in harmony with nature, they wanted to use and subdue it. Inhibitions other nations or peoples might have had to plane the countryside for railways did not exist in England (Dugan 2004). All those factors led to a view on life that put the economy on first place and helped thereby triggering the Industrial Revolution.

IV | England’s Favourable Starting Position

Many of the factors stated in the previous chapter did not exist in other countries, thereby not launching something like the Industrial Revolution. As can be seen below, England had a very unique starting position in the eighteenth century. This is important as the Industrial Revolution did not “take-off” (to use a famous term coined by Walt Whitman Rostow) at some arbitrary point in history, but had a long prologue instead. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, natural and historical circumstances as well as cultural and economical factors favoured the industrial development.

Some of those natural and historical circumstances include the relative peace England had enjoyed in the previous centuries (compared to countries on the European continent), accompanied with the worlds largest free trade market (Crouzet 1980: 164). Others include for example a very good period of harvest in the 1730s and 1740s (Hartwell 1966: 10). All of those factors led to favourable starting conditions for the Industrial Revolution. The economy for example was already in the beginning of the eighteenth century at a very high level (even compared with modern underdeveloped nations). The public demand for goods was slowly but steadily increasing – this happened alongside an also slowly increasing foreign trade. Especially export of manufactured goods to the colonies increased after 1740. As a result, there was much capital in the country which made a sufficient banking system necessary. Hence, by 1750, there were already over thirty banks in England, including the famous Bank of England. In general, there was enough capital in the country. Taken together with the aforementioned good harvests, there was no real threat of anything like famine that could have hindered the population to increase. Already the first half of the eighteenth century saw a slow rise in population – by 1730 there lived about six million people in England and Wales put together. All of those factors led to an increase in investment on a broad front which prepared the great technical breakthroughs that came after that (Hartwell 1966: 11). Other countries did not have favourable starting conditions comparable to those of England at that time. Europe for instance was divided with wars and boarders that hindered trading, while China had to cope with an average per capita income that was by far lower than England’s (Dugan 2004).


[1] In this paper, I am going to focus on England exclusively, as it would be wrong to take anything that happened in England for the whole of Great Britain. Scotland’s history of the Industrial Revolution is fundamentally different and needs to be studied separately. Strictly speaking, one should not even focus on the whole of England, as the industrial revolution occurred mainly in small parts of it – basically in the north-western part of England.

[2] Usually, Arnold Toynbee is given the credit of popularising the term with his book Lectures on the Industrial Revolution in England in 1884. However, the term was used before by various others, including Karl Marx in 1867 and Friedrich Engels in 1845 (Mantoux 1966: 25).

Excerpt out of 16 pages


The Industrial Revolution. Ready for Take Off
Why Did England Industrialise Before Anyone Else?
University of Innsbruck  (Anglistik)
British Culture
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Industrial Industrielle Revolution England Britannien Britain, industrial, industrielle, revolution, england, britannien, britain
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T. Schlipfinger (Author), 2011, The Industrial Revolution. Ready for Take Off, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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