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Industrial Revolution

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The Industrial Revolution is the name given to the massive social, economic and technological change in 18th century and 19th century Great Britain. It commenced with the introduction of steam power (fuelled primarily by coal) and powered automated machinery (primarily in textile manufacturing). The technological and economic progress of the Industrial Revolution gained momentum with the introduction of steam-powered ships, boats and railways. In the 19th Century it spread throughout Western Europe and North America, eventually impacting the rest of the world.



The causes of the Industrial Revolution were complex and remain a topic for debate, with some historians seeing the Revolution as an outgrowth of social and institutional changes wrought by the final end of feudalism in Great Britain following the English Civil War in the 17th century. The Inclosure movement and the British Agricultural Revolution made food production more efficient and less labor-intensive, forcing the surplus population who could no longer find employment in agriculture into the cities to seek work in the newly developed factories. The colonial expansion of the 17th century with the accompanying development of international trade, creation of financial markets and accumulation of capital is also cited as a set of factors, as is the scientific revolution of the 17th century.

The presence of a large domestic market should also be considered an important catalyst of the Industrial Revolution, particularly explaining why it occurred in Britain. In other nations (e.g. France), markets were split up by local regions often imposing tolls and tariffs on goods traded among them. The restructuring of the American domestic market would trigger the second Industrial Revolution over 100 years later.


The application of steam power to the industrial processes of printing supported a massive expansion of newspaper and popular book publishing, which reinforced rising literacy and demands for mass political participation. Universal white male suffrage was adopted in the United States, resulting in the election of the popular General Andrew Jackson in 1828 and the creation of political parties organized for mass participation in elections. In the United Kingdom, the Reform Act 1832 addressed the concentration of population in districts with almost no representation in Parliament, expanding the electorate, leading to the founding of modern political parties and initiating a series of reforms which would continue into the 20th century. In France, the July Revolution widened the franchise and established a constitutional monarchy. Belgium established its independence from the Netherlands, as a constitutional monarchy, in 1830. Struggles for liberal reforms in Switzerland's various cantons in the 1830s had mixed results. A further series of attempts at political reform or revolution would sweep Europe in 1848, with mixed results, and initiated massive migration to North America, as well as parts of South America, South Africa, and Australia. The mass migration of rural families into urban areas saw the growth of bad living conditions in cities, long work hours with none of the traditional agricultural breaks (such as after harvest or in mid winter), and the rise of nationalism in most of Europe.

Textile manufacture

See main article Textile manufacture during the Industrial Revolution

In the early 18th century, British textile manufacture was based on wool which was processed by individual artisans, doing the spinning and weaving on their own premises. This system is called a cottage industry. Flax and cotton were also used for fine materials, but the processing was difficult because of the pre-processing needed, and thus goods in these materials made only a small proportion of the output.

Use of the spinning wheel and hand loom restricted the production capacity of the industry, but a number of incremental advances increased productivity to the extent that manufactured cotton goods became the dominant British export by the early decades of the 19th century. India was displaced as the premier supplier of cotton goods.

Step by step, individual inventors increased the efficiency of the individual steps of spinning (carding, twisting and spinning, and subsequently rolling) so that the supply of yarn fed a weaving industry that itself was advancing with improvements to shuttles and the loom or 'frame'. The output of an individual labourer increased dramatically, with the effect that these new machines were seen as a threat to employment, and early innovators were attacked and their inventions wrecked. The inventors often failed to exploit their inventions, and fell on hard times.

To capitalize upon these advances it took a class of entrepreneurs, of which the most famous is Richard Arkwright. He is credited with a list of inventions, but these were actually the products of such as Thomas Highs and John Kay ; Arkwright nurtured the inventors, patented the ideas, financed the initiatives, and protected the machines. He created the cotton mill which brought the production processes together in a factory, and he developed the use of power – first horse power, then water power and finally steam power – which made cotton manufacture a mechanised industry.


See main article Metallurgy during the Industrial Revolution

Steam power

See main article Steam power during the Industrial Revolution


See main article Transport during the Industrial Revolution

The Second Industrial Revolution

Main article: Second Industrial Revolution

The insatiable demand of the railroads for more durable rail led to the development of the means to cheaply mass-produce steel. Steel is often cited as the first of several new areas for industrial mass-production, which are said to characterize a "Second Industrial Revolution," beginning around 1870. This "second" Industrial Revolution gradually grew to include the chemical industries, petroleum refining and distribution, electrical industries, and, in the twentieth century, the automotive industries, and was marked by a transition of technological leadership from Great Britain to the United States and Germany.

The introduction of hydroelectric power generation in the Alps enabled the rapid industrialization of coal-starved northern Italy, beginning in the 1890s. The increasing availability of economic petroleum products also reduced the relation of coal to the potential for industrialization.

By the 1890s, industrialization in these areas had created the first giant industrial corporations with often nearly global international operations and interests, as companies like U.S. Steel, General Electric, and Bayer AG joined the railroads on the world's stock markets and among huge, bureaucratic organizations.

Why Europe?

One question that has been of active interest to historians is why the Industrial Revolution occurred in Europe and not in other parts of the world, particularly China. Numerous factors have been suggested including ecology, government, and culture. Benjamin Elman argues that China was in a high level equilibrium trap in which the non-industrial methods were efficient enough to prevent use of industrial methods with high capital costs. Kenneth Pommeranz , in the Great Divergence, argues that Europe and China were remarkably similar in 1700, and that the crucial differences which created the Industrial Revolution in Europe were sources of coal near manufacturing centres and raw materials such as food and wood from the New World which allowed Europe to economically expand in a way that China could not. Indeed, a combination of all of these factors is possible.

