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It was the dawn of an age of prosperity and transformed Britain into an economic superpower but our rose-tinted view of the industrial revolution masks another side of its legacy, a new history suggests.

The textbook view of the industrial revolution is that it caused great misery for many people in its early stages, but improved society immeasurably in the long term.

Professor Tony Wrigley

Writing in a new book, the eminent University of Cambridge economic historian, Professor Tony Wrigley, argues that the period needs to be reassessed - as one which has also created dangers as striking as the benefits it brought about.

Energy and the English Industrial Revolution, which is launched this week, suggests that the era not only stimulated unprecedented progress and growth, but opened a "Pandora's Box" of hazards.

While new wealth was created and entire populations lifted out of poverty, the nature of economies also changed dramatically - from forms that were naturally self-limiting, to models which involve plundering finite natural resources without heeding the attendant dangers.

"The textbook view of the industrial revolution is that it caused great misery for many people in its early stages, but improved society immeasurably in the long term," Professor Wrigley said.

"But it was also the point at which society ceased to depend on the land, which can produce indefinitely, and moved to dependence on energy sources, which could support vastly increased production but were certain to become exhausted."

Most descriptions and analyses of the industrial revolution focus on those features of the British society and economy which enabled it to transform and accelerate growth - the conditions which were conducive to what is sometimes termed "take-off".

By contrast, Professor Wrigley focuses less on how the revolution began, and more on why it did not lose momentum and grind to a halt.

Leading economic thinkers of the age, such as Thomas Malthus and Adam Smith, were convinced that society could not cope with exponential growth. All economies until then had depended on plants as the principal source both of heat energy (burning wood) and mechanical energy (human and animal muscle). Increasing pressure on a limited resource, the land, invariably accompanied economic growth.

As a result, it was widely predicted that any form of industrial growth would quickly reach a point of critical mass, where it could not be sustained any further and would necessarily decelerate.

The reason that this didn't happen during the industrial revolution, the book argues, was thanks to the exploitation of coal - itself the result of plant photosynthesis but over hundreds of millions of years rather than a single year as in 'organic' economies. Once this could be converted into mechanical energy via the steam engine, a previously insuperable barrier to growth was removed.

The fact that this change was not obvious at the time may explain why the term "industrial revolution" did not become common currency until decades after the process had begun. "The man in the street in the 1790s would have been in no doubt that there was a revolution underway in France, but he would have been astonished to learn that he was living through the middle of one in England," Wrigley said.

In the short term, the ability to harness a huge underground resource as a form of energy provided a solution to the self-limitation that had prevented earlier, "organic", economies from growing indefinitely.

But the book argues that the long-term consequences are less clear. A trend was set for exploiting finite resources, such as coal, gas and oil, which ultimately cannot be sustained. For present generations, the lasting legacy of the industrial revolution may therefore be a level of development and size of population which society, and the Earth itself, can no longer support.

"The balance of probability is that society will find ways of securing sources of energy which are not limited in the same way, but the outcome remains uncertain, meanwhile our continued dependence on fossil fuels as an energy source may be pushing us towards a tipping point" Wrigley added.

"This means that while we may have gained massively on the one hand thanks to the advances of the industrial revolution, the dangers we face as a consequence of those events may prove equivalently great."

Energy and the English Industrial Revolution is published by Cambridge University Press.

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