Industrialization was a regional phenomenon, both within countries and across the continents. After England’s early lead, the United States, Belgium, France, and Germany were early industrializers. Belgium’s proximity to Britain was helpful, but the region had a long industrial tradition, beginning with textile production in the Middle Ages. The economic growth of the US during the 19th century was most spectacular, positioning the country well for the world-changing events that transpired in the early 20th century.
France had the most aberrant growth pattern. While its scientists and inventors took the lead in several industries, it lacked the coal resources that helped fuel other early industrializers. Though modern economic growth began in the 18th century, it was tripped up by the 1789 revolution and its aftermath. France suffered a long run of inept governance.
The French government unwittingly slowed the country’s economic development via the Méline tariff: a protectionist measure introduced in 1892. (The tariff was named after French politician Jules Méline.) The tariff raised food prices by more than a quarter, in the process boosting agricultural wages. It had considerable societal impact.
Countries go through a demographic transition during industrialization, from high fertility and mortality to lower rates of both. If a greater proportion of children survive, parents tend to have fewer of them and to invest more in their education. This in turn increases the useful qualities of a country’s people, and thus improve a country’s growth prospects.
Fertility rates rose and primary-school attendance fell in the regions that benefited most from the Méline tariff. Higher farm wages engendered offspring while discouraging parents from sending them to school. Whereas a child on the farm is an extra pair of helping hands, one being educated is less useful to its keepers.
For France, the Méline tariff halted a century-long decline in birth rate and set educational development back 15 years. This helps explain why Britain’s economy – which did not protect agriculture at all at the time – outperformed France in the early 20th century.
Germany was the laggard of the early industrializing countries. A divided polity meant that Germany was poor and backward during the 1st half of the 19th century: predominantly rural and agrarian. Yet, by the eve of the Great War, the unified German Empire had become the dominant industrial nation in Europe. Its ascent in the last half of the 19th century was especially rapid. The country’s extensive railway network and its exploitation of coal in the Ruhr valley were key.