Industrial Revolution

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Editor: Paul Robbins
Date: 2007
Encyclopedia of Environment and Society
Publisher: Sage Publications, Inc.
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 4
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1200L

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Industrial Revolution

THE TERM RÉVOLUTION industrielle was first used by French historians at the beginning of the 19th century, but later on it became a widespread phenomenon. Industrial Revolution became well known, especially by the Arnold Toynbee’s Lectures on the Industrial Revolution in England published in 1884. His term referred to the application of power-driven machinery to textile manufacturing in Britain. In the 18th century, all of Western Europe (especially England) experienced the process of rapid economic change that transformed all aspects of human life.

Toynbee was not a historian, and his ideas have been criticized by leading historians such as Rondo Cameron and A.P. Usher, but his ideas have largely influenced our understanding of modern history. None can deny the profound and aggressive economic and social change in Britain, which has never been seen anywhere else before and created the modern framework of capitalist economies. During the decades of rapid economic, social, and cultural changes, a number of new inventions were contrived and utilized in industrial production. At the same time, an accelerated urbanization took place and new centers of industrial production were created, worsening the working conditions of workers and the necessitating child labor. At the same time, many argue about the revolutionary nature of those changes, since the growth of economy and the transfer of technology was much slower than in contemporary economies.

One of the key reasons why the industrial unfolding happened in Britain was the lack of timber and the large deposits of coal in the country. English forests begin to vanish by Roman times, and the size of forested territory has not changed much since the Middle Ages. Timber was an expensive commodity, and chimney smoke shadowed the sky in 13th-century London and other cities all around Europe. Parisians faced serious wood shortages already in 1595, when bakers had to use alternative materials to provide adequate amount of fresh bread. However, there was an abundant labor supply to mine coal and iron, a large fleet, science-based technical know-how, and colonies to provide raw materials and merchants with capital to invest. The utilization of that scientific knowledge accelerated throughout the period and by the late 19th century; theories of chemistry and electrical engineering created the basis of new production methods and branches of industry.

The English countryside changed as well between 1760 and 1830. The open-field system of cultivation gave way to compact farms and enclosed fields, which led to migration to cities. The present rural landscape dominated by large open fields, hedges, and fences are all originated from this time.

A number of agriculture-related inventions appeared. Nitrogen-fixing agricultural advancements Page 924  |  Top of Articleled to the growth of agricultural productivity. Jethro Tull not only popularized the importance of root crops such as turnips and potatoes, but was an inventor of the seed drill and horse hoe. Town-shend, another agricultural reformist, was famous for his introduction of the four-course rotation of wheat, turnips, oats, and barley. Robert Bakewell pioneered in the field of systematic stock breeding for food. Intensifying discourse over agricultural advances led to the establishment of the Board of Agriculture in 1793. Growing agricultural productivity had a great importance of the changing human relationships with nature.


New methods of glass and clock making had already appeared in the 17th century, but a more profound change followed the diminishment of guilds in England and the arrival of a new power source. Wind and hydropower were used in mills, sailing, and even in industrial production, but the steam engine became the landmark of the industrial development. Refining the principles of Thomas Newcomen’s bulky 1705 invention, in 1763 James Watt designed his steam engine, which revolutionized production methods in the next 100 years. Watt built over 500 of them in 25 years by 1800.

Water power continued in use, but the factory now had an alternative. Steam engines were large, heavy, and hardly transportable, but still successfully used in ships and mines. Robert Fulton made a successful experiment with a steam vessel on the Hudson in 1807. Many entrepreneurs recognized the importance of the steam engine, and the use of such machines in manufacturing was becoming widespread by the beginning of the 19th century. Since steam engines had a number of technological problems, they were first only supplemental power sources. Their efficiency was also low, and therefore burned tons of coal per day and produced high emissions. Despite of all the disadvantages, they were used successfully in pottery and grinding, and revolutionized the textile industry along with a number of other inventions.

By the time steam engines became more efficient, their importance in transportation began to be recognized. Since the large steam engine required a significant amount of coal, attempts to adopt steam vehicles for road transportation failed notoriously.

