Industrial Revolution, widespread replacement of manual labor by machines that began in Britain in the 18th century and is still continuing in some parts of the world. The Industrial Revolution was the result of many fundamental, interrelated changes that transformed agricultural economies into industrial ones. The most immediate changes were in the nature of production: what was produced, as well as where and how.
Goods that had traditionally been made in the home or in small workshops began to be manufactured in the factory. Productivity and technical efficiency grew dramatically, in part through the systematic application of scientific and practical knowledge to the manufacturing process. Efficiency was also enhanced when large groups of business enterprises were located within a limited area. The Industrial Revolution led to the growth of cities as people moved from rural areas into urban communities in search of work.
The changes brought by the Industrial Revolution overturned not only traditional economies, but also whole societies. Economic changes caused far-reaching social changes, including the movement of people to cities, the availability of a greater variety of material goods, and new ways of doing business. The Industrial Revolution was the first step in modern economic growth and development. Economic development was combined with superior military technology to make the nations of Europe and their cultural offshoots, such as the United States, the most powerful in the world in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain during the last half of the 18th century and spread through regions of Europe and to the United States during the following century. In the 20th century industrialization on a wide scale extended to parts of Asia and the Pacific Rim. Today mechanized production and modern economic growth continue to spread to new areas of the world, and much of humankind has yet to experience the changes typical of the Industrial Revolution.
The Industrial Revolution is called a revolution because it changed society both significantly and rapidly. Over the course of human history, there has been only one other group of changes as significant as the Industrial Revolution. This is what anthropologists call the Neolithic Revolution, which took place in the later part of the Stone Age.
In the Neolithic Revolution, people moved from social systems based on hunting and gathering to much more complex communities that depended on agriculture and the domestication of animals. This led to the rise of permanent settlements and, eventually, urban civilizations. The Industrial Revolution brought a shift from the agricultural societies created during the Neolithic Revolution to modern industrial societies.
The social changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution were significant. As economic activities in many communities moved from agriculture to manufacturing, production shifted from its traditional locations in the home and the small workshop to factories.
Large portions of the population relocated from the countryside to the towns and cities where manufacturing centers were found. The overall amount of goods and services produced expanded dramatically, and the proportion of capital invested per worker grew. New groups of investors, businesspeople, and managers took financial risks and reaped great rewards.
In the long run the Industrial Revolution has brought economic improvement for most people in industrialized societies. Many enjoy greater prosperity and improved health, especially those in the middle and the upper classes of society.
There have been costs, however. In some cases, the lower classes of society have suffered economically. Industrialization has brought factory pollutants and greater land use, which have harmed the natural environment. In particular, the application of machinery and science to agriculture has led to greater land use and, therefore, extensive loss of habitat for animals and plants. In addition, drastic population growth following industrialization has contributed to the decline of natural habitats and resources. These factors, in turn, have caused many species to become extinct or endangered.
Ever since the Renaissance (14th century to 17th century), Europeans had been inventing and using ever more complex machinery. Particularly important were improvements in transportation, such as faster ships, and communication, especially printing. These improvements played a key role in the development of the Industrial Revolution by encouraging the movement of new ideas and mechanisms, as well as the people who knew how to build and run them.
Then, in the 18th century in Britain, new production methods were introduced in several key industries, dramatically altering how these industries functioned. These new methods included different machines, fresh sources of power and energy, and novel forms of organizing business and labor. For the first time technical and scientific knowledge was applied to business practices on a large scale. Humankind had begun to develop mass production. The result was an increase in material goods, usually selling for lower prices than before.
The Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain because social, political, and legal conditions there were particularly favorable to change. Property rights, such as those for patents on mechanical improvements, were well established. More importantly, the predictable, stable rule of law in Britain meant that monarchs and aristocrats were less likely to arbitrarily seize earnings or impose taxes than they were in many other countries.
As a result, earnings were safer, and ambitious businesspeople could gain wealth, social prestige, and power more easily than could people on the European continent. These factors encouraged risk taking and investment in new business ventures, both crucial to economic growth.
