Do studies of individual industries suggest that Britain was lagging behind the U.S before 1914?
Propelled into economic hegemony and power by the Industrial Revolution that occurred
in the beginning of the 19th century, Britain would maintain its hold over the global economy
until the rise of effective foreign competition in the 1860s, predominantly in the form of the
United States. This new industrial rival would emerge to successfully confront all aspects of
British industry, increasingly not only abroad but also at home. Indeed, Britain's share of the
world market in manufactures would fall from 41.4% in the early 1880s to 27% in 1913, with
Britain's growth rate, manufacturing output, share of total world exports, and GDP per capita all
declining relative to the U.S during this period as well (McCloskey 1981: 175). Accustomed to
looking upon itself as the "Workshop of the world", Britain would see many other ominous and
unwelcome signs of change in in the decades leading up to World War I. While an examination
of industries on an individual basis does reveal some superior aspects of the British industrial
sector in the pre-WWI era, I contend that on a whole this analysis only confirms the notion that
Britain lagged behind the United States. In addition, I offer several theories to account for the
relative decline of Britain and rise of the U.S in these specific industries.
By 1870, Britain had assumed a commanding technological and competitive lead in the
realm of world iron and steel production. In this year, the British share of world pig iron tonnage
output hovered around 50%, 37% for wrought iron, and 43% of world tonnage output for steel.
Britain imported only 8% of home consumption for iron and steel (Elbaum & Lazonick 1986:
51-54). Britain, however, would experience major shifts in its share of world output as
competition from the U.S and others became prevalent, eventually ceding its dominance to its
North American rival. In 1913, the United States produced over 40% of the world's output of
both iron and steel, compared with Britain's 10% (E & L 1986: 51). Additionally, British imports
for home consumption would rise to approximately 29% for iron and steel (Pollard 1989: 27).
Britain would be overtaken by the USA in terms of tonnage of steel produced in 1886 and in
terms of tonnage per head of population in 1899 (Pollard 1989: 29). Thus, Britain's iron and steel
industry had been decisively surpassed by the U.S in the decades leading up to the First World
To some extent, the diminution of British iron and steel industry on the world markets
was to be expected given that this period (1870-1913) coincided with the zenith of the U.S'
process of industrialization. The increase in railway construction as a result of heavy
industrialization would call for a great deal more production of iron and steel in the U.S. Yet it
became increasingly apparent by 1913 that the decline in the UK's share of this industry was a
result of its lagging behind in technological innovation. While the British had invented or