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READ: Scale of the Industrial Revolution

Where did the Industrial Revolution begin? This may sound like something we should have figured out a long time ago, but there are still big debates about how to answer this question, and these debates tell us a lot about both history and the present.
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By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. According to the author, what geographic factors helped Britain industrialize?
  2. What geographic factors held back early industrialization in China and Japan?
  3. What social factors stimulated Britain to industrialize?
  4. How might the institution of slavery have helped make industrialization possible?
  5. Other than plantations, what global advantages did Britain have?

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  1. The author concludes that the reasons for Britain’s industrialization were both local and global. But if you had to choose one scale (local or global) as the best explanation for Britain’s early industrialization, which would you choose? Which frame supports your choice the best: communities, networks, or production and distribution? Which frame challenges your choice?
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Scale of the Industrial Revolution

Trevor Getz
Where did the Industrial Revolution begin? This may sound like something we should have figured out a long time ago, but there are still big debates about how to answer this question, and these debates tell us a lot about both history and the present.

Origin stories

Historians argue a lot about the Industrial Revolution. That's because it matters a great deal. Industrialization changed a lot about the world—sometimes quickly, sometimes gradually. Production and distribution methods are some of the most obvious examples, but it was more than that. Society, the way the state worked, how people thought about time and space, the family, the workday, how kids spent their time, how long we lived, what we ate… all of it changed.
One of the biggest debates about the Industrial Revolution is about where it all began. This shouldn't really be a debate, right? We should know the answer to this question. Surely, we just have to look for the first steam-engine factories! That part is easy. But two big questions about the Industrial Revolution's birthplace remain. The first is the "scale" of the "where" industrialization actually happened first. If we wanted to study that first industrial change, would we be looking at one city? At one country? At a continent? The second question is where would we look to find the reasons that industrialization happened there. Would those reasons be local or would they be global?
Let's examine these two questions, the first one briefly, and the second one in greater detail.
Early industrial sites in Great Britain. By WHP, CC BY-NC 4.0.

The scale of the first industrialization

While it is technically an abstract concept, industrialization is, in many ways, visible to the eye. We can see it. We can see the first steam-powered machines that did the work people and animals had been doing. We can see James Watt's steam engine and the breakthrough device that it powered, Richard Arkwright's machine for spinning thread. We can see the first steam-powered factories, like the Coalbrookdale and Wilkinson's iron works, and the Lancashire textile works. We can see the first steam locomotive and railroads in the cities of Leeds and Swansea. And the thing is, all of these happened in the small island state of Great Britain, mostly over the course of the eighteenth century.
Soon after, similar changes happened elsewhere, especially across the Atlantic Ocean in North America (the British North American colonies, later the United States) and in other parts of Europe. Thus, historians have sometimes argued that the Industrial Revolution started in Europe or in the North Atlantic. In some cases, these arguments were really being used to support bigger points that people wanted to prove. Some European scholars argued for European superiority, and US scholars, in particular, wanted to suggest that the United States had a part to play in this important innovation. But in general, most historians now agree that Great Britain was the place where the Industrial Revolution began.

