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Abstract On the basis of a new series on the consumption of traditional and modern sources of energy between 1820 and 1913, this article addresses the start of modern growth and the great divergence on the world scale. Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, the greater availability of modern energy sources expanded working capacity well beyond the potential of previous agricultural civilizations. Growth of energy consumption rose primarily in western Europe, northern America, and Oceania. As a result, labour productivity rose, leading to an increase in real wages, which was an incentive to replace labour with mechanical engines. The higher energy consumption in these three macro-areas led to global inequality in productive capacity and technology which peaked on the eve of the First World War.