Why didn’t the industrial revolution occur in China in 200BC and not in England in 1780? After all, China knew how to make steel then — for swords and suchlike — and was drilling for natural gas — and lighting city streets with it. Also, China had invented the number “0” — without which science doesn’t get very far — and had started on several sciences, some to an advanced degree already — geology, botany and astronomy, for example.
However, a closer look at China’s ‘industry’ in 200BC reveals that its drilling pipes were made of bamboo. These were fine but couldn’t go down more than a hundred feet before becoming abraded. They couldn’t be replaced with steel pipes — even though the Chinese would have been mechanically capable of making them at the time — because the necessary furnaces and other infrastructure would have required massive investments. China had no banks and no other source of great funds except Emperor Qin. And, genius though he was, he had plenty of other things on his mind at the time — such as how to meld six recently conquered countries into one cohesive Empire which lasted.
In England, the industrial revolution would have fallen flat on its face at around 1830 had not some of the astronomical profits of the textile industry been deflected into steel making. This was absolutely necessary at the time for the making more powerful steam engines to drain deeper coal mines and also, of course, to develop the railways and then steel ships. It was these that enabled the industrial revolution to take a whole step forward — a whole variety of them.
Even Emperor Qin would have been dumbfounded had he realised that his Empire was still going strong more than 2,000 years later. Will China now become a hegemony over the whole world? M’mm . . . it’s doubtful in my view. The remarkable cohesion of Qin’s Empire owes as much to Confucius and his philosophy of deference to authority as to Qin’s innovations. Confucianism doesn’t do much for independent thinking and creativity, and it’s very possible that China will always remain a copying nation rather than an inventive one. And, now that the industrial revolution has become a scientific one, innovation is going to be more necessary than ever before.