Coal and the industrial revolution


Jason Collins


December 2, 2010

In a recent discussion as part of the Cato Unbound series, Matt Ridley suggested that we shouldn’t forget the Materialist explanation for the industrial revolution. The difference between the British and other bursts of economic activity, such as that of Ancient Greece, is that the British event did not peter out. The reason for that, says Ridley, is coal.

On one hand, this explanation feels like a Jared Diamond style geographic explanation, although in a more modern era. However, I am not convinced that the availability of coal is a unique enough circumstance to explain why the industrial revolution happened when and where it did. Why did the industrial revolution not occur during the Roman occupation of Britain,? Coal is also plentiful in China, with Marco Polo reporting to astonished European audiences on the flammable black rocks used by the Chinese. Why did coal not propel technologically advanced China into an industrial age? There are  also many readily accessible coal deposits in North America (although in the North American case, the Diamond geographic argument  and the need to reach a level of technology necessary to exploit the resource appears convincing).

I agree with Ridley’s point that coal contributed to the wealth and pace of the industrial revolution. However, given that the United Kingdom is not unique in having accessible coal deposits, acknowledging the role of coal  does not answer the interesting question of why the industrial revolution occurred where and when it did. To tie coal into that question, why did the British people reach a degree of technological advancement and industry that they were able to use resources like coal to propel themselves and the rest of the world into an industrial age?