Ahead of her forthcoming lecture at the British Academy on Monday 25 March, Emma Griffin, senior lecturer in history at the University of East Anglia, considers an age of dramatic industrial change in Britain and examines modern-day parallels


Few historical topics have garnered as much attention as the British industrial revolution. A succession of illustrious thinkers – Marx, Engels, Carlyle, Dickens, Toynbee, and EP Thompson, to name a few – have pondered its causes, nature and consequences. But despite the extent and quality of the debate, historians have struggled to agree on exactly what the ‘industrial revolution’ was.

For many the answer seemed to lie in technology. Several historians argued that those countless inventions – Hargreaves’ spinning jenny, Arkwright’s spinning throstle and carding engine, Crompton’s mule, Cartwright’s power loom, and James Watt’s steam-engine – must have played a pivotal role in launching Britain to its unique (though ultimately temporary) status as the world’s industrial powerhouse.

Others switched the focus slightly by considering the elements of British culture that had predisposed its people to inventive and entrepreneurial activity, all the while sharing the basic assumption that technology was the key to industrialisation.

Yet for all the popularity of arguments that stressed the role of technology, they never found universal agreement.

Some pointed to the importance of agriculture in freeing labourers to work in industry; of coal in powering the new industrial juggernaut; of the colonies in providing Britain with raw materials; of domestic industry and women and children; and of rising demand for new goods. Indeed, throughout the 20th century, historians continued to argue about every aspect of the industrial revolution, producing in the end a debate with very little agreement.

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Global developments in the 21st century have shed unexpected light on this debate. Historians have traditionally sought to understand industrialisation by searching the archives for evidence about the economy in 18th and 19th century Britain. Yet with the rapid industrialisation of India and China in the past two decades, we are a unique position to think about a phenomenon that is global in scope. All we need do is look around us.

If we examine nations that are currently industrialising, it is true that they use technology to do work that was previously performed by hand. Yet it is also clear that the switch to machinery is only part of the process. All their machines require power to operate them, and so the switch to industrial status also requires the development of new ways of creating and delivering power.

In Britain, that energy came in the form of coal-fired steam engines – hence the Victorian cities begrimed with soot and smoke. In the modern world, power is for the most part derived from electricity, produced in power stations driven by coal, nuclear reaction, or dams, and from gas and oil

Yet although different nations have exploited different energy sources according to the resources and technologies that are available, the same pattern is always evident: regardless of the timing and nature of industrialisation, the process has always gone hand in hand with a rapid increase in the amount of energy used.

In fact, this helps to explain why industrialisation and technology have tended to occur together. Machines are always designed to use one form of fuel: a spinning wheel is powered by hand; cars use oil; computers use electricity. These fuel sources cannot be exchanged in a simple and straightforward fashion; so before a machine can be operated by a new form of power, a series of new inventions are required.

Take the spinning wheel. Coal was widely available during the spinning-wheel’s heyday in the 18th century, but nobody used coal to spin cotton because the spinning wheel could only be operated by hand. Indeed, this is what much of the British industrial revolution was all about – inventing machines that could be powered by coal, rather than by human effort.

The early cotton inventions enabled one person to spin more efficiently; but the later inventions replaced that person by coal-powered machines. It was a pattern repeated many times over in many different areas of the economy, and one that changed the very nature of production in profound and far-reaching ways.

Framing industrialisation in this way enables us to understand the process better, but it also brings to the fore some of its problems and contradictions. No matter how much traditionalists might lament the social upheaval involved in industrialisation, the process has an undisputed power to raise incomes and living standards; it remains the single most important means of pulling nations out of poverty.

But it does so by increasing the amount of energy used and whether that energy comes from coal, nuclear reaction, or dams it comes with an environmental cost. For the 21st century, then, the challenge must be to find ways of spreading the benefits of industrialisation to all without causing irrevocable damage to our environment.

Emma Griffin is author of Liberty's Dawn: A People's History of the Industrial Revolution, due to be published by Yale University Press on 31 March 2013. You can also read Emma's feature in the March issue of BBC History Magazine – on sale from 28 February.


Emma will be joined by Maxine Berg, professor of history at the University of Warwick, at the British Academy on 25 March, where they will discuss how the Industrial Revolution shaped the modern world, and its effect on ordinary workers. Tickets are still available. Visit www.historyextra.com/lectures for more information