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The Industrial Revolution in World History

By Peter N. Stearns | Go to book overview

2
New Causes: Why Did the Industrial Revolution Happen, and Why Did It Happen in Eighteenth-Century Britain?

Explaining the industrial revolution is a challenge to analysts of history. Identifying the factors that caused the industrial revolution is a complex task because no one development stands out. The task is vital not simply as a historical exercise but as the basis for understanding the complexity of the challenges awaiting societies that tried to establish an industrial revolution even after Britain showed the way. The variety of developments that combined to create the first industrial revolution had somehow to be replicated, though not necessarily in identical fashion. This same daunting variety helps explain why a number of regions have not managed to launch full-scale industrialization to this day. Complex causes persist as a factor in world affairs.

Not surprisingly, historians have offered different emphases. Occasionally, industrialization is presented as flowing from a few dramatic inventions and from some new thinking about the economy, notably Adam Smith's market-oriented theories issued in 1776 that stressed the importance of vigorous economic competition free from government controls as a means of generating innovation and growing prosperity. Inventions of course were involved--but why did they occur? And why did Britain produce more inventions than other countries (followed, in the formative decades of industrialization, by France and the United States)? New economic theories helped produce some policies favorable to industrialization, but these did not cause it; they came too late, and they affected too few people. Any explanation of the industrial revolution must account for new behaviors on the part of literally thousands of people: entrepreneurs who gradually moved to

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