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There has been much discussion and disagreement amongst economists and historians about the causes of the Industrial Revolution(IR). What follows is a new explanation based on an extensive examination of social, scientific and political events from ancient history through to particularly the 100 years preceding the Industrial Revolution.


The Industrial Revolution (IR) marked what was probably the most significant and profound change in human behavior in the history of mankind. To date historians and economists have provided a long list of possible reasons as to why this profound change happened in the mid-1700’s. It is the contention of this article that the real causes become obvious when the history preceding it is viewed from a sociological, political and psychological perspective rather than a purely economic perspective.


That the primary reason The Industrial Revolution occurred in the mid-1700″s was due to a unique set of circumstances that forced the separation of church and state (separation of religion and government). For the first time in history development of scientific thought based on logic and reason was tolerated and allowed to freely flourish, which provided the foundation for the IR.

Reasons Commonly Given:

The reasons commonly given for the IR occurring first in Britain usually include agricultural advancements, new financial institutions, the supply of mineral resources, laws allowing private property, trade and new technologies. This paper will contend that while these factors played a part they were not the fundamental reason for the IR occurring when it did.

History of State/Religion Convergence:

Throughout history, rulers have sought to control what their subjects thought. Claiming to be divine or having the only direct access to the divine was a common theme. Ancient civilizations are full of examples of convergence between rulers and religion.

The most famous are the pharaohs of Ancient Egypt who are often referred to as god-kings. The populace was led to believe that the pharaohs were divine gods and as such were intermediaries between ordinary people and the gods.

Subjects were coerced to believe their pharaohs would continue to lead them in the next life, which is why they built pyramids and later elaborate burial chambers.

The pharaohs ruled through a hierarchical system with themselves at the top then next nobles and priests who helped govern. Below came artisans and skilled workers who spent their entire lives building palaces, temples and tombs. At the bottom were farmers, servants, and slaves. When not farming food they worked as laborers on the Pharaoh’s building projects. Most did so willingly as a form of religious devotion. They believed that if they helped the god-king in life, they would be rewarded after death.

Thus a majority of the population spent a lot of their lives trying to seek favour with their Pharaoh and reward after death. To disobey a Pharaoh would incur harsh punishment. If a person stole so much as an animal hide he could be whipped with 100 lashes and stabbed at the back of his shoulder.

This created both fear and awe of the Pharaohs but also a controlled belief system. Engineering was encouraged for building works but to live in Egyptian society the people had to at least appear to believe their Pharaoh was divine and obey him. Egyptians were made to adhere to tradition and any changes were vigorously opposed. Control by the pharaohs and the elaborate system of religious beliefs left no room for free thinking.

In ancient China, the emperor was considered to be the Son of Heaven and his commands were considered to be sacred edicts not to be disobeyed.

From around 1200 BC onwards there were a number of ruling dynasties in China, which involved worshipping many different gods. There was also a belief that ancestors such as parents and grandparents, became like gods when they died. Each family worshipped its own ancestors.

Later dynasties used the concept of an edict from the gods to legitimize their rule. It was believed the gods decided who would rule China. When natural disasters occurred it was believed that a ruler had lost the edict, which would result in a new dynasty taking over.

Just like in Egypt ancient Chinese society was highly structured. Rites and duties were an integral part an orderly social structure that specified a role for every member of Chinese society, from the highest station to the lowliest. Even the emperor had to observe a long list of official rites and duties in order to “legitimize” his role as the Son of Heaven. As in ancient Egypt, free thinking was totally discouraged.

In ancient Japan, it was customary for every clan to claim it was descendant from gods. The emperor although not perceived a god himself was believed to be in contact with the gods and inspired by them.

The Incas in South America believed their leaders to be a type of god, which encouraged them to build great stone monuments and the famous city of Machu Picchu high in the Andes Mountains in Peru. The Incas called their rulers “Sapa”, which meant “The Only One” and also “Apu”, which meant “Divinity.

Even in Ancient Greece around 400BC where a type of democracy had developed, free thinking was severely punished. Socrates who is often referred to as the father of western philosophy was tried and executed for “corrupting the youth of the city-state and failing to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledged,” when all he had done was question the legitimacy and authority of the many deities in which the Greeks believed. Later his pupil Plato was also jailed for “religious impiety and corruption of youth” when he questioned the taken-for-granted beliefs of the State.

