While western Europe as a whole had enjoyed an upsurge in inventive activity since the Middle Ages (Mokyr, 1990: 31–56), Britain assumed the technological leadership during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in specific, but economically important, industries and processes – primarily cotton textiles and the heavy industry network of coal, iron, and steam power. Why was it in Britain, a country previously on the periphery of European technical progress, that the technological changes characteristic of the Industrial Revolution were made? The questions of technological creativity and economic development are rife with nationalistic undertones, and as long as we imagine that Britain had become a peculiarly inventive society, this paradox cannot be resolved. For a more critical perspective on British exceptionalism this chapter approaches the debate through a recognition of the specificities of the sites of technological change during European and American industrialisation (Inkster, 1996: 41–9).
The flowering of technological change in the Industrial Revolution had deep roots which led back, through several centuries, to medieval sources that were only partly British. Indeed, two separate streams of technological progress were converging. One was a pan-European stream, of which different parts of Europe assumed the leadership at different times and in different industries. The other, based on the technologies of coal extraction and use, was more distinctly British – until, in the mid-nineteenth century, it was diverted to encompass continental Europe and North America.