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
Loading individual letters on to an original Heidelberg printing press
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
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.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'