In the early days of the Roman Empire, before the rise of the Caesars, the ruler was considered to be a spiritual figure and ranked higher than the priests. The founder of Rome, Romulus was considered to be a god. Later the Caesars portrayed themselves incarnations of Romulus.

With the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th Century AD, new kingdoms filled the void that was left and this period became known as the Middle Ages. It was to last until the 15th century. It saw the rise of Islam and the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East and was the formative period of the modern Western State. Towards the end of the Middle Ages kings consolidated their power in France, England, and Spain, and set up lasting governing institutions, with uneasy struggles for power with the Catholic Church in Rome. The battle was between the idea that God had granted earthly power to the Kings as “the divine right of kings” but with some spiritual authority to the Pope. Again this struggle for power was sought to instil obedience and stifle freedom of thought amongst the general populace.

Thus throughout history, the purpose of rulers claiming to be divine or having access to divine gods was designed to instil obedience and prevent people from thinking for themselves. In many instances, extreme punishment was administered for any thinking outside what the ruler(s) wanted their subjects to believe. Even in Ancient Greece under a type of democracy free thinking by Socrates and Plato was not tolerated.

It is the contention of this article that the ancient empires right up to the 1600’s remained agricultural based with slow population growth resulting from high birth and death rates. Due to control by rulers and suppression of free thinking The Industrial Revolution was prevented from taking place.

The Challenge to Divine Authority:

In Italy by the 1600’s the Pope as well as being the head of the Church had become one of Italy’s most important rulers.

The Catholic Church held the view that the earth was the centre of the universe and the sun and everything else revolved around the earth. It is easy to see how the church held this misbelief, for everyday sun rises in the East and sets in the West. Any casual observation would suggest that the sun obviously goes around the earth.

In the 1500’s an astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus had postulated that the earth actually revolved around the sun. However, he had no way of proving this and did not publish his findings, possibly for fear of persecution by the Church. However, by the early 1600’s the telescope had been invented.

In Italy Galileo Galilei improved upon this invention and was able to develop a telescope that was some 30 times more powerful than any other that existed. He now had the most powerful telescope in the world for his day. He could for the first time see clearly that not only did the earth revolve around the sun but also the stars were not fixed in their positions. This totally contradicted the teachings of the Church.

For a time Galileo kept his findings to himself, however when a new Pope was elected, whom Galileo felt was more enlightened than his predecessors, he published his findings hoping they would be accepted. Unfortunately, they were not. The Church found Galileo guilty of heresy and sentenced him to house arrest where he remained for the rest of his life. He continued his scientific work while under house arrest and made a large contribution towards the eventual separation of science from philosophy and religion.

Although he was not sentenced to death like Socrates, he suffered greatly by having his life’s work wrongly rejected by the Church and being sentenced to house arrest. However, apart from his discoveries, his most important contribution was that he had laid the foundation for modern science namely by questioning the teachings of the church and introducing rational, logical thought. He went about forming hypotheses then set about proving or disproving them. This was a radical change and different to anything that had preceded it and still remains the basis for scientific investigation in today’s modern world.

The huge importance of Galileo is that for the first time the teachings of “divine authority” had been disputed using rational, provable scientific observation and analysis. This was the starting point for modern free thinking and scientific analysis that ultimately led to The Industrial Revolution. However control by the “divine right of kings” was not easily broken and it would take another 100 years after Galileo’s death for the Industrial Revolution to start in Britain. But before this could happen it was necessary to go through The Age of Reason.

The Age of Reason:

During the later years of Galileo’s life, a major conflict engulfed nearly all of Europe. It was a series of wars that are commonly grouped together and known as the Thirty Year War. This seems to initially have been a conflict between Catholics and Protestants but spread throughout Europe and included various territorial claims by the rulers of different countries. It was a horribly destructive war resulting in widespread death, destruction and spread of diseases throughout Europe. Fed up with the whole thing intellectuals and writers started to question the role of the churches and rulers, which had for centuries caused such havoc in Europe.

For the first time in history, they started to question what their rulers and the churches were really doing. They started to go against tradition and particularly started to question everything and examine things in a scientific way as Galileo had. The Thirty Year War had shown that the teachings of the church and control by various rulers had only resulted in disease, death and destruction.

