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
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv'The Last Kingdom' embraces politics, religion, warfare, courage, love and loyalty, say creators
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

film
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
News
peopleThe Game of Thrones author said speculation about his health and death was 'offensive'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Arts and Entertainment
All-new couples 'Come Dine With Me'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne
musicReview: BST Hyde Park, London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart star in Almost Royal burning bright productions
tvTV comedy following British ‘aristos’ is accused of mocking the trusting nature of Americans
Arts and Entertainment
Sassoon threw his Military Cross into the Mersey
booksAn early draft of ‘Atrocities’ shows the anti-war sentiment was toned down before publication
Arts and Entertainment
Actors and technicians on the march against changes made by Hollande
theatreOpening performances of the Avignon theatre festival cancelled as actors and technicians walk out
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West performed in a chain mail mask at Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park
Rapper booed at Wireless over bizarre rant
Arts and Entertainment

They're back, they're big – and they're still spectacularly boring

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
    Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

    Hollywood targets Asian audiences

    The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

    Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
    Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

    Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

    Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
    10 best girls' summer dresses

    Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

    Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
    Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

    Westminster’s dark secret

    Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
    Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

    Naked censorship?

    The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
    Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil