Why the Industrial Revolution happened in Britain

A view at the Bedlam Furnaces in Madeley Dale, Shropshire, downstream from Ironbridge beside the River Severn. Paintings such as Coalbrookdale By Night captured the power of the new industries

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Until the early 18th Century, most people lived off the land as they had done for countless generations - an agricultural existence, defined by the harvests and the seasons, and ruled by a small political and social elite.

But in the 150 years that followed, there was an unprecedented explosion of new ideas and new technological inventions which created an increasingly industrial and urbanised country.

This was the Industrial Revolution. Hundreds of thousands of miles of roads, railways and canals were built. Great cities appeared and scores of factories and mills sprang up.

This transformation helped to make the world in which we live today. But what brought it about and why did it happen first in Britain?

Powered by Coal

British innovation

Engraving of a steel manufacturing workshop during the late 18th century

Political, economic and intellectual conditions would all contribute. But at the heart of the revolution was our use of energy.

Coal was the fuel which kick-started the Industrial Revolution - and Britain was very fortunate to have plenty that could be easily mined.

Wood had been the main source of energy in Britain, used for fuel in homes and small industries.

But as the population grew, so did the demand for timber. As forests were cut down, wood had to be carried further to reach the towns. It was bulky and difficult to transport and therefore expensive.

Coal was a much more potent form of power, providing up to three times more energy than wood.

Britain had an advantage over other European countries because its mines were near the sea, so ships could carry coal cheaply to the most important market - London.

The demand for coal led to deeper and deeper mines and an increased risk of flooding.

In order to keep exploiting this wonder fuel, it was necessary to find a way to pump water out of the mines.

Horse-drawn pumps could only draw water from depths up to 90 feet, limiting the amount of coal that could be mined.

The idea of making profits was driving the Industrial Revolution and practical men were motivated to solve this problem.

The first commercially successful steam engine was the atmospheric engine, invented by Thomas Newcomen in 1712. The new engine did the work of 20 horses and pumped water from hundreds of feet below the ground - making deeper mines economically viable.

His machine burnt tons of coal so its location was limited to pitheads where coal was virtually free. But Britain now had seemingly inexhaustible quantities of cheap energy.

Intellectual climate

James Watt by Carl Fredrik von Breda Watt patented several other inventions including the rotary engine and the double-action engine

Newcomen and other inventors benefitted from the intellectual climate. "Britain was characterised by the free expression of new ideas," says Professor of History Jeremy Black from Exeter University.

Over the previous 100 years, a cascade of scientific breakthroughs had swept across the country. Sir Isaac Newton was able to explain the force of gravity for the first time. Robert Boyle showed that air and gas had physical properties.

There was a prolific exchange of scientific and technological ideas. And Britain, unlike many European countries, did not suffer censorship by Church or state.

It was the Age of Reason. The established Christian view, of a world created by God, was being challenged by one which conformed to scientifically proven principles of nature.

Alongside the new discoveries was a growing movement of people, trying to find practical applications for these new discoveries.

Men of action and men of ideas, industrialists and scientists - often from very different backgrounds - met to share their ideas and observations, in what was to be called the Industrial Enlightenment. They unleashed a wave of free thinking and creativity.

Matthew Boulton owned an engineering works in Birmingham. Together he and James Watt - a self-taught Scottish scientist - began to manufacture more efficient steam engines.

Boulton & Watt became the most important engineering firm in the country, meeting considerable demand. Initially this came from Cornish mine owners, but extended to paper, flour, cotton and iron mills, as well as distilleries, canals and waterworks.

Eric Svedenstierna, a prominent official of the Swedish Iron Bureau, reported in 1803 his impression that steam engines "are as common in England, and are found in far greater numbers, as are water and wind mills with us".

This sense of progress even attracted painters to capture potent industrial scenes, such as the ironworks depicted in Coalbrookdale By Night.

Political liberalism

Britain also had the right political background for free-market capitalism, says Professor Black.

"The system of parliamentary government that followed the Glorious Revolution of 1688-9 provided the background for stable investment and for a basis of taxation favourable to economic expansion. "

By the 18th Century the British parliament had won much greater independence from its monarch than any other European great power.

"Liberal practices and values developed accordingly, notably a modest role for the state in economic activity that proved significant for growth."

Parliament passed the laws and controlled expenditure. This helped to ensure political stability and that encouraged the pursuit of scientific breakthroughs as people set up businesses and sought to make profit.

France, by contrast, was home to some of the finest scientific minds, but had an absolute monarchy which wielded great control over economic and political life.

In Britain people believed that through industrial production they could create untold wealth - and the government believed that it was its responsibility to make this happen.

Naval power

Political stability was underpinned by Britain's growing status as a world power.

"By 1815, Britain was the most powerful empire in the world," says Professor Black.

In the period before and after, "no other major European state avoided invasion and the damage and disruption it brought."

The trade of the Empire was the source of the funding for the Industrial Revolution and Britain's navy played a vital role in nurturing it.

Much of government revenue was spent on building up the Royal Navy, to protect and encourage private traders.

Goods were traded not only from the West Indies, but tobacco from North America, spices from India, and tea from China.

"Naval power and imperial possessions enabled Britain to dominate trans-oceanic trade and to profit accordingly," says Black.

Entrepreneurship was at the heart of economic success in the colonies. Merchants could invest money and take profit as they wanted, with very little government intervention.

There was a considerable human cost to this free trade however, which enabled landowners to buy huge numbers of slaves, transported from Africa. They were treated as a natural resource to be used and exploited in the quest for maximum profit.

But the Industrial Revolution and the huge wealth it created was unstoppable. A revolution started in Britain and powered by coal changed the world forever.

"Britain's significance for world history rests on three elements," says Professor Black. "The Industrial Revolution, along with the imperial power and the development of political liberties which helped bring it about".

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