The Industrial Revolution occurred first in Great Britain, and that simple fact goes a long way toward explaining why Britain became the single most powerful European country of the nineteenth century. Britain was well positioned to serve as the cradle of industrialism. One of the background causes of the Industrial Revolution was the combination of rapidly increasing populations and more efficient agriculture providing more calories to feed that population. Even fairly rudimentary improvements in sanitation in the first half of the eighteenth century resulted in lower infant mortality rates and lower disease rates in general. The Little Ice Age of the early modern period ended in the eighteenth century as well, increasing crop yields. Despite the fact that more commercially-oriented agriculture, something that was well underway in Britain by the middle of the eighteenth century, was often experienced as a disaster by peasants and farmers, the fact is that it did increase the total caloric output of crops at the same time. In short, agriculture definitively left the subsistence model behind and became a commercial enterprise in Britain by 1800. Thus, there was a “surplus population” (to quote Ebenezer Scrooge of A Christmas Carol, speaking of the urban poor) of peasants who were available to work in the first generations of factories.
In addition, Britain has abundant coal deposits concentrated in northern England. In a very lucky coincidence for British industry, northern England in the eighteenth century was the heart of the existing British textile industry, which became the key commercial force in the early period of industrialization. The northern English coal deposits are part of an underground band of coal that reaches across to Belgium, eastern France, and western Germany. This stretch of land would become the industrial heartland of Europe - one can draw a line down a map of Western Europe from England stretching across the English Channel toward the Alps and trace most of the industrial centers of Europe in the first half of the nineteenth century.
Britain had coal, and the English and Scottish had long known that you could burn it and produce heat. For many centuries, however, it was an unpopular fuel source. Coal produces a noxious, toxic smoke, along with heaps of black ash. It has to be mined, and coal mines in northwestern Europe tended to rapidly fill with water as they dipped below the water table, requiring cumbersome pumping systems. In turn, conditions in those mines were extremely dangerous and difficult. Thus, coal was only used in small amounts in England until well into the Renaissance period.
What changed was, simply, Britain ran out of forests. Thanks to the need for firewood and charcoal for heat, as well as timber for building (especially shipbuilding; Britain's navy consumed a vast quantity of wood in construction and repairs), Britain was forced to import huge quantities of wood from abroad by the end of the seventeenth century. As firewood became prohibitively expensive, British people increasingly turned to coal. Already by the seventeenth century, former prejudices against coal as dirty and distasteful had given way to the necessity of its use as a fuel source for heat. As the Industrial Revolution began in the latter half of the eighteenth century, thanks to a series of key inventions, the vast energy capacity of coal was unleashed for the first time. By 1815, annual British coal production yielded energy equivalent to what could be garnered from burning a hypothetical forest equal in area to all of England, Scotland, and Wales.
There were a series of technological breakthroughs that powered the expansion of Industrial Revolution, all of them originating in Britain. Most importantly, an engineer named James Watt developed an efficient steam engine in 1763, which was subsequently manufactured in 1775. Steam engines were originally used to pump water out of mines, but soon it was discovered that they could be used to substitute for water-power itself at mills. The key discovery was that the thermal energy unleashed by burning a fossil fuel like coal could be transformed into other forms of energy - most importantly kinetic energy (the energy of movement) - through steam power. With a steam engine, coal did not just provide heat, it provided power. Watt, in turn, personally invented the term “horsepower” in order to explain to potential customers what his machine could do. Almost anything that moved could now be tied to coal power instead of muscle power, and thus began the vast and dramatic shift toward the modern world’s dependence on fossil fuels.
The first and most important industry to benefit from coal power besides mining itself was the northern English textile industry, which harnessed steam power to drive new machines that processed the cotton and transformed it into finished cloth. Building on various other machine breakthroughs, an inventor named Edmund Cartwright developed the power loom in 1787, the first large-scale textile machine that could process an enormous amount of cotton fiber. By the end of the 1800s, a single “mule” (a spinning invention linked to steam power in 1803) could produce thread 200 to 300 times as fast as could be done by hand. By 1850 Britain was producing 200 times as much cotton cloth than it had in 1780.