Local causes of the first industrialization

Even if most historians agree on the location of the first industrialization, they frequently disagree about where to look for explanations for why it happened first in Britain. There are many different arguments in this debate, but we will focus on two. First, some scholars argue the Industrial Revolution happened in Britain because of local factors. But others respond that Britain benefited from its particular place in global networks.
Let's begin with the argument that it was Britain's unique local conditions that caused it to industrialize first, starting with the island nation's geography and environment. As an island, Britain was easy to defend (at least in the modern era) and relatively peaceful. It was also pretty flat, making it easy to transport goods and to build canals and railroads. These things are essential for successful industrialization. Canals and railroads were needed for moving coal from the various places it was found to the cities and factories where it was used as fuel. Plus, Britain's land was lucky to have a whole lot of coal available. Contrast these conditions to Japan, another island but one with lots of mountains, and the vast area of China, where the coal they had was impractically far from cities and places where factories were likely to be built.
Britain also had a favorable demographic situation. The British population was expanding rapidly in the eighteenth century, as death rates fell and birth rates rose. This meant there were lots of available workers for factories, once those were built. Why? Partly because the agricultural land, where most people had lived as farmers until this period, was being bought up by merchants. They were raising sheep in order to use their wool to produce cloth to sell to this growing population. We call this process "enclosure," and it was happening faster in Britain than in other parts of the world, even mainland Europe.
You might be asking, but with so many people switching to factory work, how were they still growing enough food? This was a result of the agricultural revolution that occurred before the birth of modern factories. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, advances in farming brought improved tools like better plows, new methods like crop rotation, and other innovations that made it possible to grow a lot more food using less labor. This happened in Britain earlier and faster than in many other parts of the world.
A big difference between being a farmer who is home all the time and working in a factory all day is that you no longer had time to make your own stuff—clothes, furniture, etc. Now you had to buy stuff that was made in—you guessed it—factories. People needed more goods than hand-working could produce, and that really drove industrialization. But factory workers' demand for stuff was nothing compared to the demand of a growing middle class, mostly merchants and people who owned some property. They had more money and wanted even more industrial goods.
Goods produced in factories were in high demand as the number of consumers grew. Soap, advertised here by a company called Pears which still exists, was especially important because the Industrial Revolution was really grimy! Public domain.
Importantly, this middle class of merchants and professionals also had political power. Britain, with its parliamentary system, gave the middle class a representation in parliament. Because these people had property, they passed laws that protected property, making it safer to invest in new factories and other properties in Britain than elsewhere. Bottom line: laws and government now favored industrialization. These men and women also had money to invest in innovation, and they funded many of the inventors and tinkerers who created the machines that cranked up industrialization.

Global causes of the first industrialization

All of these local factors may have made industrialization more likely in Britain, but some scholars still argue that it was Britain's global presence that helped it to industrialize first.
Certainly, Britain's big empire helped them a great deal. British merchants and leaders had made a lot of money from the Atlantic slave trade and the plantation system. They could invest that money in inventions and factories. The scale of slave plantations in the Americas may have also inspired factories. Giant sugar plantations in the British Caribbean, in particular, had gang labor systems and giant machines much like the factories that came later in Britain.
Docks built in London to handle trade from the colonies, eighteenth century. Notice how flat it is. By SMU Central University Libraries, public domain.
The colonies were also vital for feeding materials to British industry and food to the British people. Would the Industrial Revolution have happened without lumber and cotton from North America and wool from Australia? Would the country have been able to feed workers without the calories from Caribbean sugar, American beef, and North Atlantic cod? Even before industrialization, the agricultural revolution had been partly the result of observing how people grew things in other parts of the world and adopting new crops from the Americas such as potatoes and corn.
Finally, trade drove British production. By the early nineteenth century Britain was probably the world's greatest trading power, with a large navy to protect its massive trading fleet. British textile exports, in particular, helped to drive the growth of industry. Along with factories producing exports, British ports expanded rapidly in Liverpool, London, Glasgow, Bristol and elsewhere. These provided jobs and drove the expansion of railways bringing goods to port.
Of course, each of these theories—whether focused on global or on local causes of industrialization—has its critics. As often happens in debates like this, the answer is a combination of these factors. But they help us to see that viewing a major historical event at only one scale can lead us to false conclusions. Looking at it from two or more scales can help us to develop a more complex, and likely more accurate, understanding of what really happened.
Author bio
Trevor Getz is a professor of African and world history at San Francisco State University. He has been the author or editor of 11 books, including the award-winning graphic history Abina and the Important Men, and has coproduced several prize-winning documentaries. Trevor is also the author of A Primer for Teaching African History, which explores questions about how we should teach the history of Africa in high school and university classes.

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