Too much discussion of the Industrial Revolution is myopic, focused narrowly on a few highlights such as steam and coal. The IR was part of broader trends that are wider in scope and longer in time than its traditional definition encompasses. To understand anything, it is crucial to get the correct scope for the phenomenon in question.

Here are some ways in which we have to widen our focus in order to see the big picture.

Wider than coal and steam

Some explanations of the IR focus on steam engines, and especially on the coal that fueled them. Economist Robert Allen, for instance, has one of the best-researched and most convincing arguments for cheap coal as a requirement for the development of steam power.

A weak version of this claim, such as “coal was a crucial factor in the IR,” is certainly true. But sometimes a much stronger claim is made, to the effect that the IR couldn’t have happened without abundant, accessible coal, and that this is the main factor explaining why it happened in Europe and especially in Britain. Or more broadly, that all of material progress is driven by fossil fuels (with the implication that once we are, sooner or later, forced to transition away from fossil fuels—whether by geology, economics, or politics—growth will inevitably slow).

But much of the early IR wasn’t dependent on steam power:

  • Textile machinery, such as Arkwright’s spinning machines, were originally powered by water.
  • Henry Maudslay’s earliest machine tools were made to manufacture locks; another key application of machine tools was guns with interchangeable parts. This was not motivated by steam power.
  • Improvements in factory organization, such as the arrangement of Wedgwood’s pottery manufacturing operation, were management techniques, independent of power sources.
  • The reaper was pulled by horses—even after the development of steam power, because steam tractors were too heavy for use in fields. Even stationary agricultural machines such as for threshing or winnowing were often muscle-powered.

You could argue that all of these inventions would have reached a plateau and would not have had as much economic impact without eventually being hooked up to steam or gas engines. But the fact remains that they were initially powered by water or muscle, and they were economically useful in those first incarnations, often achieving 10x or more gains in productivity. They didn’t need coal or gas for that, nor were they invented in anticipation that such power would soon be available.

So either it was an amazing coincidence that all of this mechanical invention was going on at the same time—or there was some wider, underlying trend.

Wider than industry

Further, the IR itself only represents a subset of the broader technical innovations that were going on in this period. Here are a few key things that aren’t considered “industrial” and so are often left out of the story of the IR:

  • Improvements to agriculture other than mechanization: for instance, new crop rotations
  • Improvements to maritime navigation, such as the marine chronometer that helped solve the longitude problem
  • Immunization techniques against smallpox: inoculation and later vaccination

To me, the fact of all these inventions happening in roughly the same time period indicates a general acceleration of progress during this time, reflecting some deep cause, not a simple playing out of the consequences of one specific resource or invention.

Wider than invention

In many areas, incremental improvements were being made even before the major inventions that make the history books:

  • Roads and canals were improved in the 17th and 18th centuries, speeding up transportation even before railroads
  • Experiments by engineers like John Smeaton created more efficient water wheels, making more usable energy available even before steam power
  • Sanitation was improved in cities—including cleaner water, better sewage, and some insect control—decreasing mortality rates even before vaccines or the germ theory

A theory of progress should explain these improvements as well as breakthrough inventions.

Wider than scientific theory

Many of the developments discussed above were made by “tinkering,” before the scientific theory that would ultimately explain them. This has led some to suggest that science wasn’t important for the IR.

I think this is based on too narrow a concept of science. Science is not just theories or laws; it is also a method, and the method includes careful observation, deliberate experimentation, quantitative measurement, the systematic collection of facts, and the organizing of those facts into patterns. Those methods were at work in, for instance, Smeaton’s water wheel experiments, or in inoculation and vaccination against smallpox.

More broadly, the creation of scientific theory is too narrow a concept of the goal of the Baconian program. The program was to collect, systematize, and disseminate useful knowledge—at all levels of abstraction, from the broadest theories all the way down to practical techniques. Naturally, the projects that aimed directly at useful techniques first achieved the earliest results, and those that aimed at theoretical understanding achieved later but more powerful results.

Wider than one century

If we widen our view in time as well, we immediately perceive crucial inventions and discoveries well before the IR. The two that stand out most to me are the improvements in navigation that led to the Age of Discovery, and the printing press—both around the 15th century.

The printing press lowered the cost and increased the volume of communication, including scientific and technical writing. The voyages of discovery led to global trade, which drove the growth of port cities such as London, made new products available to consumers, and generally created economic growth.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these developments preceded the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions by just a couple of centuries—I see a straight line from the former to the latter.