In addition, Great Britain’s government pursued a relatively hands-off economic policy. This free-market approach was made popular through British philosopher and economist Adam Smith and his book The Wealth of Nations (1776). The hands-off policy permitted fresh methods and ideas to flourish with little interference or regulation.
Britain’s nurturing social and political setting encouraged the changes that began in a few trades to spread to others. Gradually the new ways of production transformed more and more parts of the British economy, although older methods continued in many industries.
Several industries played key roles in Britain’s industrialization. Iron and steel manufacture, the production of steam engines, and textiles were all powerful influences, as was the rise of a machine-building sector able to spread mechanization to other parts of the economy.
During the development of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, coal was the main source of power. Even before the 18th century, some British industries had begun using the country’s plentiful coal supply instead of wood, which was much scarcer. Coal was adopted by the brewing, metalworking, and glass and ceramics industries, demonstrating its potential for use in many industrial processes.
A major breakthrough in the use of coal occurred in 1709 at Coalbrookedale in the valley of the Severn River. There English industrialist Abraham Darby successfully used cokea high-carbon, converted form of coalto produce iron from iron ore. Using coke eliminated the need for charcoal, a more expensive, less efficient fuel. Metal makers thereafter discovered ways of using coal and coke to speed the production of raw iron, bar iron, and other metals.
The most important advance in iron production occurred in 1784 when Englishman Henry Cort invented new techniques for rolling raw iron, a finishing process that shapes iron into the desired size and form. These advances in metalworking were an important part of industrialization. They enabled iron, which was relatively inexpensive and abundant, to be used in many new ways, such as building heavy machinery. Iron was well suited for heavy machinery because of its strength and durability. Because of these new developments iron came to be used in machinery for many industries.
Iron was also vital to the development of railroads, which improved transportation. Better transportation made commerce easier, and along with the growth of commerce enabled economic growth to spread to additional regions. In this way, the changes of the Industrial Revolution reinforced each other, working together to transform the British economy.
If iron was the key metal of the Industrial Revolution, the steam engine was perhaps the most important machine technology. Inventions and improvements in the use of steam for power began prior to the 18th century, as they had with iron. As early as 1689, English engineer Thomas Savery created a steam engine to pump water from mines. Thomas Newcomen, another English engineer, developed an improved version by 1712.
Scottish inventor and mechanical engineer James Watt made the most significant improvements, allowing the steam engine to be used in many industrial settings, not just in mining. Early mills had run successfully with water power, but the advancement of using the steam engine meant that a factory could be located anywhere, not just close to water.
In 1775 Watt formed an engine-building and engineering partnership with manufacturer Matthew Boulton. This partnership became one of the most important businesses of the Industrial Revolution. Boulton & Watt served as a kind of creative technical center for much of the British economy.
They solved technical problems and spread the solutions to other companies. Similar firms did the same thing in other industries and were especially important in the machine tool industry. This type of interaction between companies was important because it reduced the amount of research time and expense that each business had to spend working with its own resources. The technological advances of the Industrial Revolution happened more quickly because firms often shared information, which they then could use to create new techniques or products.
Like iron production, steam engines found many uses in a variety of other industries, including steamboats and railroads. Steam engines are another example of how some changes brought by industrialization led to even more changes in other areas.
The industry most often associated with the Industrial Revolution is the textile industry. In earlier times, the spinning of yarn and the weaving of cloth occurred primarily in the home, with most of the work done by people working alone or with family members. This pattern lasted for many centuries. In 18th-century Great Britain a series of extraordinary innovations reduced and then replaced the human labor required to makecloth. Each advance created problems elsewhere in the production process that led to further improvements. Together they made a new system to supply clothing.
The first important invention in textile production came in 1733. British inventor John Kay created a device known as the flying shuttle, which partially mechanized the process of weaving. By 1770 British inventor and industrialist James Hargreaves had invented the spinning jenny, a machine that spins a number of threads at once, and British inventor and cotton manufacturer Richard Arkwright had organized the first production using water-powered spinning.
