Causes and Preconditions for the Industrial Revolution

View of River Thames, London, 1750
View of River Thames, London, 1750. DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI / Getty Images

Historians may disagree on most aspects of the Industrial Revolution, but one thing they do agree on is that eighteenth-century Britain experienced a huge change in the economic field of goods, production and technology, and the social sphere, in urbanization and treatment of workers. The reasons for this change continue to fascinate historians, leading people to wonder if there was a set of preconditions present in Britain shortly before the revolution which enabled or allowed it to take place.

These preconditions tend to cover population, agriculture, industry, transport, trade, finance and raw materials.

The Condition of Britain c. 1750

Agriculture: As a supplier of raw materials, the agricultural sector was closely linked to the industrial; this was the main source of occupation for the British population. Half of the arable land had been enclosed, while half remained in the medieval open field system. The British agricultural economy produced a large surplus of food and drink, and had been labeled the ‘Granary of Europe’ because of its exports. However, production was labor intensive, although there had been some new crops introduced, and there were problems with underemployment, which is where workers can find themselves with periods without anything to do. Consequently, people had multiple occupations.

Industry: Most industry was small scale, domestic and local, but traditional industries could meet the domestic demands.

There was some inter-regional trade, but this was limited by poor transport. The key industry was wool production, bringing in a substantial portion of Britain’s wealth, but this was coming under threat from cotton.

Population: The nature of the British population has implications for the supply and demand of food and goods, as well as the supply of cheap labor.

The population had increased in the earlier part of the eighteenth century, especially closer to the middle of the era, and was mostly located in rural areas. The people were gradually accepting of social change and the upper and middle classes were interested in new thinking in science, philosophy. and culture.

Transport: Good transport links are seen as a basic requirement for industrial revolution as the transport of goods and raw materials were essential for reaching wider markets. Generally, in 1750 transport was limited to poor quality local roads – a few of which were ‘turnpikes’, toll roads which improved speed but added cost – rivers, and coastal traffic. However, while this system was limited interregional trade did occur, such as coal from the north to London.

Trade: This had developed during the first half of the eighteenth century both internally and externally, with a great deal of wealth coming from the triangle slave trade. The main market for British goods was Europe, and the government maintained a mercantilist policy to encourage it. Provincial ports had developed, such as Bristol and Liverpool.

Finance: By 1750 Britain had begun to move towards capitalist institutions which are considered part of the development of the revolution.

The produce of trade was creating a new, wealthy class prepared to invest in industry, and groups like the Quakers have also been identified as investing in areas which contributed to the industrial boom. More on banking developments.

Raw Materials: Britain had the raw resources necessary for a revolution in plentiful supply, and although they were being extracted in abundance, this was still limited by traditional methods. In addition, the related industries tended to by nearby because of poor transport links, exerting a pull on where industry occurred. More on Coal and Iron developments.


Britain in 1870 had the following which have all been stated as necessary for an Industrial Revolution: good mineral resources; growing population; wealth; spare land and food; ability to innovate; laissez-faire government policy; scientific interest; trading opportunities.

Around 1750, all of these began to develop simultaneously; the result was massive change.

Causes of the Revolution

As well as the debate over preconditions, there has been a closely related discussion over the causes of the revolution. A wide range of factors ais generally considered to have worked together, including:

  • The end of medieval structures changed economic relationships and allowed for change.
  • A higher population because of less disease and lower infant mortality allows for a larger industrial workforce.
  • The Agricultural Revolution frees people from the soil, allowing – or driving – them into cities and manufacturing.
  • Proportionally large amounts of spare capital were available for investment.
  • Inventions and the scientific revolution allowed for new technology to increase and cheapen production.
  • Colonial trade networks allowed the import of materials and the export of manufactured goods.
  • The presence of all the required resources close together, such as coal near iron.
  • Culture of hard work, risk taking and the development of ideas.
  • Demand for goods.