Around 1770, Britain made some remarkable advances in the field of manufacturing industry, Pruning and transport giving it a position of world economic leadership that she was to retain for well over a century. These achievements were remarkable and they came in the first place in terms of technological innovations in a cluster of industries - the Watt steam engine, the mechanization of cotton spinning and weaving, the production of coke-smelted pig iron in blast furnaces and of large quantities of iron products by extruding and rolling, the first railway lines and so forth, which reinforced each other. Initially they were of limited importance to the whole country.
However soon this became an unbroken chain of inventions and innovations leading to an irreversible improvement in the way of making things. The rapid advances in science and technology led to development and changes in industrial organization. The Factory-system became the dominant mode of production - and it caught the eyes of contemporary observers. This system meant of course the concentration of the work force, a new discipline within the workplace, which had been unknown of in previous times. Large factories could make full use of the potential of new technologies, for example steam driven engines; this meant large gains in productivity, on a scale never previously experienced. Factories were designed to turn out cheap mass produced goods, such as cotton and woolen yarn, cotton cloth, cast metal goods etc.
These changes though far-reaching, did not happen all at once. In fact, recent research has shown that the Industrial Revolution in Britain was much slower than had been previously thought, and that the new technologies lived, for a long time, side by side with older pre-manufacturing technologies. For example, waterpower was still very important and prevailed over steam power in the United Kingdom (UK) well into the 19lh century and craftsmen and their workshops remained for a long time far more important in aggregate terms than modern factories. A few points stand out, however. These are:
· The process of industrialization in the UK happened in a unique and totally unplanned way; it could not have been planned, since it had never happened before.
· It was also slower to take full shape than previously believed and certainly slower than in the Continent later on, when industrialization could be encouraged, stimulated, copied from Britain at least to some extent.
· The fact that industrialization was slow does not mean that it was less radical and impressive.
· Initially dramatic progress took place in various scattered branches of industry and it did not affect the large bulk of the country. However, with one development feeding upon another, eventually the whole country was transformed and the changes began to show up everywhere.
· Some changes were very dramatic, and in fact more dramatic in Britain than anywhere else.
· The question arises, why was Britain the first? A wide range of answers has been given to this question. The unique advantages of Britain were:
· A stable, relatively open political system, which allowed for efficient public finances and encouraged the development of a capital market. Also, it made possible for Britain to fight and win wars and to keep a large, powerful navy, thus capturing vital foreign markets.
· Advanced and commercial agricultural system that was able to support the growing population by sustained rises in productivity.
· A remarkable growth in population since 1750, which provided an enormous workforce as also consumers to the economy.
Spread of the Industrial Revolution to the rest of Europe: There was not a very big development lag between Britain and the rest of Europe. This probably was because of the geographical proximity of Britain and the northwestern corner of the continent. Considering the period between 1750 and 1820 embracing most of France, the Low Countries, part of the German States and Scandinavia, Switzerland and also Northern Italy and the most advanced parts of the Hapsburg Empire - it may be noted that a long process of capital accumulation had taken place, incomes were higher as a result of moderate economic progress throughout many decades.
Capital, labour and land markets were fairly developed. The society was open and commercial and it had, largely, broken away from feudalism. Skills were widespread among the population, and there was a record of technological progress. Although the nobility was still very powerful, the influence of the bourgeoisie (merchants, investors, professionals etc) had been growing for some time and in many towns, the bourgeoisie were the leading class. Agriculture had made important progress and there were important areas of domestic industry organized in far reaching commercial networks. Finally, international trade was in the hands of not only the British, but also shared by Dutch, French, German and Danish merchant houses.
All this did not prevent Britain from leaping ahead in the process of industrialization, but the gap was never so wide that the other countries could not expect to fill it in a reasonably short time. The preconditions were certainly there. In fact, the gap between Britain and North West Europe was much less than that between the most advanced areas of Europe and the more backward ones, in the South and East of the continent. When around 1800 to 1820 it was clear that Britain was forging ahead, the other advanced parts of Western Europe sought to first keep in step and then to catch up. The stage was set for a remarkable period of economic development and industrialization across the continent.
To understand whether there was an Industrial Revolution in the whole of Europe, it is necessary to remember the great variety and variation in the continent as there were more advanced and more backward countries in Europe which were significant for tackling industrialization. On one side were countries like Germany, Belgium and France that were early followers of Britain and successfully industrialized by 1860-70; on the other were countries like Russia that started industrializing at the end of the 19th century while Spain hardly succeeded in industrializing at all before 1914. Countries in the South-East of Europe were even further behind. Countries like Denmark or the Netherlands had very advanced agricultural sectors while Belgium concentrated on heavy industry.