The era between 1750 and 1914 C.E. was one of clear European hegemony. In the previous era (1450 to 1750 C.E.), Europeans had tilted the balance of world power away from Asia, where powerful civilizations had existed since ancient times. However, despite growing European influence based on sea trade and colonization, major land-based empires in Asia still influenced long-distance trade and shaped political and economic conditions around them. In this era, Europe not only dominated the western hemisphere, as it had in the last, but it came to control the eastern hemisphere as well. How did they do it?
Part of the answer lies in a set of discoveries and happenings that together constitute an important “Marker Event” – the Industrial Revolution. Another set of philosophical and political events were equally important – the establishment of democracy as a major element of a new type of political organization – the “nation.” Wilderness areas in Europe were virtually gone by 1750, with almost every piece of land used by farmers or townspeople.
However, the process continued during this era, and deforestation became the most serious problem. Americans transformed their lands even more rapidly as people moved west, clearing forests for farms and then moving on when the soil was depleted. The cultivation of cotton was especially harmful. P
lanters cut down forests, grew cotton for a few years, moved west, and abandoned the land to scrub pines. Surprisingly, industrialization actually relieved environmental depletion in Britain because raw materials once grown on British soil; like wool and grain – were replaced by coal and iron found underground. Iron replaced wood in many building structures, including ships, so that deforestation slowed. The most dramatic environmental changes in industrialized countries occurred in the towns.
The earliest transformation of the Industrial Revolution was Britain’s textile industry. In 1750 Britain already exported wool, linen, and cotton cloth, and speeding up the process by which spinners and weavers made cloth boosted the profits of cloth merchants. One invention led to another since none were useful if any part of the process was slower than the others. Once the textile industry began its exponential growth, transportation of raw materials to factories and manufactured goods to customers had to be worked out.
New inventions in transportation spurred the Industrial Revolution further. A key invention was the steam engine that was perfected by James Watt in the late 1790s. Although steam power had been used before, Watt invented ways to make it practical and efficient to use for both water and land transportation. Perhaps the most revolutionary use of steam energy was the railroad engine, which drove English industry after 1820. The first long-distance rail line from the coastal city of Liverpool to inland Manchester was an immediate success upon its completion in 1830, and within a few decades, most British cities were connected by rail.
Railroads revolutionized life in Britain in several ways. Industrialization also transformed social and gender structures in countries where it developed, although it is not entirely clear as to whether the “gender gap” narrowed or widened. By and large industrialization widened the gap between the rich and the poor by creating opportunities for businessmen to be far richer than the upper classes in an agricultural society ever could be.
Although they were free, not forced, laborers, the wages for factory workers were very low, and many suffered as much if not more poverty than they had as rural peasants. Industrialization greatly increased the economic, military, and political strength of the societies that embraced it. By and large, the countries that benefited from industrialization were the ones that had the necessary components of land, labor and capital, and often government support. However, even though many other countries tried to industrialize, few had much success.
For example, India tried to develop jute and steel industries, but the entrepreneurs failed because they had no government support and little investment capital. An international division of labor resulted: people in industrialized countries produced manufactured products, and people in less industrialized countries produced the raw materials necessary for that production.
Industrial England, for example, needed cotton, so turned to India, Egypt, and the American south to produce it for them. In many cases this division of labor led to colonization of the non-industrialized areas. As industrialization increased, more iron and coal were needed, as well as other fibers for the textile industry, and the British Empire grew rapidly in order to meet these demands.
Many countries in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, south Asia, and southeast Asia became highly dependent on one cash crop – such as sugar, cotton, and rubber – giving them the nickname of “Banana Republics.” Such economies were very vulnerable to any change in the international market. Foreign investors owned and controlled the plantations that produced these crops, and most of the profits went to them. Very little of the profits actually improved the living conditions for people that lived in those areas, and since they had little money to spend, a market economy could not develop.
Despite the inequalities, the division of labor between people in countries that produced raw materials and those that produced manufactured goods increased the total volume of world trade. The Industrial Revolution occurred only in Britain for about 50 years, but it eventually spread to other countries in Europe, the United States, Russia, and Japan. British entrepreneurs and government officials forbade the export of machinery, manufacturing techniques, and skilled workers to other countries but the technologies spread by luring British experts with lucrative offers, and even smuggling secrets into other countries.
By the mid-19th century industrialization had spread to France, Germany, Belgium, and the United States. The earliest center of industrial production in continental Europe was Belgium, where coal, iron, textile, glass, and armaments production flourished. By 1830 French firms had employed many skilled British workers to help establish the textile industry, and railroad lines began to appear across western Europe. Germany was a little later in developing industry, mainly because no centralized government existed there yet, and a great deal of political unrest made industrialization difficult.
However, after the 1840s German coal and iron production skyrocketed, and by the 1850s an extensive rail network was under construction. After German political unification in 1871, the new empire rivaled England in terms of industrial production. Industrialization began in the United States by the 1820s, delayed until the country had enough laborers and money to invest in business.
The Enlightenment philosophy that inspired revolutions in the United States, France, and Latin America brought about lasting changes in western political ideology, with some people reacting against the chaos that revolutions brought, and others inspired by the values of democracy, liberty, equality, and justice.