From a medium-sized market town Birmingham grew to international prominence at the heart of the Midlands Enlightenment and subsequent Industrial Revolution, which saw the city at the forefront of worldwide advances in science, technology, and economic development, laying many of the foundations of modern industrial society. By 1791 Birmingham was being hailed as "the first manufacturing town in the world". Birmingham's distinctive economic profile, with thousands of small workshops practising a wide variety of specialised and highly skilled trades, encouraged exceptional levels of creativity and innovation and provided a diverse and resilient economic base for industrial prosperity that was to last into the final quarter of the 20th century.
Perhaps the most important invention in British history, the industrial steam engine, was invented in Birmingham. The resulting high level of social mobility also fostered a culture of broad-based political radicalism, which was to give it a political influence unparalleled in Britain outside London, and a pivotal role in the development of British democracy. From the summer of 1940 to the spring of 1943, Birmingham was bombed heavily by the German Luftwaffe in what is known as the Birmingham Blitz. The damage done to the city's infrastructure, in addition to a deliberate policy of demolition and new building by Birmingham’s planners, led to extensive urban regeneration in subsequent decades.
Birmingham's modern-day economy is dominated by the service sector. The city is a major international commercial centre and an important transport, retail, events and conference hub. Its metropolitan economy is the second largest in the United Kingdom and its six universities make it the largest centre of higher education in the country outside London. Birmingham's major cultural institutions – including the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the Birmingham Royal Ballet, the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, the Library of Birmingham and the Barber Institute of Fine Arts – enjoy international reputations and the city has vibrant and influential grassroots art, music, literary and culinary scenes.