The Industrial Revolution (c. eighteenth-nineteenth centuries) was the transition from an agricultural- to a manufacturing-based economy. It led to widespread mechanization and urbanization, which greatly improved people's standards of living. In doing so, the Industrial Revolution caused sweeping socioeconomic changes across Europe and around the world.
- The Industrial Revolution was the transition from an agricultural- to a manufacturing-based economy. It caused sweeping socioeconomic changes across Europe and around the world.
- Great Britain was the birthplace of the transition from rural, agricultural-based societies to industrialized, urban ones. Britain underwent an Agricultural Revolution during the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, which saw a dramatic increase in agricultural production and a growth for other industries in succeeding centuries.
- Cotton textile manufacturing, steam power, and the mass production of iron and steel were closely linked with the rise of industrialization in Britain. These industries became the foundations for the rapid progress of the Industrial Revolution.
- The Industrial Revolution greatly improved the quality of life for many people and ushered in an unprecedented level of economic prosperity. However, the Industrial Revolution also relied on child labor, especially during its earliest years; left long-term environmental impacts; and contributed to rising global temperatures and climate change.
First, an Agricultural Revolution
The Industrial Revolution was a major turning point in history. It marked the transition from rural, agricultural-based societies to industrialized, urban ones. Britain was key to this transition. By the nineteenth century, Britain was a major player in industrial development, and it held large reserves of coal and iron. Moreover, Britain controlled many overseas colonies, which gave it the resources it needed to conduct industrialization on a large scale.
From 1600 to 1800, developments in agriculture enabled Britain to dramatically increase agricultural production. This revolution introduced new inventions which made farm work more efficient and crops more bountiful. It provided the spark for the growth of other industries in succeeding decades.
The Inventions that Spearheaded the Industrial Revolution
Several industries were closely linked with the rise of industrialization in Britain. One of these was textile manufacturing, particularly cotton textiles. Once a cottage industry, cotton was in high demand because of fashion trends at the time.
This rising demand led to several inventions that sped up cotton production during the eighteenth century. Some of these were: John Kay's (1704-c. 1779) flying shuttle, James Hargreaves's (c. 1720-1778) spinning jenny, Samuel Crompton's (1753-1827) spinning mule, and Edmund Cartwright's (c. eighteenth century) power loom. The cotton gin, which was invented by the American Eli Whitney (1765-1825), was another major advance in cotton production. These early devices greatly reduced the amount of time needed to produce cotton textiles, leading to a boom in the industry. Because child labor laws were generally non-existent in Great Britain (and the United States) prior to the twentieth century, young people were often relied upon for factory work. Education was generally a privilege afforded primarily to the wealthy.
Steam power was another early innovation of the Industrial Revolution. The first steam engine was invented by Thomas Newcomen (1664-1729). It was later improved and patented by James Watt (1736-1819) in 1769. A few decades later, American inventor Robert Fulton (1765-1815) used steam power to create the first steamboat in 1807. Finally, in 1814, George Stephenson (1781-1848) created the first steam locomotive. Steam power quickly revolutionized the transportation industry, allowing people to travel much faster across long distances. It also provided the basis for the manufacture of other products, including textiles.
Another invention that made it easier for long-distance interactions was the telegraph. In 1837, inventors William Cooke (1806-1879) and Charles Wheatstone (1802-1875) introduced the first commercial telegraph. This greatly improved communications, as people could now send messages to each other over long distances in a much shorter timeframe than through traditional post.
The mass production of iron and steel also became key components in early industrialization efforts. These industries were spurred by Abraham Darby's (1678-1717) blast furnace and Henry Bessemer's (1813-1898) steel-processing techniques. Mining was improved by these innovations, which facilitated the growing demands for coal and iron. As with textiles, child labor was common in both mining and the steel manufacturing industries.
These various enterprises became the foundations for the rapid progress of the Industrial Revolution. Trade and commerce were now more efficient. The manufacturing of other goods and the processing of raw materials were further improved by the creation of machine tools. Factory work led to the rise of mass production, which replaced artisan labor. The rise of mass production meant that new sets of skills were needed in the workforce to operate the heavy machinery.
The Industrial Revolution's Monumental Impacts
The Industrial Revolution greatly improved the quality of life for many people and ushered in an unprecedented level of economic prosperity. Improvements in transportation, communication, and commerce led to more sophisticated ways of doing business. Banks and financial institutions such as stock exchanges became important cornerstones in industrial production as a means of raising capital. This increased economic prosperity drew many people from rural areas to work in factories, resulting in the growth of cities. It also led to the expansion and urbanization of rural areas to accommodate factory production.
But the Industrial Revolution also left harmful effects on the people and the environment. Working conditions in factories were often harsh and unsanitary. Many industries relied on child labor, as children were unlikely to challenge supervisors and often could operate machinery just as well as adult laborers could.
Moreover, the Industrial Revolution led to long-term environmental impacts. Over the course of the nineteenth century, factories belched out smoke and other pollutants into the atmosphere. This not only became a public health hazard, but also eventually contributed to rising global temperatures and climate change.
Critical Thinking Questions
- How did the Industrial Revolution transform society?
- What are some reasons cities grew so dramatically during this period?
- Why might new inventions have been so much more common in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries?