The industrial age of the European continent began in Belgium, where conditions were similarly good to those in England: coal had been mined in the valleys of the Meuse and Sambre since the 13th century, iron processing developed in Charleroi and Liège from the 16th century, and wool spinning in Verviers. In the Flanders cities of Ghent and Bruges, the production of linen cloth flourished, and in Antwerp, the booming centre of maritime trade and commerce, a stock exchange was opened as early as 1531, a model for London and Amsterdam. In addition, the great rivers Meuse and Scheldt facilitated the transport of goods and efficient agriculture provided the large landowners with investment capital.

Belgium was the first place on the continent where one of the revolutionary British steam-powered machines was installed: From 1720 onwards, Thomas Newcomen's steam engine pumped mine water to the surface in a coal mine near Liège. Shortly afterwards, one colliery after another in the area around Mons, Charleroi and Namur introduced steam-powered pumps which enabled greater depths to be explored and industrial-scale coal mining began before the turn of the century.

The economy in Flanders and Wallonia received a powerful boost under French rule from 1794 to 1815: Napoleon abolished the guilds and freedom of trade was introduced. At the same time, customs barriers were removed for the large French market, especially for the coveted coal, which was transported from the region around Mons through a newly built canal to Condé in northern France and on to Paris. In Ghent, the spindles were whirring on the first cotton spinning machine: the entrepreneur Lievens Bauwens had smuggled in a "spinning jenny" from England in 1798 and copied it. With a new canal to Terneuzen in the Scheldt estuary, the city had a direct connection to the sea and developed into the "Flanders Manchester".

A Briton provided the next groundbreaking advance: in 1799, William Cockerill installed the continent's first wool spinning machine in Verviers, after which he set up a machine factory in Liège. A few years later, his son John started iron production very successfully in nearby Seraing on the Sambre. "Cockerill-Sambre" still produces steel today under the umbrella of the "Arcelor-Mittal" group. In 1822, the "Société Générale", the first joint-stock bank, was founded and soon afterwards the Banque de Belgique. Both provided targeted investment capital for the development of industry: Belgium was also a pioneer in finance and played an important role in the development of the Ruhr region in Germany.

The big push began after independence in 1830. Brussels was modernised, and industrial firms settled on the banks of the Senne. Another new canal contributed to this, on which coal ships could travel from Charleroi to the capital and on to Antwerp. The state single-mindedly boosted the economy by expanding the transport routes - the early planning of the railway network proved to be a decisive step. In 1835, a train ran from Brussels to Mechelen - the first section of the long-distance line from Antwerp via the burgeoning industrial cities of Liège and Verviers to Cologne, which was opened in 1843 as the first international railway connection. Before that, the textile cities of Ghent and Bruges had already been connected to the port of Ostend. The first train was hauled by a British locomotive, but in the same year a Belgian locomotive rolled out of the Cockerill workshops in Seraing and soon other locomotive factories were established within the iron industry of Wallonia.

For over a hundred years, a flourishing industrial belt stretched from Mons and Charleroi in the west through the valleys of the Sambre and Meuse to Liège and onwards to near the German border at the small town of Kelmis, where the "Société Vielle Montagne" had begun producing zinc in 1837. In the coal mines, which were largely in the hands of French bankers, production rose steadily, but at the same time the area - especially the "Borinage" in the far west - gained a sad notoriety because of the disastrous working conditions and the miserable wages. The workers fought back in bitter strikes and the region developed into a centre of the early European workers' movement.

Liège and its surroundings, well connected by railway lines and the Meuse with its side (branch?) canals, grew into an industrial metropolis where, in addition to steelworks and machine factories, glass production and arms manufacture boomed. In Verviers, wool weaving continued to flourish, and near Charleroi, the chemist Ernest Solvay founded a factory in 1865 for the production of soda ash, a basic material for artificial fertiliser, glass and soap, using a new process he had developed himself. The chemical group of the same name still exists today. In 1901, hard coal was found in the "Kempenland" in the province of Limburg, and there, too, winding towers grew tall.

In Flanders, however, only Ghent with its cotton and linen production and the ever-expanding overseas port of Antwerp formed industrial nuclei. Industrialisation had created an explosive wealth gap between the Francophone and the Flemish-speaking parts of the young state.