In turn, textiles were the basis of the Industrial Revolution for straightforward practical reasons: raw material was available from the American south thanks to slave labor, and there was an endless market for textiles all across Europe. British cloth processed by the new machines was of very high quality and, because of the vast quantity that British mills could produce, it was far cheaper than textiles produced by hand. Thus, British cloth rapidly cornered the market everywhere in Europe, generating tremendous profits for British industrialists. The impact on Britain’s economy was enormous, as was its textile industry’s growing dominance over its European rivals. France initially tried to keep British fabric out of its own markets, but in 1786 the two kingdoms negotiated the Eden Treaty, which allowed the importation of British manufactured goods. The result was a tidal wave of British cloth in French markets, which forced French manufacturers to implement industrial technology in their own workshops.
In its first century, the areas in Europe that benefited the most from the Industrial Revolution were the ones closest to coal. Besides access to coal, the other major factors driving industrial expansion in Britain were political and cultural. The reason that Britain was far and away the leading industrial power is that its parliament was full of believers in the principles of free trade, which meant that commercial enterprises were not hampered by archaic restrictions or cultural prejudices. Britain was also the richest society in Europe in terms of available capital: money was available through reliable, trustworthy banking institutions. Thus, investors could build up a factory after securing loans with fair interest rates and they knew that they had a legal system that favored their enterprise. Finally, taxes were not arbitrary or extremely high (as they were in most parts of Spain and Italy, for example).
The other major reason that Britain enjoyed such an early and long-lasting lead in industrialization is that British elites, especially the powerful gentry class of landowners, were not hostile to commercial enterprise. In many kingdoms on the continent, members of the nobility were banned from actively practicing commerce until the period of the French Revolution. Even after the Napoleonic wars, when noble titles could no longer be lost by engaging in commerce, banking, or factory ownership, there remained deep skepticism and arrogance among continental nobles about the new industries. In short, nobles often looked down on those who made their wealth not from land, but from factories. This attitude helped to slow the advent of industrialism for decades.
The only continental region to industrialize in earnest before the 1840s was the southern swath of the Netherlands, which became the newly-created nation of Belgium in 1830 after a revolution. That region, immediately a close ally of Great Britain, had usable waterways, coal deposits, and a skilled artisanal workforce. By the 1830s the newly-minted country was rapidly industrializing. Belgium’s neighbor to the southwest, France, was comparatively slow to follow despite its large population and considerable overall wealth, however. The traditional elites who dominated the restored monarchy were deeply skeptical of British-style commercial and industrial innovations. Despite Napoleon’s having established the first national bank in 1800, the banking system as a whole was rudimentary and capital was restricted. In turn, the transportation of goods across France itself was prohibitively expensive due to the lack of navigable waterways and the existence of numerous tolls.
There were also important cultural factors that impeded industrial expansion in France. Whereas Britain’s large population of landless rural laborers and poor peasants had little option but to seek factory work, most French peasants were independent farmers who had no interest in going to cities to work in miserable conditions. Second, French industry had always concentrated on high-quality luxury goods, and French artisans fiercely resisted the spread of lower-quality and lower-skilled work and goods. Industrialization was thus limited to the northeastern part of the country, which had coal deposits, until the second half of the century.
In the German lands, it was not until the establishment of the Zollverein, a customs union, in 1834 that trade could flow freely enough to encourage industrial growth in earnest. Following its creation, railroads spread across the various kingdoms of northern Germany. Western Germany had extensive coal deposits, and by 1850 German industry was growing rapidly, especially in the Ruhr valley near the border with France.
Meanwhile, outside of Western Europe, there was practically no large-scale industry. It took until the late nineteenth century for the Industrial Revolution to "arrive" in places like northern Italy and the cities of western Russia, with some countries like Spain missing out entirely until the twentieth century.