The industrial revolution in Europe didn't happen overnight but only spread over the continent very gradually. One of the triggers was the unusually high growth in the population which set in around the middle of the 18th century and produced a gigantic reservoir of workers. At the same time new, more efficient methods of production became necessary in order to supply the basic needs of so many people. In this situation Great Britain enjoyed three important advantages: an extremely productive and profitable agricultural system, large deposits of the key ressources coal and iron ore, and an astonishing number of creative inventors. This was why the United Kingdom dictated the rhythm of progress to the rest of Europe from 1750 onwards for the next century or so.

The first spinning frames were created on the British Isles. These were followed by mechanical weaving looms, and it was not long before textile factories were shooting out of the ground. At the same time a boom in the iron industry broke out. As soon as people discovered how to turn coal into coke iron manufacturers had excellent, almost unlimited reserves of fuel at their disposal with which to process iron ore. Once steam engines were introduced to heat the furnace ovens more quickly and effectively, the skylines in the coal regions were quickly covered in colliery towers and the chimney stacks of iron works.

Workers poured into the new industrial centres and in a few years villages exploded into major cities: here the masses were forced to live under appalling conditions in crowded slums and damp cellars. Working hours were around 14 hours a day and the workers were slaves to the rhythm of the machines. Women were expected to work just as hard for less pay, especially in the collieries and textile factories. Children too were unscrupulously exploited. The workers lived in constant fear of unemployment and hunger. Their desperation often exploded into bloody acts of rebellion. Machine-breakers tried in vain to put a brake on developments, but the new inventions fitted together like cogs in a wheel. Improved steel production led to more rails with which to transport steel steam locomotives drawing wagons full of coke and steel.

France was a major industrial competitor on an equal level with Great Britain. As early as the 18th century, supplies of cotton to the textile factories rose five times as quickly as in the British Isles. French manufacturers concentrated on finished products. These were often luxury goods like woven silk, china and leather goods. Such traditional trades were the first to be mechanised and this explains why the first major strikes happened in the silk-processing industries. Skilled workers in Lyons took industrial action in the 1830s to force the introduction of minimum wages. Since France has relatively few resources of coal and iron, collieries and ironworks only began to appear in the middle of the 19th century to cater for the growing railway industry. Slowly but surely the focus of employment began to switch from the agrarian sector to industrial production.

The industrial revolution in Europe had very different features. Belgium, one of the first industrialised countries, was able to draw on rich resources of iron ore and coal and a strong tradition of textile manufacturing. For this reason industrial development ran along similar lines to that in Great Britain. In Switzerland too, structural development developed at a relatively early stage but in a completely different manner. Here people compensated for the lack of raw materials by specialising in niche products from silk weaving, cotton processing and engineering, including clock-making. By contrast, although the countries on the edge of the continent – Spain, Greece and the Balkan countries – were able to increase their exports of agrarian products and raw materials, they continued to lag behind in industrial production for many years.

In Germany new methods of production developed very late because the country was divided up into so many small states. Nevertheless after the customs union of 1834 productive heavy industries developed in the mining regions of upper Silesia, in the Saarland and the Ruhrgebiet. At the same time the building of the railways gave a decisive boost to expanding steel production and mechanical engineering. Thanks to their high reserves of capital and high standards of training, German businesses were able to take over a leading role in the new chemical and electro-technical industries in the second phase of industrialisation towards the end of the 19th century. All these developments were paralleled by stronger workers' organisations. The first working-class political party was set up in 1863 in Germany; this was followed by the SPD in 1869. It was not until 1906 that the British Labour Party was founded.

At the same time governments began to relax their control of workers' organisations. Even when strikes still led to bloody conflicts with government authorities, trades unions were legally allowed in many countries. Some of these were Marxist orientated others demanded fundamental social reforms. Around the turn of the 20th century a wave of strikes befell the major industrial countries. The first large-scale organised workers movements were successful in demanding higher wages, and demands for a twelve-hour working day were soon followed by demands for a ten-hour day.

The first improvements in working conditions occurred after a law was introduced in 1842 to restrict child labour and women's work in Great Britain. France and Prussia followed. In order to damp down social conflicts the German government introduced sickness, accident and old age insurance for workers in the 1880s. But at the same time the tempo of mechanised work increased, and in many industrial countries thousands of people continued to live in overpopulated slums with catastrophic hygienic conditions.

The industrial age in the Netherlands only really began around 1860. The country was not only covered in waterways it possessed very little natural resources. These two factors made it very difficult to build up heavy industry and construct railway connections. For this reason businesses tended to concentrate on developing pre-industrial trades. It was primarily the processing of agricultural products like milk and meat which laid down the basis for future mechanisation. Finally, around the end of the 19th century, major concerns were created in the new industrial areas of electro-technology and chemistry. Dutch and Danish farmers developed new forms of marketing. Organised along cooperative lines, they were able to market their agrarian products over ever greater distances: at the same time individual producers remained lords and masters of their own particular area of land.