In the seventeenth century, the Dutch Republic was the most technologically and economically advanced nation in the world. Why then, did the Industrial Revolution occur in Britain?
In 1651 Britain had just finished a destructive civil war. Tens of thousands had died. Its monarch had been beheaded and its mode of government overturned. In its weakened state, it was about to engage in the first of many wars with the Dutch Republic for supremacy over trade.
Fast forward two centuries to 1851 and Britain was a triumphant country. It was the world’s technological leader, and now pressed its advantage to accumulate the largest empire in history. Dignitaries were flocking from around the world to admire the shrine erected to the dramatic transformation, a magnificent Crystal Palace.
The dramatic transformation - an Industrial Revolution - had been brought about by an acceleration in the rate of innovation. I am interested in what caused that acceleration.
Central to the story are the people responsible, the innovators. You’re probably aware of the various inventions in poster boy industries like cotton, iron or coal. You might even recognise a few names like James Watt, Abraham Darby and Richard Arkwright. But look also to the industries like glass-making, ceramics, civil engineering, gardening, surgery, cement and chimney-sweeping; all and more were transformed by only a few innovators.
So to discover the causes of Britain’s unprecedented acceleration of innovation, I delved into just about every recorded activity, behaviour and experience of the 677 innovators of the time. They included the usual suspects, but also people you’ve probably never heard of, like Eleanor Coade, George Smart, or the advertising pioneer George Packwood.
After staring at my data for long enough, I began to notice a pattern. People went on to innovate if inventors had been among their teachers, colleagues, employers, employees, neighbours, friends, family and acquaintances. And the more I looked, the more examples I found. Of the hundreds of inventors I studied, nearly all of them began to innovate after meeting inventors. Inspiration mattered, and inventing seemed to spread from person to person.
But this wasn’t the spread of a particular technique, design or blueprint. It was the spread of a new approach, the very idea of inventing. Physicians like Erasmus Darwin improved carriages, then influenced the likes of Richard Lovell Edgeworth to improve agricultural machinery and telegraph systems too. Young cabinet makers like Joseph Bramah watched their employers improve toilets, then went on to invent locks and hydraulic presses.
Hundreds of people in Britain began to see room for improvement everywhere. Lancelot Brown looked out over the gardens of the wealthy and declared them “capable” of improvement (earning him the nickname Capability Brown). An ingenious architect, Robert Salmon, got a hernia and developed a surgical truss to treat it. A young engineer, William Fairbairn, got carried away and tried to improve romance.
Many innovators stuck with what they knew best. Potters influenced other potters, and engineers influenced other engineers. But many branched out into the unfamiliar, teaching themselves as they went. A carpenter transformed clockmaking. A lawyer developed artillery. An art dealer sold his collection to lay the first under-water electric telegraph line.
So people became innovators because others inspired them with a mentality of improvement. But we need to explain why this mentality was so uniquely virulent in Britain in the period. There were epidemics of innovation in prior societies - the Dutch Golden Age, Song Dynasty China, the Renaissance. So why did it become endemic only in Britain? I think there was something special about this particular strain of the mentality of improvement.
The vast majority (over 80%) actively tried to spread innovation. They published about it, lectured about it, funded it, and advised on it. They founded and joined societies devoted to spreading it further. The natural philosopher Stephen Hales seemed incapable of holding a conversation without advising improvements. George Stephenson offered tips to train operators while waiting at the platform.
Innovators in Britain very rarely kept secrets. Even the 40% or so patent-holders very rarely sued for infringement; and they very rarely lobbied to extend them beyond the usual time limits. James Watt, who notoriously did all three, was a rarity. But even he sometimes betrayed a commitment to spreading innovation further.
To me, the spread of the improving mentality in Britain resembles the spread of a religious belief. It is all very well for people to pray in quiet, but successful religions require effective preachers. I believe that to have become so widespread, the improving mentality required proselytisers of its own. In Britain, the improving mentality became an ideology.
Like any ideology, it had its disagreements. James Watt believed himself entitled to protect his patents from infringement, while Humphry Gainsborough was scandalised (yes, brother of the artist, and also an improver of steam engines). But ultimately, the vast majority of Britain’s inventors adhered to two commandments: improve, and pass it on.
Here, my thesis reaches its limits. I can’t explain why Britain was unique by looking at Britain alone. The ideological commitment to proselytising innovation seems a likely candidate to me because it was so widespread: nothing else came close to being as common.
We can’t say for sure without an international comparison. The most obvious society to compare is the Dutch Republic of the 17th century. The Dutch Republic was then the most technologically and economically advanced nation in the world, and seemed to have acquired most of the ingredients for an acceleration of innovation. Its population was the most concentrated in cities.* Its traders dominated the rapidly growing trade with India and East Asia. In fact, I often hear that Britain became so successful after 1688 because it developed some concoction of Dutch government, financial management, and religious toleration.
And yet in the eighteenth century the Dutch Golden Age lost its shine. Why? There have been all sorts of material explanations for its economic decline. But I’m interested in its innovators - the individuals who made the Netherlands great, but who then let it decline. Did their numbers dwindle? Did they lose interest in innovation and devote themselves to other pursuits? Were they simply more concentrated in industries with less of an economic impact than in Britain?
I think the only way to know for sure is to compile as extensive a list of Dutch innovators as possible. If my hypothesis about the British acceleration of innovation is correct, then Dutch innovators may not have been as proactive at proselytising innovation. But I may be wrong, and I’ll let you know what I find.
*Even as late as 1800, only 29% of England’s population was urban, as compared to 34% in the Netherlands (Allen p.17).