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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One possible story is wider-spread literacy, (cheap paper, cheap printing) followed by obsessive note-taking, letter writing, and proto-bureaucratic thinking. I'm reading the history of the Jesuits right now, and it is clear that the entire endeavor is printing press + cheap paper = new social movement. Could we think of "science" and "practical tinkering" as two of these new social movements which yielded a lot of return?

I like this.

To speak more generally about what I think you're pointing at, step function improvements in communication + coordination tech seems to be essential to breakthroughs in other kinds of tech.

A lot of people point at the existence of Four Industrial Revolutions so far:

  1. First Industrial Revolution: Coal in 1765 
  2. Second Industrial Revolution: Gas in 1870
  3. Third Industrial Revolution: Electronics and Nuclear in 1969
  4. Fourth Industrial Revolution: Internet and Renewable Energy in 2000

I'm wondering if any of these would have taken off at a global scale without the invention of the...

  1. Postal system in the 1700s
  2. Electric telegraph + industrial printing presses
  3. Radio, TV, and telephone
  4. E-mail and all the different chat and collective intelligence tools that have emerged

To reference Anton Howe's piece from earlier this year, innovation doesn't seem to be human nature.

Perhaps the proliferation of tech that sufficiently spreads inspiring ideas—like "XYZ is possible!"—is what leads people to decide to innovate anyway, against their conservative nature.

Yes, any major improvement in a fundamental area—not only in communication, or more broadly in information technology, but also in energy, manufacturing, materials, or transportation—will have ripple effects throughout the entire economy.

I think that's a little too reductionist. CACE: CHANGE ANYTHING CHANGE EVERYTHING. It is certainly true, but trivially true. The question is more like how much does a change in literacy result in a change in technology, rather than are the two related. Basically everything is related within the topics of science, innovation, and the intellectual life.

I take Gary's point to be relative. Were communication advancements necessary, while obviously not sufficient, prerequisites for the energy revolutions which followed? Can we make a causal diagram which flows from advances in communication in the 17th century and 18th century to advances in technology?

Personally I'd be extremely surprised if it were the case even a diminished form, but it's a very interesting hypothesis to try and disprove.

Thanks for the post. Definitely a nice compact mind-expander. The dimensions you mention are familiar as major themes writers repeatedly underscore. I always remember Carlota Perez's framing of history as a series of revolutions/waves each of which is about the rise of 2 or 3 technologies in, e.g. railroads and steel.

Two of the other major requirements for the Modern Breakthrough (McCloskey's term I believe) which I have seen in most profiles of the phenomenon (I have read dozens) have been:

  1. The open nature of three plus new continents with very few people (after disease wiped them out). This not only provided 20X the room to grow in amazingly fertile areas, it also provided an influx of better staple crops (potatoes and corn), timber, and the dynamic ability to establish hundreds of new statelets.  This was both a favorable condition leading up to the IR, it also helped it reduce Malthusian constraints.  This was a one time only opportunity. 
  2. Constructive competition between states. With the advents of gunpowder and cannons, Europe entered into an arms race not just toward military strength, but toward superior organizational problem solving ability. The leaders (first the Dutch, then the Brits, then Americans) were those states that were able to foster creativity and cooperation with less sclerosis and rent seeking. This led to the ascendency of representational government, freed markets with finance and corporations, and so on.  IOW, it was an arms race toward organizational effectiveness. Liberal democracies won, barely. 

These two forces actually self reinforced each other as did the transition to fossil fuels, machines, science and markets. 

If I was to try to oversimplify the Modern Breakthrough to one phrase, it was a phase transition to a higher level of network integration and coordinated problem solving.  Consider this explanation a work in progress, so to speak. 

Fine article overall, but starting from what srikes me as a strawperson argument does not appeal to me:

Too much discussion of the Industrial Revolution is myopic, focused narrowly on a few highlights such as steam and coal.

I'm a very casual reader in this area but this strikes me as at best very outdated. To not get laughed at in coversation, or to be read even for popular audiences, one for a long time has had to acknowledge that the causes and dates of the IR are uncertain and many, and posit something complex and overlooked, certainly not steam and coal. Even the English Wikipedia article more or less reflects this. I'm probably missing something though, so curious what that is or why you took this approach?

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.

I'd enjoy a pointer to that argument. Glancing at I'm not sure which paper it would be. Skimming his powerpoint on the British Industrial Revolution which I'd assume would be somewhat of an overview I see that cheap coal is mentioned -- as a factor in increasing British wages -- and the conclusion about the causes of the IR does not mention steam or coal (though British wages creating incentive to invent are) and are about as diverse and complex as I'd expect (and note the presentation is from 2006, presumably reflecting research from several years prior).

p.s. So that my first comment here does not read soley as a gripe, I'm a fan of progress [studies] and am glad this forum exists, I applaud your intellectual entrepreneurialism.

I think the main statement of Allen's argument is his book The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective. Here's a summary article he wrote: “Why was the Industrial Revolution British?” You could also check out Scott Alexander's review of his book Global Economic History: A Very Short Introduction.

In the first book mentioned above, Allen states: “I do not ignore supply-side developments like the growth of scientific knowledge or the spread of scientific culture. However, I emphasize other factors increasing the supply of technology that have not received their due…” But when his argument gets condensed, the factors other than the ones he focuses on (high wages and cheap energy) tend to get dropped.

As to your first point, I didn't say “all discussion”, just “too much”…