Introduction to the Industrial Revolution
Why Study the Industrial Revolution?
The Industrial Revolution resulted in the most profound, far-reaching changes in the history of humanity. And its influence continues to sweep through our lives today. The last 250 years of industrialization have altered our lives more than any event or development in the past 12,000 years: in where we live, how we work, what we wear, what we eat, what we do for fun, how we are educated, how long we live and how many children we have. The Industrial Revolution provided the countries that first adopted it with the technological and economic advantages necessary to eventually rule most of the world. In short, the Industrial Revolution is the “game changer” of modern world history. More than anything else, it’s what makes the modern world, well, “modern.”
Consider a few global consequences of industrialization. When the Industrial Revolution started in the 18th century, the great majority of people lived in the countryside. But, the growth of cities coincided with the growth of industry, and rapid urbanization continues to increase in contemporary times. By 2008, for the first time in human history, more people in the world lived in cities than in rural areas (“World Population”). The same 250-year-old process has also resulted in modern technological innovations that generations of people have grown accustomed to—such as steam engines, railroads, cars, modern appliances, and computers. Average life expectancy has more than doubled in industrialized nations, while average incomes have increased even more. To be sure, industrialization has improved life in many ways for many people.
On the other hand, industrialization has not spread wealth evenly across the globe, and the consequences have often been unjust. For example, in 2010, in developing countries, where 85% of people in the world live, 16,000 children die each day from hunger-related causes—that's one child every five seconds (“Global Hunger”). This tragedy is just one of the far-reaching consequences of the wealth and income inequality in our contemporary world. But how did it come about that, as of 2006, 10% of the world’s wealthiest people controlled 85% of the world’s wealth? (Brown) Because getting a head start matters: the wealthiest countries in the world today are those that industrialized first.
So why study the Industrial Revolution? Study it to understand the major challenges, trends, and successes of the world today—high-tech innovations, increased global wealth, social injustices, global migration patterns, and environmental degradation. In short, we cannot hope to understand the modern world without understanding the Industrial Revolution.
In this text we pose an essential question that focuses our inquiry: Did the Industrial Revolution improve life? To investigate this quesion we will look at what changes occured in society and what the consequences were for various groups. Was life better for the average person? Was life better for children? Women? Workers? Business people? And how did industrialization change society? Did industrialized societies grow economically and become wealthy? Did the response of the government improve life? As you read this text, evaluate the evidence on your own and decide whether or not industrial societies improved life over pre-industrial socieites.
What is the Industrial Revolution?
So what exactly is the Industrial Revolution? An Industrial Revolution at its core occurs when a society shifts from using tools to make products to using new sources of energy, such as coal, to power machines in factories. It’s a shift from the home to the factory, from the country to the city, from human or animal power to engines powered by fossil fuels (coal and, later, oil). The industrial process occurred gradually, but the social and economic changes were so far reaching over generations that, looking back, it becomes clear that they were nothing short of revolutionary.
The revolution started in England, with a series of innovations to make labor more efficient and productive. In the new industrial cities, advances in technology and organization allowed the average worker to produce much more than ever before. For example, one low-skilled worker in a spinning factory in Britain in 1820 could produce, with the help of a steam-powered spinning machine, a hundred times the spun thread of a pre-industrial worker (Stearns 8). Though it started with labor-saving devices in England, the revolution spread incrementally to other regions of the world.
The Industrial Revolution is an era that began in England at the end of the 18th century, but it has yet to end. We can distinguish three phases of the Industrial Revolution in modern world history, based on when various countries and regions went through the process:
- The first phase (1770s to 1860s) started with Britain and then spread to other countries in Northern and Western Europe and the United States.
- The second phase (1870s to 1950s) brought in Russia, Japan, other parts of Eastern and Southern Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.
- The third phase (1960s to present) brought in the so-called Asian Tigers (Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea) and has seen tentative development in key economic sectors in Turkey, India, Brazil, Chile, and Argentina.
Watch this video for a brief overview of the Industrial Revolution
The Industrial Revolution was a time of great age throughout the world. It represented major change from 1760 to the period 1820-1840. The movement originated in Great Britain and affected everything from industrial manufacturing processes to the daily life of the average citizen. I will discuss the Industrial Revolution and the effects it had on the world as a whole.
The primary industry of the time was the textiles industry. It had the most employees, output value, and invested capital. It was the first to take on new modern production methods. The transition to machine power drastically increased productivity and efficiency. This extended to iron production and chemical production.
It started in Great Britain and soon expanded into Western Europe and to the United States. The actual effects of the revolution on different sections of society differed. They manifested themselves at different times. The ‘trickle down’ effect whereby the benefits of the revolution helped the lower classes didn’t happen until towards the 1830s and 1840s. Initially, machines like the Watt Steam Engine and the Spinning Jenny only benefited the rich industrialists.
The effects on the general population, when they did come, were major. Prior to the revolution, most cotton spinning was done with a wheel in the home. These advances allowed families to increase their productivity and output. It gave them more disposable income and enabled them to facilitate the growth of a larger consumer goods market. The lower classes were able to spend. For the first time in history, the masses had a sustained growth in living standards.
Social historians noted the change in where people lived. Industrialists wanted more workers and the new technology largely confined itself to large factories in the cities. Thousands of people who lived in the countryside migrated to the cities permanently. It led to the growth of cities across the world, including London, Manchester, and Boston. The permanent shift from rural living to city living has endured to the present day.
Trade between nations increased as they often had massive surpluses of consumer goods they couldn’t sell in the domestic market. The rate of trade increased and made nations like Great Britain and the United States richer than ever before. Naturally, this translated to military power and the ability to sustain worldwide trade networks and colonies.
On the other hand, the Industrial Revolution and migration led to the mass exploitation of workers and slums. To counter this, workers formed trade unions. They fought back against employers to win rights for themselves and their families. The formation of trade unions and the collective unity of workers across industries are still existent today. It was the first time workers could make demands of their employers. It enfranchised them and gave them rights to upset the status quo and force employers to view their workers as human beings like them.
Overall, the Industrial Revolution was one of the single biggest events in human history. It launched the modern age and drove industrial technology forward at a faster rate than ever before. Even contemporary economics experts failed to predict the extent of the revolution and its effects on world history. It shows why the Industrial Revolution played such a vital role in the building of the United States of today.