Explaining the Industrial Revolution
Since we know presently that the development
of commercial expansion took place in a variety of locales across
Eurasia between 1500 and 1800, we no longer can assert that the
Industrial Revolution emerged in Europe because of developments
taking place in previous centuries when the same changes also took
place in parts of East and South Asia.
Europe's uniqueness in developing the Industrial Revolution cannot
be attributed simply to the commercial dynamics that preceded it.
This then presents the challenge of explaining the Industrial Revolution.
Now that obviously isn't the main task of those of us who work on
East Asia, but it does reframe for our colleagues who work on Europe
the great importance of explaining an unusual and surprising set
of events, namely, the development of a set of technologies and
organizations that allowed much higher levels of economic productivity
than the world had ever known. And those developments that began
sometime in the late eighteenth century and continued to increase
in numbers and significance into the nineteenth century are an important
story, an important set of developments, which we have to recognize
as being distinctly European.
Now our recognition that these developments were European also allows us to recognize that Europe's dominance in a global sense, economically and politically, did not in fact begin with the initial expansion of maritime exploration of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries—as maintained in the traditional narrative of European expansion defining world history.
|Map showing Magellan's route from Spain to Peru and around the world c. 1544.
Library of Congress, Geography and Maps Division
The importance of European exploration has been exaggerated because we previously thought that Europeans were the source of all the economic dynamism in the world. In fact, now that we have established that they weren't, we realize that Europe's economy was not superior to that of other parts of the world until a very late date, beginning basically with the Industrial Revolution.
Read Lynda Shaffer's article "China, Technology, and Change," from the World History Bulletin.