The Industrial Revolution happened largely in one place

Saturday, January 14th, 2023

The Industrial Revolution was more than simply an increase in economic production, Bret Devereaux explains:

Modest increases in economic production are, after all, possible in agrarian economies. Instead, the industrial revolution was about accessing entirely new sources of energy for broad use in the economy, thus drastically increasing the amount of power available for human use. The industrial revolution thus represents not merely a change in quantity, but a change in kind from what we might call an ‘organic’ economy to a ‘mineral’ economy. Consequently, I’d argue, the industrial revolution represents probably just the second time in human history that as a species we’ve undergone a radical change in our production; the first being the development of agriculture in the Neolithic period.

However, unlike farming which developed independently in many places at different times, the industrial revolution happened largely in one place, once and then spread out from there, largely because the world of the 1700s AD was much more interconnected than the world of c. 12,000BP (‘before present,’ a marker we sometimes use for the very deep past). Consequently while we have many examples of the emergence of farming and from there the development of complex agrarian economies, we really only have one ‘pristine’ example of an industrial revolution. It’s possible that it could have occurred with different technologies and resources, though I have to admit I haven’t seen a plausible alternative development that doesn’t just take the same technologies and systems and put them somewhere else.


Fundamentally this is a story about coal, steam engines, textile manufacture and above all the harnessing of a new source of energy in the economy. That’s not the whole story, by any means, but it is one of the most important through-lines and will serve to demonstrate the point.

The specificity matters here because each innovation in the chain required not merely the discovery of the principle, but also the design and an economically viable use-case to all line up in order to have impact.


So what was needed was not merely the idea of using steam, but also a design which could actually function in a specific use case. In practice that meant both a design that was far more efficient (though still wildly inefficient) and a use case that could tolerate the inevitable inadequacies of the 1.0 version of the device. The first design to actually square this circle was Thomas Newcomen’s atmospheric steam engine (1712).


Now that design would be iterated on subsequently to produce smoother, more powerful and more efficient engines, but for that iteration to happen someone needs to be using it, meaning there needs to be a use-case for repetitive motion at modest-but-significant power in an environment where fuel is extremely cheap so that the inefficiency of the engine didn’t make it a worse option than simply having a whole bunch of burly fellows (or draft animals) do the job. As we’ll see, this was a use-case that didn’t really exist in the ancient world and indeed existed almost nowhere but Britain even in the period where it worked.

But fortunately for Newcomen the use case did exist at that moment: pumping water out of coal mines. Of course a mine that runs below the local water-table (as most do) is going to naturally fill with water which has to be pumped out to enable further mining. Traditionally this was done with muscle power, but as mines get deeper the power needed to pump out the water increases (because you need enough power to lift all of the water in the pump system in each movement); cheaper and more effective pumping mechanisms were thus very desirable for mining. But the incentive here can’t just be any sort of mining, it has to be coal mining because of the inefficiency problem: coal (a fuel you can run the engine on) is of course going to be very cheap and abundant directly above the mine where it is being produced and for the atmospheric engine to make sense as an investment the fuel must be very cheap indeed. It would not have made economic sense to use an atmospheric steam engine over simply adding more muscle if you were mining, say, iron or gold and had to ship the fuel in; transportation costs for bulk goods in the pre-railroad world were high. And of course trying to run your atmospheric engine off of local timber would only work for a very little while before the trees you needed were quite far away.

But that in turn requires you to have large coal mines, mining lots of coal deep under ground. Which in turn demands that your society has some sort of bulk use for coal. But just as the Newcomen Engine needed to out-compete ‘more muscle’ to get a foothold, coal has its own competitor: wood and charcoal. There is scattered evidence for limited use of coal as a fuel from the ancient period in many places in the world, but there needs to be a lot of demand to push mines deep to create the demand for pumping. In this regard, the situation on Great Britain (the island, specifically) was almost ideal: most of Great Britain’s forests seem to have been cleared for agriculture in antiquity; by 1000 only about 15% of England (as a geographic sub-unit of the island) was forested, a figure which continued to decline rapidly in the centuries that followed (down to a low of around 5%). Consequently wood as a heat fuel was scarce and so beginning in the 16th century we see a marked shift over to coal as a heating fuel for things like cooking and home heating. Fortunately for the residents of Great Britain there were surface coal seems in abundance making the transition relatively easy; once these were exhausted deep mining followed which at last by the late 1600s created the demand for coal-powered pumps finally answered effectively in 1712 by Newcomen: a demand for engines to power pumps in an environment where fuel efficiency mattered little.6

With a use-case in place, these early steam engines continue to be refined to make them more powerful, more fuel efficient and capable of producing smooth rotational motion out of their initially jerky reciprocal motions, culminating in James Watt’s steam engine in 1776. But so far all we’ve done is gotten very good and pumping out coal mines – that has in turn created steam engines that are now fuel efficient enough to be set up in places that are not coal mines, but we still need something for those engines to do to encourage further development. In particular we need a part of the economy where getting a lot of rotational motion is the major production bottleneck.


  1. Gavin Longmuir says:

    The causes of the Industrial Revolution will be argued over until the end of time. What is clear is that several factors had to come together.

    The need for power for such applications as mine dewatering. Knowledge of metal manufacturing. The ability to make cylinders with exacting dimensions. The capability to grow food more efficiently so that workers could move from farms to factories. Public health improvements that allowed large groups of people to work & live close to each other. It has even been argued that a key factor in the Industrial Revolution was the development of patent law.

    Another example of this happenstance convergence of multiple lines of progress could be the micro-electronics industry, requiring progress in physics theory, materials, and manufacturing techniques. Apparently, Bell Labs had designed cellular telephony back in the 1960s, but it took decades before the development of the computer chip made cell phones practical.

    When progress depends on the low probability event of multiple separate things converging, it is not surprising that such progress happens first in one location and then spreads.

  2. Mike-SMO says:

    Coal and engines were important, but what was crucial was a society that allowed room for the new technology and its functional class. Britian and parts of Europe found a way to accept a”middle class” of skilled, energetic people the Marxian analysis worked only for a society with a rigid class structure. The industrial revolution provided for respectable advancement to “smart” peasants while allowing the “worthies” time to adapt, thus avoiding the chaos and brutality of a “revolution”. Skill with machinery or structure was necessary, profitable and allowed a gradual adjustment of the power structure. The builder and the old “royalty” were both able to prosper in their own realms. Attempts to suppress that growing “middle class” generally led to bloody dead-ends.some attempts to guide the process of transformation were successful. Some were not. The ability to incorporate the new and unproductive “educated” class into funtional systems has yet to be demonstrated.

  3. Szopen says:

    Interesting about the coal part; I’ve long wondered why not Silesia and other mines, where there was for long time a demand for different contraptions (paternosters) to remove water from mines. But they were extracting silver, salt, lead, so there was this one missing component. Indeed, without cheap coal, why bother with replacing animals in paternosters.

  4. Szopen says:

    On the other hand, beasts of burden where not that cheap either. In 1482 in Olkusz mine there were 24 horses working in treadmill, and they had to be allowed to stop work. It was expansive. And Silesia had coal, but it started to be mined only in about half of XVIII century (And then almost immediately they started to use imported Newcome’s pumps or similar).

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