In the second half of the 18th century, a series of innovations in England started a transition of the British economy away from agricultural, manually intensive production methods to machine based production. The effects of this were profound and instigated huge socio-economic changes. In particular, the mass migration of labour from the countryside into the cities and newly formed towns. In parts of the country, urban growth was unprecedented. In the tiny Welsh village of Aberdare, the population exploded from a few hundred people to nearly 33,000 in the space of just twenty five years. This was down to the pursuit of coal, as the machine innovations of the period run off coal over other bio-sources such as wood.
The result was a period of economic growth which up until this time had not been predicted by classical economists. Greater production fueled greater pursuit of resources which in turn created more exports, bringing in wealth and allowing merchants to seek out new markets. Textiles from Northern England or iron from South Wales were sought the world over as technology and the economies of scale it bought, made British products cheaper, better and more competitive. Over the next 150 years or so, the ongoing industrial revolution created bigger and bigger cities, leading to further growth and changes in social justice. Infrastructure such as canals and later, railways, along with new social institutions such as co-operatives changed the fabric of British life.
So how did Britain become the first industrialised country in the world? Other countries had their own revolutions not long after Britain, particularly in Europe and the USA but Britain had several factors that came together at the same time.
Firstly, was the intellectual climate of the day. The Scottish enlightenment had taken earlier scientific and economic discoveries in England and moved them into the mainstream. In particular, banking provided the means for ordinary investors to become wealthy by starting their own enterprises. The economics of innovation also changed with greater political liberty after 1688. No longer would innovation be seen as a threat by the established elite but as an opportunity for them to invest in the new ideas and become richer. Patents became the new protector of innovations. In short, it was the age of reason where the influence of the church and the monarchy was being challenged.
Entrepreneurs and scientists created new technologies that could be powered more efficiently by a ready supply of coal from the home countries, particularly South Wales. Investors were able to plough money into prospecting for black gold and accumulated huge amounts of wealth. Many of the great houses that litter the landscape of Great Britain were built during this time. Along with the advances in steam technology, Naval power grew unparalleled and the British Empire would come to dominate trade across most of the world.