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Economics and Trade • Movers and Shakers: A Discussion about Industry and Power

The Industrial Revolution, which took place during the 18th and 19th centuries, was the period of transition from an agricultural and handcraft economy to one dominated by factory production and manufacturing by machines. The Industrial Revolution began in England in the 18th century and spread to other parts of Europe and the United States.

The term Industrial Revolution is thought to have originated among French commentators at the turn of the 19th century. Those authors suggested that many nations were experiencing changes that were resulting in profound economic and social transformations. Indeed, the Industrial Revolution marked the onset of industrial society and defined the key mechanisms of its progress.

England's Industrial Growth

Although the pace of industrial development differed between nations, there were many similarities. The Industrial Revolution encompassed a number of components, including technological advances. Economic growth, the subsequent development of new markets, changes in the transportation of goods, improved communications, and changes in the social structure were also important factors.

All of those factors were evident in England, which is often credited with playing a leading role in the Industrial Revolution. Although a predominantly agricultural society at the beginning of the 18th century, England was already an important industrial producer. Best known for the manufacture of woolen cloth, England also produced great quantities of tin, coal, leather goods, small metal goods, and other domestic items.

Moreover, England witnessed many technological advances during the 18th century. Some of these were of benefit to many different types of industries. These included James Watt's steam engine, which could replace or supplement power from traditional sources like watermills and windmills. Initially, the steam engine was developed for use in the mining industry to provide greater amounts of coal. It was later adapted to power different types of machinery within factories.

Other British inventions aided specific industries, like the production of cloth. They included the flying shuttle, which was patented in 1733 by a Lancashire mechanic named John Kay. Previously, four spinners were needed to keep up with a single cotton loom, and 10 additional people were needed to prepare yarn for one woolen weaver. The new shuttle streamlined this process by allowing the yarn to be produced more quickly.

In addition, Richard Arkwright's water frame, patented in 1769, further accelerated the production of yarn. And less than a decade later, Samuel Crompton combined the flying shuttle and the water frame into what became known as Crompton's mule.

Economic growth was also readily apparent in 18th-century England. The country already enjoyed a vigorous export trade to Europe, the North American colonies, India, and Africa. Further growth in international trade was fueled by political developments across Europe.

After 1713, the British were allowed to trade with the Spanish Empire in South and Central America. New markets were created by the growth of English colonies in the West Indies and India. As the pace of industrialization increased, a growing number of cheap manufactured goods was sent to the colonies. Those goods included everything from hammers, shovels, and anchors to firearms and gunpowder.

Although ships were used for long-distance trade, other forms of transportation were developed to deal with internal European trade. Navigable rivers had long played a role in the distribution of both raw and manufactured goods. Those natural channels were supplemented in the second half of the 18th century by the construction of a canal system.

Roads also continued to improve thanks in part to the growth of turnpike roads, which charged a toll for their use and subsequent upkeep. During the 19th century, the development of railroads changed the face of transportation forever. By 1850, trains were able to travel between 30 and 50 miles an hour to speed both raw materials and consumer goods across Europe.

Communications and the Growth of Cities

Improved methods of communication were another factor in the acceleration of industrialization. Sir Samuel Cunard pioneered the concept of transatlantic mail in 1839. After gaining permission from the British government, he began a postal system between Liverpool, Halifax, and Boston. In 1840, a new method of sending mail was implemented in England. The new penny post was based on the concept that it was the handling, rather than the distance sent, that was the critical cost in delivering mail.

By the third quarter of the 19th century, telegraph cables enabled businesses to communicate to faraway lands. This period also saw the development of the Universal Postal Union, whose purpose was to facilitate the movement of post overseas.

A final major factor in the European Industrial Revolution was that of changes in social structure. Those changes included a dramatic increase in population and urbanization that was most apparent in England and Germany. By the mid-19th century, only half of the English population still dwelled in rural areas. Over the following 50 years, the same became true for many European countries.

Many people who immigrated to urban areas were part of what became a new working class. Factories called for a large number of workers to run machinery. In many cases, the factory owners tended to consider their employees as little more than commodities. The men, women, and children who filled those roles were generally subjected to long hours, low wages, and poor working conditions.

