A Beginner's Guide to the Industrial Revolution

Steam-powered train on a rail bridge cutting through a thick forest under a blue sky.

12019/Pixabay

The Industrial Revolution refers to a period of massive economic, technological, social, and cultural change which affected humans to such an extent that it's often compared to the change from hunter-gathering to farming. At its simplest, a mainly agriculture-based world economy using manual labor was transformed into one of industry and manufacturing by machines. The precise dates are a subject for debate and vary by historian, but the 1760/80s to the 1830/40s are most common, with the developments beginning in Britain and then spreading to the rest of the world, including the United States.

The Industrial Revolutions

The term "industrial revolution" was used to describe the period before the 1830s, but modern historians increasingly call this period the "first industrial revolution." This period was characterized by developments in textiles, iron, and steam (led by Britain) to differentiate it from a second revolution of the 1850s onwards, characterized by steel, electrics, and automobiles (led by the U.S. and Germany).

What Changed Industrially and Economically

  • The invention of steam power, which replaced horses and water, was used to power factories and transportation and allowed for deeper mining.
  • The improvement of iron-making techniques allowing for vastly higher production levels and better material.
  • The textile industry was transformed by new machines (such as the Spinning Jenny) and factories, allowing for much higher production at a lower cost.
  • Better machine tools allowed for more and better machines.
  • Developments in metallurgy and chemical production affected many industries.
  • New and quicker transport networks were created thanks to first canals and then railways, allowing products and materials to be moved cheaper and more efficiently.
  • The banking industry developed to meet the needs of entrepreneurs, providing finance opportunities that allowed the industries to expand. 
  • The use of coal (and coal production) soared. Coal eventually replaced wood.

As you can see, an awful lot of industries changed dramatically, but historians have to carefully untangle how each affected the other as everything triggered changes in the others, which triggered more changes in return.

What Changed Socially and Culturally

Rapid urbanization led to dense, cramped housing and living conditions, which spread disease, created vast new city-dwelling populations, and a new sort of social order that helped to establish a new way of life:

  • New city and factory cultures affecting family and peer groups.
  • Debates and laws regarding child labor, public health, and working conditions.
  • Anti-technology groups, such as the Luddites.

Causes of the Industrial Revolution

The end of feudalism changed economic relationships (with feudalism used as a useful catch-all term and not a claim that there was classic-style feudalism in Europe at this point). More causes of the Industrial Revolution include:

  • A higher population because of less disease and lower infant mortality, which allowed for a larger industrial workforce.
  • The agricultural revolution freed people from the soil, allowing (or driving) them into cities and manufacturing, creating a larger industrial workforce.
  • Proportionally large amounts of spare capital for investment.
  • Inventions and the scientific revolution, allowing for new technology.
  • Colonial trade networks.
  • The presence of all the required resources located close together, which is why Britain was the first country to experience the industrial revolution.
  • A general culture of hard work, taking risks, and developing ideas.

Debates

  • Evolution, not revolution? Historians such as J. Clapham and N. Craft have argued that there was a gradual evolution in industrial sectors, rather than a sudden revolution.
  • How the revolution worked. Historians are still trying to pry apart the heavily interwoven developments, with some arguing that there were parallel developments in many industries and others arguing that some industries, usually cotton, surged and stimulated the others.
  • Britain in the 18th century. The debate still rages over both why the industrial revolution began when it did and why it began in Britain.