These developments permitted a single spinner to make numerous strands of yarn at the same time. By about 1779 British inventor Samuel Crompton introduced a machine called the mule, which further improved mechanized spinning by decreasing the danger that threads would break and by creating a finer thread.
Throughout the textile industry, specialized machines powered either by water or steam appeared. Row upon row of these innovative, highly productive machines filled large, new mills and factories. Soon Britain was supplying cloth to countries throughout the world. This industry seemed to many people to be the embodiment of an emerging, mechanized civilization.
The most important results of these changes were enormous increases in the output of goods per worker. A single spinner or weaver, for example, could now turn out many times the volume of yarn or cloth that earlier workers had produced. This marvel of rising productivity was the central economic achievement that made the Industrial Revolution such a milestone in human history.
The Industrial Revolution also had considerable impact upon the nature of work. It significantly changed the daily lives of ordinary men, women, and children in the regions where it took root and grew.
One of the most obvious changes to people’s lives was that more people moved into the urban areas where factories were located. Many of the agricultural laborers who left villages were forced to move. Beginning in the early 18th century, more people in rural areas were competing for fewer jobs. The rural population had risen sharply as new sources of food became available, and death rates declined due to fewer plagues and wars.
At the same time, many small farms disappeared. This was partly because new enclosure laws required farmers to put fences or hedges around their fields to prevent common grazing on the land. Some small farmers who could not afford to enclose their fields had to sell out to larger landholders and search for work elsewhere. These factors combined to provide a ready work force for the new industries.
New manufacturing towns and cities grew dramatically. Many of these cities were close to the coalfields that supplied fuel to the factories. Factories had to be close to sources of power because power could not be distributed very far. The names of British factory cities soon symbolized industrialization to the wider world:
Liverpool, Birmingham, Leeds, Glasgow, Sheffield, and especially Manchester. In the early 1770s Manchester numbered only 25,000 inhabitants. By 1850, after it had become a center of cotton manufacturing, its population had grown to more than 350,000.
In pre-industrial England, more than three-quarters of the population lived in small villages. By the mid-19th century, however, the country had made history by becoming the first nation with half its population in cities. By 1850 millions of British people lived in crowded, grim industrial cities. Reformers began to speak of the mills and factories as dark, evil places.
The movement of people away from agriculture and into industrial cities brought great stresses to many people in the labor force. Women in households who had earned income from spinning found the new factories taking away their source of income. Traditional handloom weavers could no longer compete with the mechanized production of cloth. Skilled laborers sometimes lost their jobs as new machines replaced them.
In the factories, people had to work long hours under harsh conditions, often with few rewards. Factory owners and managers paid the minimum amount necessary for a work force, often recruiting women and children to tend the machines because they could be hired for very low wages. Soon critics attacked this exploitation, particularly the use of child labor.
The nature of work changed as a result of division of labor, an idea important to the Industrial Revolution that called for dividing the production process into basic, individual tasks. Each worker would then perform one task, rather than a single worker doing the entire job.
Such division of labor greatly improved productivity, but many of the simplified factory jobs were repetitive and boring. Workers also had to labor for many hours, often more than 12 hours a day, sometimes more than 14, and people worked six days a week. Factory workers faced strict rules and close supervision by managers and overseers. The clock ruled life in the mills.
By about the 1820s, income levels for most workers began to improve, and people adjusted to the different circumstances and conditions. By that time, Britain had changed forever. The economy was expanding at a rate that was more than twice the pace at which it had grown before the Industrial Revolution. Although vast differences existed between the rich and the poor, most of the population enjoyed some of the fruits of economic growth.
The widespread poverty and constant threat of mass starvation that had haunted the preindustrial age lessened in industrial Britain. Although the overall health and material conditions of the populace clearly improved, critics continued to point to urban crowding and the harsh working conditions for many in the mills.
The economic successes of the British soon led other nations to try to follow the same path. In northern Europe, mechanics and investors in France, Belgium, Holland, and some of the German states set out to imitate Britain’s successful example. In the young United States, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton called for an Industrial Revolution in his Report on Manufactures (1791).