The arrival of the railroads facilitated industrialization in Europe, but had serious social and environmental implications. During the early 19th century, mine tracks were transformed into transportation corridors around and between commercial and industrial centers. By the early 1830s, George Stephenson’s famous train pulled cars from Liverpool to Manchester.

The railway boom came to Britain by the mid-1850s, when cheap raw materials and adequate technology enabled investors to compete successfully with other means of travel. Soon trains were faster, safer, and more convenient than any other way of traveling. Information spread faster along railway, which made business safer. Trains were fast, although none of them could cover more than 45 miles per hour. The invention of the telegraph quickened information flow, and by the 1870s, telegraph cables connected continents and global transactions took only minutes. At the same time, steamships became more and more widespread in international waters. By the 1840s, technical problems with the flammability of vessels and bulkiness of machinery were solved. Soon, transatlantic travels became regular, which hastened the transportation of goods from both sides of the Atlantic.

Until the 19th century, most of the world’s population was rural and urban places had limited importance. However, factories and commercial centers created a never-before-seen demand for a labor force in urban areas. By the mid-19th century, half of England lived in cities, and Britain’s population increased more rapidly than ever before. By the beginning of the century, a similar phenomenon was observed in most European countries and in the east coast of North America. However, earning a living in an English city during that time was not an easy task.

According to the 1851 census abstracts, 22 percent of the total 9.4 million population of Britain earned its living from agriculture; at the same time, 39 percent were engaged with manufacturing and 25 percent with services. Only 50 years later, in 1901, services became predominant and only 9 percent of the total population was engaged with agriculture in Britain. Industry was producing a wide range of Page 925  |  Top of Articleproducts from textile products to metals and from food products to chemicals.

During the course of the 19th century, services became more and more important as transportation, banking, and trade developed. Cities became crowded. The scale and the type of industrial pollution that appeared during the late 18th century was unprecedented. Besides small workshops and domestic users, large factories gained their energy from burning coal. Smokestacks became landmarks and sources of smoke, which shadowed the sun regularly. Emissions from factories found their way into rivers and polluted them constantly.

Cheap, company-built housing was inevitable for workers, but factory owners gained a strong control over communities by ownership. A great proportion of the workforce was engaged with low-paying jobs and lived in overcrowded and poorly lit accommodations. Sanitation conditions were poor in

in 1763 James Watt designed his steam engine

in 1763 James Watt designed his steam engine, which revolutionized production methods in the next 100 years.

these areas, with bathrooms often shared by many members of various generations. Such conditions resulted in high rates of mortality and disease among workers. These classic slums were characteristic in all cities of Britain. The inadequate understanding of hygiene worsened the situation, but the association between ill health and poor living conditions soon became evident for much of the society.

By the 1830s, many British towns suffered of cholera, smallpox, and other epidemics. At the same time, many workers were affected by industrial pollution caused by dusty and damp conditions in factories. Many of the locals united in campaigning groups. Local physicians organized Boards of Health, often following after epidemics, to improve living conditions. These boards pointed out the importance of hygiene and that many of the cotton mills and factories were the hotbeds of epidemics.

During the early days of industrialization, a number of children were also employed within such conditions, which reduced their life expectancy significantly. Health conditions had improved by the contribution of cleanness campaigns, efforts of sanitation engineers for better drinking water and sewage services, and individual achievements such as garbage bins with lids to keep flies out. The well-organized collection of horse manure was also essential for the city’s health, but created serious disposal problems. Furthermore, untreated effluent running into rivers posed further problems of water pollution and urban water supply. Many of the large industrial centers were suffering from polluted waters, such as Manchester, London, and Chicago. To gain improvements in sanitation and sewage, sophisticated infrastructures were created.

The environment saw unprecedented changes during the years of the Industrial Revolution. After 1750, the large number of industrial cities grew and aroused a number of problems of the relationship between the society and environment. Remarkable growth of production and population created the need for a number of infrastructural developments, such as expanded canals and railway lines throughout Britain.

