The roots of everything lie much further in the past than we think.
That rule, together with the Universal Law of Unintended Consequences, helps to explain why the Industrial Revolution, the most important episode in modern human history, was dominated by two groups of people – English Nonconformists and Scots.
Let’s begin in 1637 when the Scots Covenanters took umbrage at Charles I’s attempt to impose an Anglican liturgy on all his subjects. They defeated Charles in the Bishops Wars and forced him to recall the English Parliament, in order to raise money for another go at the Scots. The English Members refused to cough up, rebelled, and so escalated the series of conflicts that swept across the British Isles and unseated the king. Fast forward 23 years to the Restoration of the monarchy. Charles II takes revenge by passing a series of acts known as the Clarendon Code. Nonconformists – those who would not acknowledge the Anglican Church as the true faith – could not hold public office, take commissions in the army or navy, attend universities or gather to worship.
This was not the suppression of a marginal group; south of the Border Nonconformism flourished in the Midlands and North of England among respectable and prosperous families. And in response Nonconformists set up their own societies and colleges.
In Scotland, meanwhile, a separate process was leading towards the same rich store of human capital. Here religious dissent was less important than the development of a broad education system. The five Scottish universities were, by the mid-18th century, the equal of any in Europe, with a curriculum that included economics, chemistry, mathematics, philosophy and medicine.
Nonconformism thrived in parts of England where craft industries flourished; the midlands and the north had plentiful coal and metal ores while the south relied on agriculture, commerce and foreign trade. So the iron trade, for example, was dominated by Quakers, and the cotton trade by Unitarians, and by the 1760s Quakers, Baptists and Unitarians in Birmingham, Stourbridge, Bolton, Warrington, Sheffield, Wakefield and elsewhere had acquired generations of artisan experience, combined in many cases with technical education. With access to networks of supporters and investors, artisans had begun to turn into industrial entrepreneurs. Scotland too had access to coal and iron ore and was producing a generation steeped in practice and theoretical knowledge.
In contrast to both Scots and Nonconformists, the mainstream Anglican society that held sway in southern England was educated at grammar schools and the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, where the curriculum – restricted to theology and the classics – was designed to do little more than train clergy.
Before 1770 Britain was a prosperous nation; first made rich on English wool, it had diversified into craft manufacturing, thanks partly to an abundance of coal. Coal was used for making everything from bricks to salt to iron to lime, but the crucial breakthrough came when energy from coal was used to power machines – when heat was converted into motion.
This happened when the ingenuity of the Scots met the artisan-entrepreneurs of Nonconformist England. In practical terms Scotsmen like James Watt, William Murdoch and James Keir went south to forge partnerships with men like Matthew Boulton and John Taylor, and to plug into the huge and growing domestic and overseas markets.
James Watt’s story is typical of this historic marriage. In the 1760s Watt was working in Scotland as an instrument-maker and surveyor. The University of Glasgow asked him to repair a model of an old Newcomen engine.
The engine was inefficient because the piston had to be cooled in every cycle; Watt devised a separate cold condenser which allowed the engine to run hot, making the atmospheric steam engine into a potential tool for industry. But in Scotland in the 1770s Watt could not find the materials or the finances he needed to build his engine; in 1774 he went south to Birmingham where Matthew Boulton provided the money and salesmanship, and John Wilkinson, Presbyterian iron-master, supplied the necessary high-grade iron castings. The first Watt engines were for pumping water out of mines, but in the meantime Lancashire inventors had devised new machines for spinning cotton, hundreds of which could run off a single power source. The spinning jenny, Arkwright’s frame and Crompton’s mule, all invented in the 1760s and 1770s, initially ran off water-wheels. But the marriage of Watt’s engine with cotton-spinning machines, which came in 1789, made the Industrial Revolution permanent.
The Industrial Revolution came when a generation of British artisans harnessed their fascination with practical mechanics to a theoretical understanding of the natural world. What the Scots and English Nonconformists achieved was of vast importance in human history. While it might have come about in other ways, the arrogance and impetuosity of a king and the vengefulness of his son helped to ignite more than one engine of revolution.
• Roger Osborne is the author of Iron, Steam and Money: the Making of the Industrial Revolution published this week by Bodley Head, price £25