Wider than material progress

Finally, we miss the big picture if we only think about material progress—scientific, technological, industrial, economic—and ignore progress in morality, society, and government.

Consider that, coincident with the Industrial Age, we have also seen the replacement of monarchy with republics, the virtual end of slavery, equal rights for women, and an international consensus against using war to acquire territory. (There are caveats one could add to each of those achievements, but the overall trend is undeniable in each case.) See my review of Pinker’s Better Angels for many relevant details.

Again, something deeper has been going on—deeper even than science, technology and industry.

Not a coincidence

It’s not a coincidence that several non-steam powered mechanical inventions were created around the same time as the steam engine. Or that several non-mechanical innovations were created around the same time as the mechanical ones. Or that the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions happened within a century or two of each other, and in the same region of the world—after millenia of relatively slow progress in both knowledge and the economy. Or that new ways of thinking about government and society came about at the same time as new ways of thinking about science and technology.

There must be some very deep underlying trend that explains these non-coincidences. And that is why I am sympathetic to explanations that invoke fundamental changes in thinking, such as Pinker’s appeal to “reason, science, and humanism” in Enlightenment Now.

You can argue with that explanation—but any theory that ends at “coal” can explain at most a small piece of the puzzle. Such explanations miss the big picture.

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11 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 2:26 PM

I believe it was due to reaching critical "mass" in communication bandwidth. More globally practical, "bettable" information being accrued than lost. 

Mind, the rate of that is increasing ever since.

Not my idea,  but cannot recall where I read it.


Agreed. The printing press, newspapers, and The Republic of Letters certainly expanded the communication bandwidth.

Erik Engheim and Terje Tvedt introduced me another important development in Europe that seems connected to the industrial revolution: The Machine Revolution. While Medieval China invented plenty of industrial machines, including the first water-powered textile spinning wheel, by the high middle ages Western Europe was using more water and wind power per capita than anywhere else in history. 

...watermills in 1086 did the work of almost 400,000 people at a time when England had no more than 1.25 million inhabitants. That means doing as much work as almost 30 percent of the English population.

Cultural explanations are often given for this divergence but in recent years, geography has been given greater focus. Western Europe had waterways more naturally suited for the use of water-power than the rest of Eurasia.

While water and wind power had been harnessed for centuries prior, this intensification of capital provided Europe with far more output than what would otherwise have been possible and more opportunities for engineers and mechanics to experiment, tinker with, and improve machinery.

It may be that the earliest seeds of industrial revolution were planted as far back as the middle ages.

Were people getting smarter? (But if so, why?)

What if the true source of progress is people becoming nicer? (OK, I am just trying to be a contrarian here, but in the opposite direction of the usual.) Catholics and Protestants getting tired of killing each other, agreeing on "live and let live", and maybe let Jews live too, and heck... we might also let the nerds live.

And now people spend more time inventing and discussing their inventions (no one will report you to inquisition just because you said something about atoms), and who knows with some luck it might become a source of income (because people will not immediately steal your inventions, either to destroy them or to sell them as their own). -- Hey, I am not saying that people were super nice centuries ago; just more nice than even more centuries ago.

To put it more "mathematically", when people get nicer, some of the energy they previously spent on hurting each other gets redirected to other purposes, and that includes progress.

What if the true source of progress is people becoming nicer?

What if the true cause of people becoming nicer is material progress? If there is more stuff, there is less reason to fight over it.

If there is more stuff, there is less reason to fight over it.

There will be less fighting for material reasons, but other reasons exist too. Some people never have enough. But maybe those who have enough can sometimes coordinate to stop them.

I suspect there is actually a reciprocal relationship, not simply one-way causation.

Smarter in terms of raw mental capacity? No, I doubt it.

They were getting more educated. In particular, in the 18th century there was a new, mechanistic view of the universe that was spreading, and this was crucial to the development of science and engineering.

The Flynn effect presumably started before there were IQ tests to measure it.

Prenatal and early childhood malnutrition generally lower IQ, as does catching certain diseases in pregnancy or early childhood. Child labour might be bad for IQ too - not sure about this one though because a lot of modern schools are basically equivalent to child labour but being in school is not generally thought to lower IQ. So knocking a population out of Malthusian equilibrium would be expected to result in IQ rises.

Related: here is an essay about how the Black Death may have triggered the Rennaissance by reducing Europe’s population enough to temporarily knock everyone out of Malthusian equilibrium.

Better health and nutrition could plausibly have led to higher average intelligence, good point.

However, I think a large part of the Flynn effect is not actual raw intelligence increasing, but better education that leads people to score better on formal intelligence tests.