Industrial revolution in modern history is the process of change from an agrarian and handicraft economy to one dominated by industry and machine manufacturing. These technological changes introduced novel ways of working and living and fundamentally transformed society.
This process began in Britain in the 18th century and from there spread to other parts of the world. Although used earlier by French writers, the term Industrial Revolution was first popularized by the English economic historian Arnold Toynbee (1852–83) to describe Britain’s economic development from 1760 to 1840.
Since Toynbee’s time the term has been more broadly applied as a process of economic transformation than as a period of time in a particular setting. This explains why some areas, such as China and India, did not begin their first industrial revolutions until the 20th century, while others, such as the United States and Western Europe, began undergoing “second” industrial revolutions by the late 19th century.
Characteristics of the Industrial Revolution
The main features involved in the Industrial Revolution were:
- Socioeconomic and cultural.
The technological changes included the following:
- The use of new basic materials, chiefly iron and steel,
- The use of new energy sources, including both fuels and motive power, such as coal, the steam engine, electricity, petroleum, and the internal-combustion engine,
- The invention of new machines, such as the spinning jenny and the power loom that permitted increased production with a smaller expenditure of human energy,
- A new organization of work known as the factory system, which entailed increased division of labor and specialization of function,
- Important developments in transportation and communication, including the steam locomotive, steamship, automobile, airplane, telegraph, and radio,
- The increasing application of science to industry. These technological changes made possible a tremendously increased use of natural resources and the mass production of manufactured goods.
Socioeconomic and cultural.
There were also many new developments in nonindustrial spheres, including the following:
- Agricultural improvements that made possible the provision of food for a larger nonagricultural population,
- Economic changes that resulted in a wider distribution of wealth, the decline of land as a source of wealth in the face of rising industrial production, and increased international trade,
- Political changes reflecting the shift in economic power, as well as new state policies corresponding to the needs of an industrialized society,
- Sweeping social changes, including the growth of cities, the development of working-class movements, and the emergence of new patterns of authority, and
- Cultural transformations of a broad order. Workers acquired new and distinctive skills, and their relation to their tasks shifted; instead of being craftsmen working with hand tools, they became machine operators, subject to factory discipline. Finally, there was a psychological change: confidence in the ability to use resources and to master nature was heightened.
The first Industrial Revolution
At one time, humans, fueled by the animals and plants they ate and the wood they burned, or aided by their domesticated animals, provided most of the energy in use. Windmills and waterwheels captured some extra energy, but there was little in reserve. All life operated within the fairly immediate flow of energy from the Sun to Earth.
Everything changed during the Industrial Revolution, which began around 1750. People found an extra source of energy with an incredible capacity for work. That source was fossil fuels — coal, oil, and natural gas, though coal led the way — formed underground from the remains of plants and animals from much earlier geologic times. When these fuels were burned, they released energy, originally from the Sun, which had been stored for hundreds of millions of years.
Coal was formed when huge trees from the Carboniferous period (345– 280 million years ago) fell and were covered with water, so that oxygen and bacteria could not decay them. Instead, the pressure of the weight of materials above them compressed them into dark, carbonic, ignitable rock.
Most of the Earth’s oil and gas formed over a hundred million years ago from tiny animal skeletons and plant matter that fell to the bottom of seas or were buried in sediment. This organic matter was compacted by the weight of water and soil. Coal, oil, and gas, despite their relative abundance, are not evenly distributed on Earth; some places have much more than others, due to geographic factors and the diverse ecosystems that existed long ago.
Early Steam Engines
The story of the Industrial Revolution begins on the small island of Great Britain. By the early 18th century, people there had used up most of their trees for building houses and ships and for cooking and heating. In their search for something else to burn, they turned to the hunks of black stone (coal) that they found near the surface of the earth. Soon they were digging deeper to mine it. Their coal mines filled with water that needed to be removed; horses pulling up bucket fuels proved slow going.
