What caused the Industrial Revolution? That question has been quite the rage among historians for the last few decades, and we have a mob of answers to it. One theory posits that the British managed to change their gene pool to favor smarter, more energetic, more entrepreneurial minds. Yeah, right. But there are many others that are not just plausible, but well-supported by evidence.
One arguement, for example, suggests that it was the development of legal protection in the form of patents, in which subject Britain led the way, that evoked a blossoming of inventive energies among the British people. It’s a good hypothesis and I have no doubt that it contains much truth.
Another hypothesis is that British society idolized scientific discovery. We have plenty of evidence of a strong demand for news of the latest scientific achievements. Lectures and demonstrations by leading scientists and inventors in London were packed; some were able to make a good living touring the country, presenting lectures on the latest in science and technology. For some reason, British society treated scientists and inventors the way we treat movie stars. That in turn attracted many of the best and brightest to pursue science and invention.
I’ve read many other suggestions: the easy accessibility of coal; the importance of mercantilism in British society; the waning of the power of the aristocracy; the large number of books published each year on Britain. After much study, I have thrown up my hands and decided to check “All of the above”. Every one of the factors suggested above has plenty of evidence to support it (except perhaps the claim that it was superior genes).
Whatever the causal factors, the Industrial Revolution started in Britain. This was not solely a British achievement; it drew heavily on contributions from elsewhere in northern Europe. But the pieces all fell into place in Britain, and once things got rolling, the rest of Europe easily jumped onto the bandwagon.
If we zoom out to view the Industrial Revolution from a great distance, one thing is clear: the foundation was strict rationalism as expressed in science and mathematics. From Mount Olympus, the Industrial Revolution looks like a perfectly natural step in the long sequence of events that began with the Greek invention of rationalism.