I am asking this question because historians often consider pre-industrialization Britain to be a poor and backward country relative to other European powers/states such as Spain, France, Italian city-states, or Habsburg empire.

Maybe this is a naive view, but I would expect that it would be the richest countries places where people would have the most time/resources to spend on science and industrialization. I get that people's attitudes and culture could play (Weber's protestant ethic) a role but I also don't see that big differences among European countries, and Germany was culturally similar to UK but industrialized relatively late. So was the UK just lucky or was there some economic reason why UK was ripe for industrialization?

  • $\begingroup$ An economic reason can still hold due to luck (or "providence" as they would call it back then), and there's tons of literature on the subject; have you tried Google? $\endgroup$ Dec 17 '20 at 7:31
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ This is one of the big open questions in economic history and indeed economics. It is still being debated and I don't think there is any firm consensus on the answer. $\endgroup$
    – user18
    Dec 17 '20 at 11:57

A detailed and thoroughly researched analysis of why Britain industrialized first and other countries only later may be found in Robert Allen's The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective. The following quotes are from my own summary of his arguments in a blog post.

Had I been asked beforehand for answers to these questions, I might have listed the following features of 18th century Britain:

  1. Large and accessible coal deposits.
  2. Ingenuity of its inventors, exploiting the scientific knowledge of the enlightenment.
  3. Relatively good governance by the standards of the time.
  4. Rural land reform (enclosure) facilitating higher food production to support growing cities.

According to Allen, however, 1 and 2 were not unique to Britain, and 3 and 4 are dubious. His analysis focuses instead on relative prices. And his main conclusion is this: in 18th century Britain, a combination of relatively high wages and cheap energy from coal made it profitable to substitute steam power for labour, even though the steam engines of the time were very inefficient. Allen presents detailed evidence showing that the wages of labourers in 18th century Britain were much higher than those in most of Europe, India and China, and comparable only with those in the Netherlands and parts of North America. Only Britain had significantly exploited coal at that time, and the price of energy in British coalfield regions was the lowest in the world.

How had this situation come about? The reasons are complex and Allen’s explanation goes back several centuries. Prominent in his account are: Britain’s success in exporting woollen cloth, supported by improvements in sheep farming; its economic gains from mercantilism and empire; the growth of London beyond the point at which its energy needs could be met at reasonable transport cost by wood; the development (via what Allen terms ‘collective invention’ by London builders) of houses designed to be heated by coal; and the consequent stimulation of coal mining around Newcastle, from where London was supplied by ship.

The power obtained from steam engines per ton of coal increased tenfold between 1730 and 1850. Steam power became profitable at progressively lower wage / coal-price ratios, and around 1850 was rapidly adopted in other European countries and the US. These countries had not been without coal deposits, inventors or entrepreneurs, but profitability at their prices determined the timing of adoption. Since moreover they were able to adopt the latest and most efficient technology, they did not need to waste resources repeating Britain’s long experimentation with early steam engines.


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