The industrialisation of the Netherlands did not simultaneously result in smoking chimneystacks as in Britain, Belgium and Germany. In the mid 18th century Amsterdam was still a wealthy trade and finance centre, farmers lived from potatoes, flowers and cheese, whilst trades like shipbuilding and fishing were in decline. The old textile region around Leiden, Delft and Haarlem went through a heavy crisis in particular. For only highly specialised branches like silk-weaving were able to hold their own against the competition from the machine-driven textile mills of Great Britain.

The new technologies from Britain spread very slowly. The Netherlands had long since developed a sophisticated technology of hydraulic engineering to prevent dykes and canals from flooding the adjoining land and to win back land from the sea. The pumps were traditionally driven by windmills, sometimes by a whole series of windmills in succession. It was not until the mid 19th century that the Dutch began to turn to steam power. This was particularly impressive in the case of the reclamation of the Haarlem Sea where a pump was equipped with the largest steam cylinder of its age manufactured by an iron foundry in Cornwall.

Slowly but surely industrialisation began to set in after 1860. New textile mills were built in North Brabant - here not without considerable influence from the neighbouring country of Belgium which was considerably more advanced at the time - and in the region of Twente. Amsterdam harbour was linked directly to the North Sea by means of a new canal. For its part Rotterdam received the so-called "Nieuwe Waterweg", enabling it to set up a profitable trading route with the ironworks and collieries in the Ruhrgebiet. Because of the huge network of waterways in Holland railway building was a less profitable form of enterprise and people preferred to continue to transport their goods by water.

Around the end of the 19th century collieries were sunk in South Limburg, the most southern tip of the country. But notwithstanding heavy industry remained a peripheral phenomenon. Coal and steel were correspondingly expensive. The upshot was that mechanisation only increased slowly. Instead of that the Dutch preferred to process agrarian goods. They built new distilleries and breweries, produced sugar and margarine and exported butter, cheese and pork to Great Britain. Small firms grew up around the processing of special products and these have now expanded to the status of global businesses. "Bataafsche Petroleum Maatschapij" from Rotterdam, which once processed oil from the colonies, is now called Royal Dutch/Shell. The chemical and pharmaceutical firm Akzo Nobel was created from a fusion of the Groningen paint manufacturers Sikkens, the artificial silk maker Enka and other businesses. And Philips in Eindhoven was originally a light bulb factory.