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Published July 2020 | public
Journal Article

The Great Divergence: Why Britain Industrialised First


What drove the precocious industrialisation in Britain was not demand for machines but rather (as Joel Mokyr and his co‐authors have argued) the supply of useful knowledge and the skills needed to put it into practice. They were the force behind early innovation. But they did not act alone. They were reinforced by British institutions, which gave the British economy a century's head start over the rest of Europe and likely too over the rich parts of Asia. The institutions included a uniform fiscal and legal system; an effective means of training apprentices, who had escaped from local guild control; and a parliament that could raise taxes and exercise eminent domain but was at the same time a credible protector of private property. Among other things, these institutions facilitated the transportation of goods such as coal and they were backed up by policies that worked in favour of manufacturing. Together, the institutions and policies generated agglomeration effects that encouraged innovation. The agglomeration effects were more pronounced in western Europe than anywhere else in Eurasia and more developed in Britain than anywhere else.

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© 2020 Economic History Society of Australia and New Zealand and John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd. Version of Record online: 18 February 2020; Manuscript accepted: 22 January 2020; Manuscript received: 20 January 2020.

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