Welcome to my weekly newsletter, Age of Invention, on the causes of the British Industrial Revolution and the history of innovation. You can subscribe here: Why was the steam engine invented in England? An awful lot hinges on this question, because the answer often depends on our broader theories of what caused the British Industrial Revolution as a whole. And while I never tire of saying that Britain’s acceleration of innovation was about much, much more than just the “poster boy” industries of cotton, iron, and coal, the economy’s transition to burning fossil fuels was still an unprecedented and remarkable event. Before the rise of coal, land traditionally had to be devoted to either fuel, food, or clothing: typically forest for firewood, fields for grain, and pastures for wool-bearing sheep. By 1800, however, English coal was providing fuel each year equivalent to 11 million acres of forest — an area that would have taken up a third of the country’s entire surface area, and which was many times larger than its actual forest. By digging downward for coal, Britain effectively increased its breadth.
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