Bodley Head, £25 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Iron, Steam & Money: The Making of the Industrial Revolution, By Roger Osborne

An inspirational history of the Industrial Revolution and its vanishing legacy.

Danny Boyle's Olympics opening ceremony reminded the nation not only of the power and money that stemmed from the Industrial Revolution but also of its great cultural impact. It is quite possible that many watching had forgotten we ever had such a thing because most of its traces have been erased from the land, bar a few museums. But for a historian there can hardly be a more fascinating subject.

Reading Iron, Steam and Money, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that we are living in an antipode of those times. Then, Britain was blessed with a dazzling array of serendipitous boons that an inventive people was able to exploit: a good food supply from improved agriculture in a temperate climate and hence a growing population; a relatively tolerant and liberal culture (the Anglican-Nonconformist divide and the restrictive practices of craft guilds were brakes to be circumvented); abundant natural resources from tin, copper, zinc and lead in Cornwall to iron and coal in many locations; above all, the Atlantic position which fostered the cotton trade, with raw cotton from America, processed in Lancashire and sold to India.

There are many heroes in the Industrial Revolution – men and materials – and the book could just as well have been called Kings Cotton and Coal. Osborne relishes the larger-than-life inventors and entrepreneurs such as Arkwright, Crompton, Watt and Trevithick and, in particular, the technical innovations that led to mechanised textile production.

Now, each of Britain's advantages has been cancelled out. Take coal, which seemed so abundant (in 1913, 292 million tons were mined). In February this year, Daw Mill in Warwickshire, the largest of Britain's few remaining deep mines, suffered a catastrophic fire and subsequent closure. This has brought UK Coal to the brink of bankruptcy. Britain is now poor in energy resources.

A good deal of the decline was inevitable but it is still astonishing how British industry surrendered without a whimper. Sir Alex Ferguson once justified his caginess with the media by saying: "Do ICI send an email to another biochemicals company telling them their new discoveries in drugs?" The chemical industry grew up in Lancashire and Cheshire on the back of the textile industry and ICI was once Britain's largest industrial company. Now, Lancashire's greatest remaining industry would seem to be Manchester United. When Sir Alex retired he was given a right-royal send-off; when ICI disappeared in 2008 you had to scour the media for a mention.

Osborne's take on the long decline is that the self-made, Nonconformist, often working-class pioneers succumbed to the aristocratic embrace, sending their children to good schools where they "studied Ovid and Seneca instead of Faraday and Carnot" (the theorist of energy).

This boom-to-bust story has occasioned much historical chauvinism. Back in January, a BBC2 programme goaded a French academic into admitting to France's backwardness at the time when Britain was becoming the workshop of the world.

Given that France has the TGV network, 80 per cent decarbonised electricity generation, jet fighters that regularly outsell ours (not even really ours: Eurofighter is a pan-European collaboration), there's no profit in trying to score points off the French for things we got right 200 years ago and are getting badly wrong now. Which is not to discourage anyone from enjoying and profiting from the inspiring stories in Osborne's meaty and satisfying book.

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Off the wall: the cast of ‘Life in Squares’

Arts and Entertainment

Books And it is whizzpopping!

Arts and Entertainment
Bono throws water at the crowd while the Edge watches as they perform in the band's first concert of their new world tour in Vancouver

MusicThey're running their own restaurants

The main entrance to the BBC headquarters in London
TV & Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Solved after 200 years: the mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army

    Solved after 200 years

    The mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army
    Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

    Robert Fisk on the Turkey conflict

    Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise
    Investigation into wreck of unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden

    Sunken sub

    Investigation underway into wreck of an unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden
    Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes

    Age of the selfie

    Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes
    Not so square: How BBC's Bloomsbury saga is sexing up the period drama

    Not so square

    How Virginia Woolf saga is sexing up the BBC period drama
    Rio Olympics 2016: The seven teenagers still carrying a torch for our Games hopes

    Still carrying the torch

    The seven teenagers given our Olympic hopes
    The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

    The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis...

    ...but history suggests otherwise
    The bald truth: How one author's thinning hair made him a Wayne Rooney sympathiser

    The bald truth

    How thinning hair made me a Wayne Rooney sympathiser
    Froome wins second Tour de France after triumphant ride into Paris with Team Sky

    Tour de France 2015

    Froome rides into Paris to win historic second Tour
    Fifteen years ago, Concorde crashed, and a dream died. Today, the desire to travel faster than the speed of sound is growing once again

    A new beginning for supersonic flight?

    Concorde's successors are in the works 15 years on from the Paris crash
    I would never quit Labour, says Liz Kendall

    I would never quit party, says Liz Kendall

    Latest on the Labour leadership contest
    Froome seals second Tour de France victory

    Never mind Pinot, it’s bubbly for Froome

    Second Tour de France victory all but sealed
    Oh really? How the 'lowest form of wit' makes people brighter and more creative

    The uses of sarcasm

    'Lowest form of wit' actually makes people brighter and more creative
    A magazine editor with no vanity, and lots of flair

    No vanity, but lots of flair

    A tribute to the magazine editor Ingrid Sischy
    Foraging: How the British rediscovered their taste for chasing after wild food

    In praise of foraging

    How the British rediscovered their taste for wild food