Galileo had questioned the teachings of the church and introduced rational, logical thought. Others were encouraged by this and followed in his footsteps. The period was to become known as The Age of Enlightenment or The Age of Reason. It involved the removal of restrictions on human thinking that had been imposed by rulers and heads of religions to control their subjects throughout history.

Whilst many great thinkers emerged during this period the Frenchman Rene Descartes summed up the new thinking with his phrase “I Think Therefore I Am”. Thought cannot be separated from me, therefore I exist. I am able to think, therefore I must exist’.

The simple fact of questioning if one exists or not is in itself proof one really does exist. If I am capable of thought then I must exist.

This one seemingly simple statement was the breakthrough that changed human thinking forever and opened the way for the Industrial Revolution, a hundred years later. How could five simple words change the world? Why is this phrase so important?

Well for a start this disarmingly simple phrase embodies a whole myriad of philosophical thought.

Because logic and reason tell me my thoughts (rather than the physical me) exist, I don’t need a church, a god or a monarch, to tell me how to think. I can reason things out for myself. I have freedom of thought. I am free to think clearly without my thinking being controlled by the church, the monarchy or anyone else for that matter.

Descartes shifted the right to determine what is truth from God to Man. Up until this time the churches claimed to hold access to the only real truth, which came from an external authority, namely God. Descartes was now saying no, a rational human being using scientific methods could determine the truth. This was revolutionary and the Church banned Descartes writings. However, the door had been opened for mankind using reason, to think freely for themselves. This provided the basis of modern thinking (whose repercussion are still ongoing).

Man was now free to find his own truth and not be told what to think by the church or monarchy.

This simple phrase became a fundamental element of Western philosophy and forms a foundation for all knowledge. While other knowledge may or may not be true the very act of Descartes doubting his own existence, was actually proof that his thoughts at least, really did exist… I am, my thoughts exist and no one will control how I think.

It is not that Descartes did not believe in God. However, he thought that because God is well-meaning, we could have some faith in the reality our senses provide us with. God has given us our mind and senses and does not want to trick us. However, God wants us to think for ourselves, not blindly follow what the church, monarch or other ruler tells us to believe.

With Descartes providing the basis for free thinking, without any outside influences or restrictions, ‘I will think for myself, no one will tell me how to think’, the basis for The Industrial Revolution had finally been set.

The Industrial Revolution Begins:

Isaac Newton the famous physicist was profoundly influenced by the works of Galileo and Descartes and was able to follow on from them.

As the philosophies from the Age of Enlightenment spread in the late 1600’s, Newton did not have the restrictions on him that his predecessors had been forced to endure. The English Civil War in the 1640’s had created a parliament and lessened the King’s powers. Newton’s Principia published in 1687 formulated the laws of motion and gravitation, which were to dominate scientists’ view of the physical universe for the next three centuries.

On one hand, Galileo gave him the correct relationships between the planets as opposed to the traditional church view and had shown that the universe could be understood through scientific reasoning rather than the ancient divine texts. But the concept of forming hypotheses then set about proving or disproving them through empirical observation was most important. Descartes gave him the philosophy to think clearly without influence from the church or state. In fact, Newton believed that to worship Jesus Christ as God was absolutely wrong.

Newton introduced the concept that for every action there is a corresponding reaction. Thus a force applied to an object in one direction will create a reaction back in the opposite direction. This is extremely important for machinery design. From here the IR took off firstly with inventions in textile manufacture in the 1730’s that enabled mass production that was vastly superior in both efficiency and cost, compared to previous cottage industries. These included John Kay’s flying shuttle, James Hargraves spinning jenny and later Richard Arkwright’s water frame. From there it spread to the invention of the steam engine both for transportation and also to drive manufacturing industries. Then on to glass and papermaking so that it affected nearly every part of people’s lives. With better food and nutrition child death rates fell, lifespans increased and as a result, populations grew rapidly and the Industrial Revolution went into full swing.

The Industrial Revolution (IR) that started in Britain around 1750 marked the greatest change in human activity in all of history. The reasons usually given that it occurred at this time in history have to date been unsatisfactory. This article examines the IR from a new holistic approach taking in the circumstances and beliefs at that time.

This is important because the impact on the world and the future of the human race requires us to come to terms with the reasons for and impact of the IR in over-coming overpopulation and degradation of environments around the world.

By SJ Morris


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