The Industrial Revolution also helped to create a British middle class. New occupations were developed to cope with the running of factories. Those occupations included managers, engineers, and skilled workers like mechanics and toolmakers.

Industrialization in England also affected the growth of its colonies. During the early 18th century, the British colonies were concerned with the need to make a living rather than with industrial advancement. The Industrial Revolution changed that attitude by increasing the demand for colonial goods, which enjoyed a protected market. In addition, industrialization supplied capital to the colonists.

The American Industrial Revolution

However, the Industrial Revolution in the United States followed a different, later course. Although agriculture was the main source of income, there were major differences in the way business developed in the North and South.
Tobacco, which was grown in the former areas, was probably the most important export. Tobacco was a very successful product and was supplied in increasing quantities to England and France. There was also a growing timber industry, developed through the use of traditional water-powered sawmills.

While the South concentrated on cash crops, the North had a growing commercial sector and showed the beginnings of manufacturing. And the successful export of a range of foodstuffs and timber resulted in the demand for new ships.

In addition to shipbuilding, the Northern colonies also became known for the smelting of iron and production of metal wares. By the second half of the 18th century, colonial iron output was sufficiently high for the British Parliament to pass an act controlling the industry. By 1760, a number of factories had also opened to produce pottery, glass, cloth, and paper.

Industrialization accelerated in the early 19th century with the growth of the young American nation. Consumer and industrial demand led to a rising number of factories. In Massachusetts in 1814, Francis Cabot Lowell began the first large-scale mechanized U.S. mill for the production of textiles.

In the mid-19th century, other successful new businesses included the manufacture of armaments. Samuel Colt's range of pistols was made with the best precision machine tools available at that time.

The growing industrialization of the United States also had an impact on agriculture. Cyrus McCormick was responsible for one of the most important tools for the nation's farmers. He invented the reaper, a piece of machinery that replaced the labor-intensive hand sickles that had traditionally been used for cutting grain.

By using a horse-drawn reaper, the time needed to harvest a field that previously took 20 hours was reduced to one hour. Although initially produced on a small scale, the demand for the machines quickly grew. In response, the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company was founded in 1847 to supply enough reapers for the entire country.

The last half of the 19th century experienced another set of technological innovations. Those included the development of cheap steel, which allowed factory machinery to be produced more quickly. As companies continued to expand, many merged with others to create large and powerful corporations. By the end of the century, those mergers resulted in a large number of highly integrated, conglomerate corporations both in the United States and in Europe.

However, while the Industrial Revolution had been portrayed in the middle of the 19th century as one of humankind's greatest achievements, to many 20th-century critics, that was no longer the case. Social reformers noted the moral and spiritual deficiencies of an industrialized society, including the disparity between the wealthy industrialists and the urban working class. Nevertheless, the so-called revolution continued during the 20th century, and industrialization spread throughout the world in a second phase of industrial development known as the Second Industrial Revolution.

Louise Curth
Dr. Louise Curth is a reader and program leader at the University of Winchester. She has also taught at the University of Exeter and Bath Spa University. Her research focuses on early modern medical history in England. Curth is the author of From Physick to Pharmacology: Five Hundred Years of British Drug Retailing (Ashgate, 2006), The care of brute beasts': a social and cultural history of veterinary medicine in early modern England (Brill, 2009) and 'A plaine and easie way to remedie a horse': early modern English texts on equine health care (Brill, 2012)

Further Reading

Berg, Maxine. The Age of Manufactures. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 1994; May, Trevor. An Economic and Social History of Britain, 1760-1990. London: Longman, 1996; More, Charles. Understanding the Industrial Revolution. London: Routledge, 2000; Stearns, Peter N. The Industrial Revolution in World History, 4th. ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2012.

MLA Citation

Curth, Louise. "Industrial Revolution." World History: The Modern Era, ABC-CLIO, 2020, worldhistory.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/309367. Accessed 28 Feb. 2020.

Entry ID: 2169905

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