An Age of Empire
The time period from the beginning of the Industrial revolution in Britain in the 1740’s to the beginning of World War 1 in 1914 saw the dramatic rise of western European nations as the rulers of most of the planet. Before the industrial revolution took place in Western European and Euro-American society these nations represented powerful economies and militaries, but their power was relative to their size and reach. They were actually dwarfed economically by huge East Asian nations with more people and more sophisticated economies. (Some historians argue that the European nations did not begin overtaking China until the 1760's or later.)
However, by 1914, the only nations fully independent of the control of Western or Japanese control in the old world were Ethiopia (Ethiopia would later be conquered by Italy in the 1930s) in Africa, a rump Persian state in Iran, and Siam in southeast Asia. Iran continued to exist because it was a buffer between British India and Russia; Siam continued to exist because it was a buffer between British Burma and French Indochina. China was split into economic spheres of influence, even the Latin American countries in the west were practically protectorates of the USA, who willingly interfered whenever they felt like it in Latin American affairs, including occupying several Latin American countries.
What lead these nations, Britain, France, the USA, Germany and Italy after they united, and eventually Russia and Japan to such great power? The answer lies in industrialization: forging an Industrial society gave these nations the means to out produce their potential or actual rivals. Consider the ramifications of higher productive output; more food will be grown on farms because of better methods, which means a larger population can be supported; more goods can be produced and sold on the international market, leading to a concentration of capital in the industrialized nation; of course more production also means more weapons, ships, bullets, guns, and artillery too, and with the ability of an industrial society to roll much higher quality steel, better ships and weapons as well. How can a society which builds it weapons in a blacksmith's shop compete with one which builds it's weapons in a factory, pumping out more per hour than the blacksmith can build in a week?
So why did Western Europe and the United states beat everyone to the punch on industrialization? Well, it was really Britain that got their first and held a monopoly on it for nearly fifty years: however, physical proximity as well as cultural ties between Britain with the US, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands led to a sort of bleeding out of industrial methods, machines, and ideas. This happened extensively especially with the US, which was the leader in many industrial areas such as interchangeable parts (first perfected as a way to build muskets and rifles) and agricultural machines (such as the cotton gin.)
So now the question becomes: Why did Britain industrialize in the first place? The answer is surprising and sort of funny actually. In the early part of the 18th century, Britain had managed to gain a strong foothold in India through trade. India was one of the world’s largest producers of cotton and textiles, so the British clothing market had a surge of textiles from foreign sources, which badly undercut the indigenous British wool market. After those in the wool industry in Britain made a stink about it to the British government the Calico acts were passed, which banned imported textiles.
Unfortunately for the British wool industry, cotton just happens to be a more pleasant material to wear than wool. (It's sort of an ironic twist of fate, but also a good argument for Laissez-faire capitalists...) So native Britons began learning to spin and weave cotton themselves, and to facilitate this long and costly process, they invented machines such as the Shuttle and the “mule.” These inventions caused thread to be made faster than it could be weaved into textiles, which stimulated better machines, this time run on steam to weave even faster. This was the basis for industrialization in Britain, the textiles industry; inventions in this area made people in other budding industries realize that inanimate energy could be harnessed to do work, leading to better steel, which lead to better ships, weapons and eventually the cornerstone of industrialization: railroads, which allowed the quick transport of goods, men, material, soldiers or anything else across vast distances in no time at all.
To add to all this, the nations of europe were very economically competitive with each-other as well, so besides trying to make a profit or defend themselves, they were also constantly striving to outproduce and outperform the other Industrialized European nations. Compare this to China, as an example; China was the dominant power in it's region, it remained dominant even without requiring industrialization, in a way the despotic empires of the east such as The Ottomans, Safavids (Persia) Mughals (India) and Chinese ended up behind the curve precisely because they did so well before that they had already eliminated their rivals.
The advantage in technology should not be underestimated. Not only were European and Euro-American weapons better, they were far more advanced. For example, Chinese gunmakers built excellent matchlock muskets and repeating crossbows that performed very well, in artisanal smithy's all over China; European nations produced rifles that could fire twice as far and minie balls that could be loaded twice as fast as a regular musket. They also had distinct economic advantages as well and managed to dump tons of manufactured goods into the nations which were not able to produce them, which lead to even more concentration capital and therefore more capability to invest even more heavily in industrialization. This allowed them to dominate even vast areas like China with large populations and a strong cultural tradition; and areas like, with huge populations and a strong martial tradition. In fact, when the British first started fighting Mughal armies they thought of them as a joke. Their weapons and methods of producing them were still stuck in the (British) 1600's.
This concentration of economic and military power is what lead to the empires of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but the competition, paranoia, and nationalism that this concentration of power engendered also lead to the war that would ultimately destroy European power for good: WWI.
Sid Kemp from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach) on April 27, 2013:
This is a very interesting take on the relationship among international politics, economics, trade, and industry. I'd like to see more on the difference between the first industrial revolution (the harnessing of machine power for repetitive tasks and early locomotion) and the second industrial revolution (the development of variable-control feedback systems to manage power), and also the effect of the American development of machinery with truly replaceable parts.
Voted up and interesting. Excellent illustrations.