Many Americans felt that the United States had to become economically strong in order to maintain its recently won independence from Great Britain. In cities up and down the Atlantic Coast, leading citizens organized associations devoted to the encouragement ofmanufactures.
The Industrial Revolution unfolded in the United States even more vigorously than it had in Great Britain. The young nation began as a weak, loose association of former colonies with a traditional economy. More than three-quarters of the labor force worked in agriculture in 1790. Americans soon enjoyed striking success in mechanization, however. This was clear in 1851 when producers from many nations gathered to display their industrial triumphs at the first World’s Fair, at the Crystal Palace in London.
There, it was the work of Americans that attracted the most attention. Shortly after that, the British government dispatched a special committee to the United States to study the manufacturing accomplishments of its former colonies. By the end of the century, the United States was the world leader in manufacturing, unfolding what became known as the Second Industrial Revolution. The American economy had emerged as the largest and most productive on the globe.
The United States enjoyed many advantages that made it fertile ground for an Industrial Revolution. A rich, sparsely inhabited continent lay open to exploitation and development. It proved relatively easy for the United States government to buy or seize vast lands across North America from Native Americans, from European nations, and from Mexico.
In addition, the American population was highly literate, and most felt that economic growth was desirable. With settlement stretched across the continent from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, the United States enjoyed a huge internal market. Within its distant borders there was remarkably free movement of goods, people, capital, and ideas.
The young nation also inherited many advantages from Great Britain. The stable legal and political systems that had encouraged enterprise and rewarded initiative in Great Britain also did so, with minor variations, in the United States. No nation was more open to social mobility, at least for white male Protestants.
Othersparticularly African Americans, Native Americans, other minorities, and womenfound the atmosphere much more difficult. In the context of the times, however, the United States was relatively open to change. It quickly adopted many of the technologies, forms of organization, and attitudes shaping the new industrial world, and then proceeded to generate its own advances.
One initial American advantage was the fact that the United States shared the language and much of the culture of Great Britain, the pioneering industrial nation. This helped Americans transfer technology to the United States. As descriptions of new machines and processes appeared in print, Americans read about them eagerly and tried their own versions of the inventions sweeping Britain.
Critical to furthering industrialization in the United States were machines and knowledgeable people. Although the British tried to prevent skilled mechanics from leaving Britain and advanced machines from being exported, those efforts mostly proved ineffective. Americans worked actively to encourage such transfers, even offering bounties (special monetary rewards) to encourage people with knowledge of the latest methods and devices to move to the United States.
The most dramatic early example of a successful technical transfer is the case of Samuel Slater. Slater was an important figure in a leading British textile firm who sailed to the United States masquerading as a farmer. He eventually moved to Rhode Island, where he worked with mechanics, machine builders, and merchants to create the first important textile mill in the United States.
Slater had worked as an apprentice under Richard Arkwright, and Slater’s mill used Arkwright’s innovative system of mechanized spinning. The firm of Almy, Brown, and Slater inspired many imitators and gave birth to a vast textile industry in New England.
The lure of the open, growing United States was strong. Its opportunities attracted knowledgeable, ambitious individuals not only from Britain but from other European countries as well. In 1800, for example, a young Frenchman named Eleuthère Irénée du Pont de Nemours brought to the United States his knowledge of the latest French advances in chemistry and gunpowder making. In 1802 he founded what would become one of the largest and most successful American businesses, E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company, better known simply as DuPont.
Soon the United States was pioneering on its own. Because local circumstances and conditions in the United States were somewhat different than those in Britain, industrialization also developed somewhat differently. Although the United States had many natural resources in abundance, some were more plentiful than others.
The profusion of wood in North America, for example, led Americans to use that material much more than Europeans did. They burned wood widely as fuel and also made use of it in machinery and in construction. Taking advantage of the vast forest resources in their country, Americans built the world’s best woodworking machines.
Transportation and communication were special challenges in a nation that stretched across the North American continent. Economic growth depended on tying together the resources, markets, and people of this large area. Despite the general conviction that private enterprise was best, the government played an active role in uniting the country, particularly by building roads. From 1815 to 1860 state and local governments also provided almost three-quarters of the financing for canal construction and related improvements to waterways.