Why Great Britain?

The debate around the concept of the initial startup of the Industrial Revolution also concerns the thirty to hundred year lead the British had over the continental European countries and America. Some have stressed the importance of natural or financial resources the United Kingdom received from its many overseas colonies or that profits from the British slave trade between Africa and the Caribbean helped fuel industrial investment.

Alternatively, the greater liberalisation of trade from a large merchant base may have been able to utilise scientific and technological developments emerging in the UK and elsewhere more effectively than other states with stronger monarchies, such as China's Emperors and Russia's Tzars. The UK's extensive exporting cottage industries also ensured markets were already open for many forms of early manufactured goods. The nature of conflict in the period resulted in most British warfare being conducted overseas, reducing the devastating effects of territorial conquest impacting much of the rest of Europe.

Another theory believes that Great Britain was able to succeed in the Industrial Revolution due to its dense population for its small geographical size, and the availability of natural resources like copper, tin and coal, giving excellent conditions for the development and expansion of industry. Furthermore, the stable political situation, in addition to the greater receptiveness of the society (as compared to other European countries) are reasons that add to this theory, enhancing its plausibility.

The "Protestant work ethic"

Another theory is that the British advance was due to the presence of an entrepreneurial class which believed in progress, technology and hard work. The existence of this class is often linked to the Protestant work ethic and the particular status of so-called Dissenter Protestant sects that had flourished with the English revolution. Reinforcement of confidence in the rule of law, which followed the establishment of the prototype of constitutional monarchy in Great Britain in the Glorious Revolution of 1689, and the emergence of a stable financial market there based on the management of the National Debt by the Bank of England, contributed to the capacity for, and interest in, private financial investment in industrial ventures.

The Dissenters found themselves barred or discouraged from some public offices when the restoration of the monarchy took place and membership in the official Anglican church became, once more, an important advantage. Historians sometimes consider this social factor to be extremely important, along with the nature of the national economies involved. While members of these sects were excluded from certain circles of the government, they were considered as fellow Protestants, to a limited extent, by many in the middle class, such as traditional financiers or other businessmen. Given this relative tolerance and the supply of capital, the natural outlet for the more enterprising members of these sects would be to seek new opportunities in the technologies created in the wake of the Scientific revolution of the 17th century.

This argument has, on the whole, tended to neglect the fact that several inventors and entrepreneurs were rational free thinkers or "Philosophers" typical of a certain class of British intellectuals in the late 18th century, and were by no means normal church goers or members of religious sects. Examples of these free thinkers were the Lunar Society of Birmingham (which flourished from 1765 to 1809). Its members were exceptional in that they were among the very few who were conscious that an industrial revolution was then taking place in Great Britain. They actively worked as a group to encourage it, not least by investing in it and conducting scientific experiments which led to innovative products.

The transition to industrialization was not wholly smooth, for in England the Luddites — workers who saw their livelihoods threatened — protested against the process and sometimes sabotaged factories.

Industrialization also led to the creation of the factory. One of the earliest reformers of early factory conditions was Robert Owen. Josiah Wedgwood was another prominent early industrialist. The factory system was largely responsible for the rise of the modern city, as workers migrated into the cities in search of employment in the factories.

Intellectual paradigms


The advent of The Enlightenment provided an intellectual framework which welcomed the practical application of the growing body of scientific knowledge — a factor evidenced in the systematic development of the steam engine, guided by scientific analysis, and the development of the political and sociological analyses, culminating in Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations.


Karl Marx saw the industrialization process as the logical dialectical progression of feudal economic modes, necessary for the full development of capitalism, which he saw as in itself a necessary precursor to the development of socialism and eventually communism. According to Marx, industrialization engenders the polarization of societies into two classes, the bourgeoisie — those who own the means of production, i.e. the factories and the land, and the much larger proletariat — the working class who actually perform the labor necessary to extract something valuable from the means of production. Marx asserts that the relationship between the two classes is fundamentally parasitic, insofar as the proletariat are always undercompensated for the true value of their labor by the bourgeoisie (according to the labor theory of value), which allows the bourgeoisie to grow absurdly wealthy through nothing more than the wholesale exploitation of the proletarians' labor.

Rapid advancements in technology left many skilled workers unemployed, as one agricultural and manufacturing task after another was mechanized. The flight of millions of newly unemployed people from rural areas or small towns to the large cities, and thus the development of large urban population centers, led to unprecedented conditions of poverty in the slums that housed workers for the new factories. At the same time, the bourgeois class, at only a small fraction of the proletariat's size, became exceedingly wealthy.

Marx says that the industrial proletariat will eventually develop class consciousness and revolt against the bourgeois, leading to a more egalitarian socialist and eventually Communist state where the workers themselves own the means of industrial production. See Marxism.


  • Bernal, John Desmond. Science and Industry in the Nineteenth Century. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970.
  • Derry, Thomas Kingston and Trevor I. Williams. A Short History of Technology : From the Earliest Times to A.D. 1900. New York : Dover Publications, 1993.
  • Hobsbawm, Eric J.. Industry and Empire : From 1750 to the Present Day . New York : New Press ; Distributed by W.W. Norton,1999.
  • Kranzberg, Melvin and Carroll W. Pursell, Jr. editors. Technology in Western civilization. New York, Oxford University Press, 1967.
  • Landes, David S. The Unbound Prometheus : Technical Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present. 2nd ed. New York : Cambridge University Press, 2003.

See also

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