To the rescue came James Watt (1736–1819), a Scottish instrument-maker who in 1776 designed an engine in which burning coal produced steam, which drove a piston assisted by a partial vacuum. (There had been earlier steam engines in Britain, and also in China and in Turkey, where one was used to turn the spit that roasts a lamb over a fire.).
Its first application was to more quickly and efficiently pump water out of coal mines, to better allow for extraction of the natural resource, but Watt’s engine worked well enough to be put to other uses; he became a wealthy man. After his patent ran out in 1800, others improved upon his engine. By 1900 engines burned 10 times more efficiently than they had a hundred years before.
At the outset of the 19th century, British colonies in North America were producing lots of cotton, using machines to spin the cotton thread on spindles and to weave it into cloth on looms. When they attached a steam engine to these machines, they could easily outproduce India, up until then the world’s leading producer of cotton cloth. One steam engine could power many spindles and looms. This meant that people had to leave their homes and work together in factories.
Early in the 19th century the British also invented steam locomotives and steamships, which revolutionized travel. In 1851 they held the first world’s fair, at which they exhibited telegraphs, sewing machines, revolvers, reaping machines, and steam hammers to demonstrate they that were the world’s leading manufacturer of machinery. By this time the characteristics of industrial society smoke rising from factories, bigger cities and denser populations, railroads could be seen in many places in Britain.
In the period 1760 to 1830 the Industrial Revolution was largely confined to Britain. Aware of their head start, the British forbade the export of machinery, skilled workers, and manufacturing techniques. The British monopoly could not last forever, especially since some Britons saw profitable industrial opportunities abroad, while continental European businessmen sought to lure British know-how to their countries.
Two Englishmen, William and John Cockerill, brought the Industrial Revolution to Belgium by developing machine shops at Liège (c. 1807), and Belgium became the first country in continental Europe to be transformed economically. Like its British progenitor, the Belgian Industrial Revolution centered in iron, coal, and textiles.
France was more slowly and less thoroughly industrialized than either Britain or Belgium. While Britain was establishing its industrial leadership, France was immersed in its Revolution, and the uncertain political situation discouraged large investments in industrial innovations. By 1848 France had become an industrial power, but, despite great growth under the Second Empire, it remained behind Britain.
Other European countries lagged far behind. Their bourgeoisie lacked the wealth, power, and opportunities of their British, French, and Belgian counterparts. Political conditions in the other nations also hindered industrial expansion.
Germany, for example, despite vast resources of coal and iron, did not begin its industrial expansion until after national unity was achieved in 1870. Once begun, Germany’s industrial production grew so rapidly that by the turn of the century that nation was out producing Britain in steel and had become the world leader in the chemical industries. The rise of U.S. industrial power in the 19th and 20th centuries also far outstripped European efforts. And Japan too joined the Industrial Revolution with striking success.
The eastern European countries were behind early in the 20th century. It was not until the five-year plans that the Soviet Union became a major industrial power, telescoping into a few decades the industrialization that had taken a century and a half in Britain. The mid-20th century witnessed the spread of the Industrial Revolution into hitherto nonindustrial zed areas such as China and India.
The technological and economic aspects of the Industrial Revolution brought about significant sociocultural changes. In its initial stages it seemed to deepen laborers’ poverty and misery. Their employment and subsistence became dependent on costly means of production that few people could afford to own.
Job security was lacking: workers were frequently displaced by technological improvements and a large labor pool. Lack of worker protections and regulations meant long work hours for miserable wages, living in unsanitary tenements, and exploitation and abuse in the workplace. But even as problems arose, so too did new ideas that aimed to address them.
These ideas pushed innovations and regulations that provided people with more material conveniences while also enabling them to produce more, travel faster, and communicate more rapidly.