Water pollution resulted from the increased amount of solid and dissolved industrial and household waste being discharged into rivers. Waste accumulated in some of the river basins and caused Page 926  |  Top of Articlea thick scum of dirty froth, unpleasant smells, and problems during floods. Despite all the negative effects, the politicization of such environmental issues did not make waves until the 1960s. However, many citizen groups became concerned about the environment through human health issues or social problems.

As early as the Middle Ages, problems with air were reported in some of the big cities due to the increased use of charcoal and wood for heating. But in the 19th century, significant problems with air pollution led to related health issues such as bronchitis and other respiratory ailments. Air pollutants came both from industrial sites and domestic hearths. The rise of the steel industry caused further troubles for many cities all over the world in the beginning of the 20th century. Concentrated point source emissions of steel factories, chemical plants, and electric power stations did not end until the 1980s in many Western European and American cities. Britain’s Manchester, Germany’s Ruhr region, France’s northern east in Europe, and Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, east Chicago, and Gary in the United States experience similar environmental problems during the 20th century.

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This settlement in the parish of Madeley, Shrop-shire, in the west of England, was one of the birthplaces of the Industrial Revolution.

There had long been an iron industry at Coal-brookdale, with a large furnace, known as the “Old Furnace” built there by Sir Basil Brooke in 1638, just before the English Civil War. In 1709, Abraham Darby built a furnace there to make iron goods. Darby lived at Madeley Court and was from a prominent local Quaker family. Six years later, he built another furnace, but his death two years after that saw the works end up in the hands of Thomas Goldney of Bristol, and managed by Richard Ford.

They brought back Abraham Darby’s son, also called Abraham Darby, and started making steam-engine cylinders. All these people were Quakers, and indeed Quakers were to have a major impact on the industrial revolution elsewhere in England and also in the United States.

It was in 1768 that the forges at Coalbrook-dale started to produce iron rails for railways. Coal-port China was also made there. Ten years later Abraham Darby III, grandson of the man who built the furnace in 1709, started work on the first cast iron bridge—Iron Bridge—which opened in 1780 and was to lead to the settlement of Ironbridge. It was from this that Thomas Telford gained the inspiration for his projects that followed, including the nearby Buildwas Bridge. Telford also redesigned the parish church of Madeley. In 1837 Charles Hulbert, a visitor to the area, described it as “the most extraordinary district in the world.” The Iron-bridge Gorge Museums record the first decades of the Industrial Revolution, and are major tourist sites for the region. The whole area is now a part of the township of Telford.

SEE ALSO: Coal; Hydropower ; Nonpoint Source Pollution ; Point Source Pollution; Pollution, Air; Pollution, Water; Urbanization.


Thomas Brinley, The Industrial Revolution and the Atlantic Economy (Routledge, 1993); Laurie Collie and Kevin Hillström, eds., The Industrial Revolution in America (ABC-CLIO, 2005); Chris Freeman and Francisco Louçã, As Time Goes By: From the Industrial Revolution to the Information (Oxford University Press, 2001); Eric Hobsbawn, The Age of Revolution 1789–1848 (Vintage Books, 1996); Pat Hudson, The Industrial Revolution (E. Arnold, 1992); Thomas K. McCraw, ed., Creating Modern Capitalism: How Entrepreneurs, Companies, and Countries Triumphed in Three Industrial Revolutions (Harvard University Press, 1997); Peter N. Stearns, The Industrial Revolution in World History (Westview Press, 1993); Peter Stearns, Interpreting the Industrial Revolution (American Historical Association, 1991); Mikuláŝ Teich and Roy Porter, The Industrial Revolution in National Context: Europe and the USA (Cambridge University Press, 1996).


Source Citation

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
"Industrial Revolution." Encyclopedia of Environment and Society, edited by Paul Robbins, vol. 3, SAGE Publications, 2007, pp. 923-926. Gale Ebooks, Accessed 14 Oct. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2660700573

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  • Bakewell, Robert
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  • Fulton, Robert
  • Stephenson, George
    • 3: 924