Why was Britain the first nation to industrialize? Britain began to industrialize around the 1750’s and it continued to progress until the mid nineteenth century. There were many factors that triggered Britain to industrialize. For example, its vast population growth and gradual advancement in technology, nevertheless there were also pre-existent natural resources that appeared advantageous to Britain’s industrial expansion. Furthermore this essay will demonstrate some of the major causes of the industrial growth and analyze to what extent their aid was significant for Britain’s transformation into the first industrial nation.
The population of Britain remained more or less stable up until the 1740’s after which it began to increase decade by decade. Some historians have argued that population growth acted as one of the main causes for the industrialization, others saw a completely different scenario where the industrialization was in fact what caused the population to grow in the first place. Population growth after the 1740’s may have been the result of the remarkable agricultural harvest periods between 1730 and 1760 when the price of meat and grain was relatively low .
The wages of those living and working in the country side were lower than of those from industrial towns so when it came to cheap, yet nutritional food availability, it was very rare in the countryside, this is perhaps why their population remained stable. On the other hand in industrial towns fertility rates went up. Here, nutritional food was much more affordable and available, so there is a clear implication that a better diet and higher wages encouraged higher fertility rates and the subsequent population growth that occurred in industrial areas.
The population growth meant that the demand for manufacturing goods would rise as there were more people to feed and clothe, hence requiring a larger labor force in order to allow greater productivity. Sweden and Ireland also saw a major population growth, but perhaps ‘they lacked the commercial super structure’ or their society may have naturally opposed radical changes unlike Britain who appeared more eager to advance. As well as the population growth during the 18th century, the English colonial empire came as major advantages to the industrial evolution.
Britain got cotton through cheap trade from the English colonies in India and North America where slaves were used as cheap labor on cotton plantations. Although American colonies were lost in the late 18th century, slave orientated labor in India remained up until the introduction of the Abolition Act in 1807, by then Britain had sunk deep into industrialization and had a growing population which required job availability, therefore the loss of slave labor would not have had a major effect of profits. Without this cotton it may be argued that the industrial growth would have occurred at a much slower rate.
This is evident as by 1840, 70% of British exports were that of textile manufactures to which cotton was vital. By the early nineteenth century the British international trade of textiles was so successful that even stubborn Napoleon’s embargo on Britain, set up in 1807, did not weaken the British textile industry. On the contrary, Ireland was ‘cut off from direct trade’ with the English colonies which meant it would have to get its cotton from England at a higher price hence why Ireland was unlikely to expand on its cotton industry and in the long term to industrialize.
It may therefore be argued that the colonial supply of cotton allowed the cotton industry to expand on the basis of cheap trade thus making profit for the first several decades of the industrialization giving it a comfortable beginning. Furthermore, appropriate means of transportation were required in order to allow trade growth in the domestic as well as the international markets. The cheapest way of transporting goods at the time was by ships and this is where Britain’s geographical advantages came in hand.
Internal waters such as rivers meant that domestic trade was faster and easier than in countries such as Russia where waters were separated by massive distances of land. The fact that ‘no point in England is farther away than 70 miles from the sea’ meant that international trade was very applicable. Britain was also ‘unique’ due to its ‘long established free trading’, this included trading between Scotland and England and meant that any products that were internally transported would come at lower prices compared to other countries which did not have the feature of free trade.
A great example of this was John Gilbert and James Brindley’s canal, into which a lot of capital was invested and not in vain as it halved the price of coal in places like Manchester which was linked by this particular canal with the Bridgewater mines. The Birmingham Canal made great profits for the investors- its’ original shares when the canal was first built in 1772 were at ? 140, were selling at ? 900 by 1792. This is a demonstration of how the new means of transportation did not only decrease the price of a particular product but also became a means of profitable investment.
One aspect of the industrial growth which is believed to have been particularly revolutionary was the rapid technological advances that Britain experienced during those times. Before the industrial evolution making cloth was done entirely by hand from home, later in the 18th century the Britons’ demand for textiles grew and textile traders began to look for faster and cheaper ways of production, even so that in the 1760’s inventors were rewarded for new, successful inventions.
Coincidently or not, it was following that decade that major inventions were created. In 1769 for example, Richard Arkwright‘s water frame was invented, this machine did not require much strength and was therefore operated by the cheap labor of unskilled women and children rather than male labor force that worked for higher wages. The water frame allowed the creation of a new British product- cotton cloth with non linen mixture, this new production created an overseas desire for the fresh product, which was originally only available in Britain.
The purpose of those new machineries was to produce better quality textiles at a faster rate in order to expand its trade markets and allow higher export rates to keep up with the increasing demand for production. There is a major debate amongst historians about the cause for the industrial growth in Britain. On one hand, Peter Mathias argued that the industrial growth was ‘spontaneous’ while on the other side of the spectrum Eric Evans states that the British government was what ‘stimulated Britain’s Industrial Revolution’.
While it is true that there were no original strategies set out for industrial growth, the government indeed had a massive input into the triggering of the industrial development and war is a great example of this. In 1754, during the first stages of the industrial evolution, Britain went to war with France. War required an army and an army required clothing as well as weapons, hence there was a higher demand from the iron, steel and textile industries in the production of necessary military equipment and clothing.
Nevertheless, iron and steel exports only showed significant improvements after the 1790’s. However, it must be taken into account that the steam engine played a massive part in the iron production industry and this machinery was only introduced in 1775. The French were also very active in the means of war, the difference was that its’ government appeared to be much more concerned with mass invasion of other countries rather than trying to focus on what they already possessed.
Also, Britain has always been known for its aristocratic culture and the fact that the government itself was dominated by the aristocrats meant that they were in the centre of the industrial process and made sure their money making interests were always under consideration. It is therefore undeniable that the aristocratic, military active British government played a very significant role in allowing Britain to become the first industrial nation. It would take a bias mind to state that there was one dominating factor that had caused Britain to become the first industrial model.
From the above it can be concluded that many of the key factors were interrelated; the aristocratic culture to the investments into factories, the growing population to the increasing demand for goods as well as factory labor. What all these factors do have in common is the Britons themselves, who contributed greatly with their hardship in factories, enthusiasm in inventions and the natural eagerness to prove themselves as better and more prestige to their friends as well as enemies, and this was exactly what they achieved by becoming the first nation to industrialize.
Bibliography A. Baker, Companion to British History (London, Routledge, 2001) D. S. Heidler & J. T. Heidler Encyclopaedia of the War Of 1812 (Maryland USA, Naval Institute Press, 2004) E. J. Evans, The Forging of the Modern State 1783-1870 (London, Longman, 2001) P. Deane, The First Industrial Revolution (Cambridge, Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 1979) P. Mathias, The First Industrial Nation (London, Routledge, 2001) S. D. Chapman, The Cotton Industry In The Industrial Revolution ( London, Macmillan 1972) W.
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