The second Industrial Revolution
Despite considerable overlapping with the “old,” there was mounting evidence for a “new” Industrial Revolution in the late 19th and 20th centuries. In terms of basic materials, modern industry began to exploit many natural and synthetic resources not hitherto utilized: lighter metals, rare earths, new alloys, and synthetic products such as plastics, as well as new energy sources.
Combined with these were developments in machines, tools, and computers that gave rise to the automatic factory. Although some segments of industry were almost completely mechanized in the early to mid-19th century, automatic operation, as distinct from the assembly line, first achieved major significance in the second half of the 20th century.
Ownership of the means of production also underwent changes. The oligarchical ownership of the means of production that characterized the Industrial Revolution in the early to mid-19th century gave way to a wider distribution of ownership through purchase of common stocks by individuals and by institutions such as insurance companies.
In the first half of the 20th century, many countries of Europe socialized basic sectors of their economies. There was also during that period a change in political theories: instead of the laissez-faire ideas that dominated the economic and social thought of the classical Industrial Revolution, governments generally moved into the social and economic realm to meet the needs of their more complex industrial societies.
That trend was reversed in the United States and the United Kingdom beginning in the 1980s.
Possible reasons why industrialization began in Britain include:
- Shortage of wood and the abundance of convenient coal deposits
- Commercial-minded aristocracy; limited monarchy
- System of free enterprise; limited government involvement
- Government support for commercial projects, for a strong navy to protect ships
- Cheap cotton produced by slaves in North America
- High literacy rates
- Rule of law; protection of assets
- Valuable immigrants (Dutch, Jews, Huguenots [French Protestants])
Possible reasons why industrialization did not begin in China include:
- Location of China’s coal, which was in the north, while economic activity was centered in the south
- Rapid growth of population in China, giving less incentive for machines and more for labor-intensive methods
- Confucian ideals that valued stability and frowned upon experimentation and change
- Lack of Chinese government support for maritime explorations, thinking its empire seemed large enough to provide everything needed
- China’s focus on defending self from nomadic attacks from the north and west
Global forces influencing the development of industrialization in Britain include:
- Britain’s location on the Atlantic Ocean
- British colonies in North America, which provided land, labor, and markets
- Silver from the Americas, used in trade with China
- Social and ideological conditions in Britain, and new thoughts about the economy, that encouraged an entrepreneurial spirit
By the way, if you’re wondering what oil and natural gas were doing while coal was powering the Industrial Revolution, they had been discovered long before and were in use, but mostly as fuels for lamps and other light sources. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that oil caught up — and surpassed — coal in use.
Consequences of the Industrial Revolution
The statistics that reflect the effects of industrialization are staggering. In 1700, before the widespread use of fossil fuels, the world had a population of 670 million people. By 2011 the world’s population had reached 6.7 billion, a 10-fold increase in a mere 300 years. In the 20th century alone, the world’s economy grew 14-fold, the per capita income grew almost fourfold, and the use of energy expanded at least 13-fold. This kind of growth has never before occurred in human history.
Many people around the world today enjoy the benefits of industrialization. With so much more energy flowing through human systems than ever before, many of us must do much less hard physical labor than earlier generations did. People today are able to feed more babies and bring them to adulthood. Many people vote and participate in modern states, which provide education, social security, and health benefits. Large numbers of people enjoy levels of wealth, health, education, travel, and life expectancy unimagined before industrialization.
The benefits of industrialization, however, have come at great cost. For one thing, the rate of change (acceleration) is now so rapid that individuals and social systems struggle to keep up. And strong arguments can be made about depersonalization in the age of mass production.
The increased complexity of the industrial system has also brought increased fragility. Industrialization depends on the interaction of many diverse components, any one of which could fail. We know that many of the essential components of the industrial system, and the natural resources it depends on, are being compromised; the soil, the oceans, the atmosphere, the underground water levels, plants, and animals are all at risk. Will growth continue unchecked, or are we approaching the end of an unsustainable industrial era? Whatever the future holds, we’ll be debating — and dealing with — the consequences of modernization for years to come.