Global history has centred for a long time on the comparative economic successes and failures of different parts of the world, most often European versus Asian regions. There is general agreement that the balance changed definitively in the latter part of the eighteenth century, when in continental Europe and England a transformation began that revolutionized the power relations of the world and brought an end to the dominance of agrarian civilization. However, there is still widespread debate over why Europe and England industrialized first, rather than Asia. This article will propose an explanation that will shed new light on Europe’s and England’s triumph, by showing that the ‘water system’ factor is a crucial piece missing in existing historical accounts of the Industrial Revolution. It is argued that this great transformation was not only about modernizing elites, investment capital, technological innovation, and unequal trade relations, but that a balanced, inclusive explanation also needs to consider similarities and differences in how countries and regions related to their particular water systems, and in how they could exploit them for transport and the production of power for machines.