The Industrial Revolution on the Europe Continent

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Updated on Feb 3, 2012

The Industrial Revolution on the Europe Continent

The European continent lagged behind Britain in industrial development for several reasons. First, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars had caused a major upheaval in France, Austria, Spain, and Russia; no nation can pay much attention to its domestic economy when it is embroiled in war. Second, the European powers distrusted one another; the Congress of Vienna did not do away with important political and territorial rivalries. Third, tariffs restricted free trade among European nations; this in turn restricted markets for goods. Last, the men of Britain’s thriving mercantile middle class had a certain amount of political influence because they could vote for their representatives in the House of Commons. Representative governments like this were still very rare on the European continent; hence the continental middle class, which sup- ported industrialization, had much less power and influence.

The Industrial Revolution on the continent began in Belgium. This small nation at the northeastern corner of France was, like Britain, rich in the coal that was necessary for industrialization. Geographically, Belgium and Britain were separated only by the narrow band of the English Channel, and British production techniques found their way across with relative ease, despite British attempts to keep their mechanical secrets for their own profit. The Cockerill family settled in Belgium around 1800 and began to build spinning equipment and machinery. By 1830 they had created a major manufacturing industry. Naturally, their success inspired imitators, and Belgium soon had a thriving economy.

From Belgium, industry slowly spread throughout Europe. National borders shifted throughout the nineteenth century, so industrial development is best thought of in regional rather than national terms. Industrialization depended largely on the location of natural resources. Technologies were changed in areas where the resources did not match the British model. For example, the Mediterranean region was not rich in coal; therefore, French and Italian factories tended to rely on waterwheels and water turbines. Additionally, the sheep of southeastern Europe were not the same types that thrived in Britain. Their wool had a finer texture and could not be spun and woven on the same kind of equipment used in the British mills. The engineers of Spain and France showed their ingenuity by modifying the machinery to suit the needs of their raw materials.

The railway was also slower to develop in Europe than in Britain. By 1848, however, several major railways crisscrossed Europe, particularly in Germany, northern France, and Austria. By 1870, most of the continent—even the less accessible regions such as southern Italy—was linked by railways. It was possible to travel all the way to Russia by train.

The governments of Europe had originally hoped that extending the rail- ways would bring industrialization to areas that were less far along technologically. By midcentury, they had become well aware of the enormous profits to be made in mass production of goods. However, the railway proved an ineffective means of stimulating industry; its greatest usefulness was in linking the areas that were already industrialized, which was a great aid in shipping and international trade.

By 1860, Britain’s industry was entirely modernized. On the continent, Belgium, France, and Switzerland had made the most progress toward mass production. However, things would change in the second half of the century. Generally speaking, the nations of northern central Europe had the most industrialized economies and those in southeastern Europe the least, with Spain, France, and Italy occupying a position somewhere in between.

Industry affected the German economy more than that of any other nation. By the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Germany had surpassed the rest of continental Europe in production. In 1890, Britain had produced twice as much steel and mined twice as much coal as Germany; by 1914, Germany’s output of both coal and steel was double the British amount.

Industries differed in different nations depending on their manufacturing traditions and on the raw materials available to them. Major coal-mining industries sprang up in central France, in Belgium, and near the major cities of Krakow, Leipzig, Hanover, and Vienna. In Italy, Milan was a major center for textile production and engineering.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

The Industrial Revolution in Europe Practice Test

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