When the British began building railroads, Americans embraced this new technology eagerly, and substantial public money was invested in rail systems. By 1860 more than half the railroad tracks in the world were in the United States. The most critical 19th-century improvement in communication, the telegraph, was invented by American Samuel F. B. Morse.
The telegraph allowed messages to be sent long distances almost instantly by using a code of electronic pulses passing over a wire. The railroad and the telegraph spread across North America and helped create a national market, which in turn encouraged additional improvements in transportation and communication.
Another challenge in the United States was a relative shortage of labor. Much more than in continental Europe or in Britain, labor was in chronically short supply in the United States. This led industrialists to developmachinery to replace human labor.
Americans soon demonstrated a great talent for mechanization. Famed American arms maker Samuel Colt summarized his fellow citizens’ faith in technology when he declared in 1851, “There is nothing that cannot be produced by machinery.”
An important American development was continuous-process manufacturing. In continuous-process manufacturing, large quantities of the same product, such as cigarettes or canned food, are made in a nonstop operation. The process runs continuously, except for repairs to or maintenance of the machinery used. In the late 18th century, inventor Oliver Evans of Delaware created a remarkable water-powered flour mill.
In Evans’s mill, machinery elevated the grain to the top of the mill and then moved it mechanically through various processing steps, eventually producing flour at the bottom of the mill. The process greatly reduced the need for manual labor and cut milling costs dramatically. Mills modeled after Evans’s were built along the Delaware and Brandywine rivers and Chesapeake Bay, and by the time of the American Revolution (1775-1783) they were arguably the most productive in the world. Similar milling technology was also used to grind snuff and other tobacco products in the same region.
As the 19th century passed, Americans improved continuous-process technology and expanded its use. The basic principle of utilizing gravity-powered and mechanized systems to move and process materials proved applicable in many settings. The meatpacking industry in the Midwest employed a form of this technology, as did many industries using distilling and refining processes. Items made using continuous-process manufacturing included kerosene, gasoline, and other petroleum products, as well as many processed foods. Mechanized, continuous processing yielded uniform quantity production with a minimum need for human labor.
In a closely related development, by the mid-19th century American manufacturers shaped a set of techniques later known as the American system of production. This system involved using special-purpose machines to produce large quantities of similar, sometimes interchangeable, parts that would then be assembled into a finished product. The American system extended the idea of division of labor from workers to specialized machines. Instead of a worker making a small part of a finished product, a machine made the part, speeding the process and allowing manufacturers to produce goods more quickly.
This method also enabled goods of much more uniform quality than those made by hand labor. The American system appeared first in New England in the manufacture of clocks, locks, axes, and shovels. Around the same time, the federal armories used an advanced version of this same system to produce large numbers of firearms, coining the term armory practice.
Soon a group of knowledgeable mechanics and engineers spread the American system. Many industries began to use special-purpose machines to produce large quantities of similar or even interchangeable parts for assembly into finished goods. The American system was used by inventor and manufacturer Cyrus Hall McCormick to produce his innovative reapers; Samuel Colt used it to make revolver pistols; and inventor Isaac Merrit Singer produced his popular sewing machines using this system. These kinds of products won prizes and attracted much attention at the Crystal Palace exhibition of 1851.
V COSTS AND BENEFITS
The modern, industrial societies created by the Industrial Revolution have come at some cost. The nature of work became worse for many people, and industrialization placed great pressures on traditional family structures as work moved outside the home. The economic and social distances between groups within industrial societies are often very wide, as is the disparity between rich industrial nations and poorer neighboring countries.
The natural environment has also suffered from the effects of the Industrial Revolution. Pollution, deforestation, and the destruction of animal and plant habitats continue to increase as industrialization spreads.
Perhaps the greatest benefits of industrialization are increased material well-being and improved healthcare for many people in industrial societies. Modern industrial life also provides a constantly changing flood of new goods and services, giving consumers more choices. With both its negative aspects and its benefits, the Industrial Revolution has been one of the most influential and far-reaching movements in human history.