What was the scientific background that lay behind the West's leap in productivity? Why did the Industrial Revolution start in Britian?

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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The Industrial Revolution is considered to have begun in England, and spread rapidly to Western Europe and North America.  The mid-18th Century was a period of enormous technological innovation with economic and social repercussions for much of the world.  The industrialization that began in England, and which was initially most prominent in its agricultural sector, enabled it to greatly improve the standard of living of much – but certainly not all – of its populace.

The reasons for the genesis of the Industrial Revolution occurring in England and finding its earliest and greatest manifestations in Western Europe and North America are often ascribed to the political and economic systems that existed in those regions.  While the concept of democratic government had not yet fully taken root, the levels of economic and intellectual freedom that dominated throughout those areas almost certainly played a major role in facilitating the technological innovations that occurred and the subsequent incorporation of those innovations into their respective economic sectors.  As one historian of that period noted,

“The political and moral advantages of [Britain], as a seat of manufacture, are not less remarkable than its physical advantages. . . Under the reign of just laws, personal liberty and property have been secure; mercantile enterprise has been allowed to reap its reward; capital has accumulated in safety . . . [T]he manufacturing prosperity of the country has struck its roots deep, and spread forth its branches to the ends of the earth.” [Edward Baines, The History of the Cotton Manufacture in Great Britain, First Edition, January 1, 1835]

The relationship between technological innovation and economic growth on the one hand and political system on the other should not be underestimated.  While historically-autocratic political systems produce their share of intelligent scientists, exploiting the technological advances those scientists are capable of initiating requires a level of political and economic freedom generally anathema to such governments, especially those of the totalitarian bent. 

The scientific innovations that occurred in Britain, Germany and the newly-emerging United States were a product of the educational systems and economic freedoms enjoyed by the populations of those societies.  The steam engine developed in England by Thomas Newcomen in 1712 represented a major leap in productivity, and presaged further such developments in the centuries that followed.  As another historian has pointed out,

“Britain was characterized by the free expression of new ideas.” [Professor Jeremy Black, Exeter University, quoted in “Why the Industrial Revolution Happened in Britain,” www.bbc.co.uk/history/0/20979973]

Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union was producing more high-caliber theoretical physicists than any other country in the world.  The political and economic system that characterized the former U.S.S.R., however, was ill-suited to adapt scientific theory to reality, and the technological gap between East and West was a major contributor to the Cold War’s outcome.  The Industrial Revolution could have taken root centuries earlier in Russia had Peter the Great (1672-1725) succeeded in transforming Russia.  Instead, the technological developments that evolved into that revolution began elsewhere.