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Industrial Revolution



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.


Changes in Industry

Modern industry requires power to run its machinery. 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.


Iron and Coal

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 coke—a high-carbon, converted form of coal—to 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.