Industrial Revolution is the name given by the German socialist author Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) in 1844 to changes that took place in Great Britain during the period from roughly 1730 to 1850. In general, those changes involved the transformation of Great Britain from a largely agrarian society to one dominated by industry. In a broader context, the term has also been applied to the transformation of the trans-Atlantic economy, including continental Europe and the United States in the nineteenth century. Most broadly of all, it includes the ongoing industrialization of much of the world.
The Industrial Revolution involved some of the most profound changes yet to occur in human society in history. However, historians have long argued over Page 2278 | Top of Articlethe exact nature of these changes, the factors that brought them about, and the ultimate effects the Revolution was to have on Great Britain and the world.
Most of the vast array of changes that took place during the Industrial Revolution can be found in one of three major economic sectors—textiles, iron, and steel, as well as transportation. These changes had far-flung effects on the British economy and social system.
The textile industry
Prior to the mid-eighteenth century, textile manufacture in Great Britain (and the rest of the world) was an activity that took place almost exclusively in private homes. Families would obtain thread from wholesale outlets and then produce cloth by hand in their own houses. Beginning in the 1730s, however, a number of inventors began to develop machines that took over one or more of the hand-knitting operations previously used in the production of textiles.
For example, John Kay invented the first flying shuttle in 1733. This machine consisted of a large frame to which was suspended a series of threads through which a shuttle carrying more thread could be passed. Workers became so proficient with the machine that they could literally make the shuttle “fly” through the thread framework as they wove a piece of cloth.
Over the next half century, other machines were developed that further mechanized the weaving of cloth. These included the spinning jenny, invented by James Hargreaves in 1764; the water frame, invented by Richard Arkwright in 1769; the spinning mule, invented by Samuel Crompton in 1779; the power loom, invented by Edmund Cartwright in 1785; and the cotton gin, invented by Eli Whitney in 1792. (Dates for these inventions may be in dispute because of delays between actual inventions and the issuance of patents for them.) One indication of the rate at which technology was developing during this period is the number of patents being issued. Prior to 1760, the government seldom issued more than a dozen patents a year. By 1766, however, that number had risen to 31 and, by 1783, to 64. By the end of the century, it was no longer unusual for more than 100 new patents to be issued annually.
At least as important as the invention of individual machines was the organization of industrial operations for their use. Large factories, powered by steam or water, sprang up throughout the nation for the manufacture of cloth and clothing.
The development of new technology in the textile industry had a ripple effect on society, as is so often the case with technological change. As cloth and clothing became more readily available at more modest prices, the demand for such articles increased. This increase in demand had the further effect, of course, of encouraging the expansion of business and the search for even more efficient forms of technology.
Technological change also began to spread to other nations. By the mid-nineteenth century, as an example, the American inventor Elias Howe had applied the principles of the Industrial Revolution to hand sewing. He invented a machine that, in a demonstration contest in 1846, allowed him to sew a garment faster than five women sewing by hand.
Iron and steel manufacture
One factor contributing to the development of industry in Great Britain was that nation’s large supply of coal and iron ore. For many centuries, the British had converted their iron ores to iron and steel by heating the raw material with charcoal, made from trees. By the mid-eighteenth century, however, the nation’s timber supply had largely been decimated. Iron and steel manufacturers were forced to look elsewhere for a fuel to use in treating iron ores.
The fuel they found was coal. When coal is heated in the absence of air it turns into coke. Coke proved to be a far superior material for the conversion of iron ore to iron and then to steel. It was eventually cheaper to produce than charcoal and it could be packed more tightly into a blast furnace, allowing the heating of a larger volume of iron.
The conversion of the iron and steel business from charcoal to coke was accompanied, however, by a number of new technical problems which, in turn, encouraged the development of even more new inventions. For example, the use of coke in the smelting of iron ores required a more intense flow of air through the furnace. Fortunately, the steam engine that had been invented by James Watt in 1763 provided the means for solving this problem. The Watt steam engine was also employed in the mining of coal, where it was used to remove water that collected within most mines.
By the end of the eighteenth century, the new approach to iron and steel production had produced dramatic effects on population and industrial patterns in Great Britain. Plants were moved or newly built in areas close to coal resources such as Southern Wales, Yorkshire, and Staffordshire.
For nearly half a century, James Watt’s steam engine was used as a power source almost exclusively for stationary purposes. The early machine was bulky and very heavy so that its somewhat obvious applications as a source of power for transportation were not readily solved. Indeed, the first forms of transport that made use of steam power were developed not in Great Britain, but in France and the United States. In those two nations, inventors constructed the first ships powered by steam engines. In this country, Robert Fulton’s steam ship Clermont, built in 1807, was among these early successes.
During the first two decades of the nineteenth century, a handful of British inventors solved the host of problems posed by placing a steam engine within a carriage-type vehicle and using it to transport people and goods. In 1803, for example, Richard Trevithick had built a “steam carriage” with which he carried passengers through the streets of London. A year later, one of his steam-powered locomotives pulled a load of ten tons for a distance of almost 10 mi (16 km) at a speed of about 5 mph (8 km/h).
Effects of the Industrial Revolution
The Industrial Revolution brought about dramatic changes in nearly every aspect of British society, including demographics, politics, social structures and institutions, and the economy. With the growth of factories, for example, people were drawn to metropolitan centers. The number of cities with populations of more than 20,000 in England and Wales rose from 12 in 1800 to nearly 200 at the close of the century. As a specific example of the effects of technological change on demographics, the growth of coke smelting resulted in a shift of population centers in England from the south and east to the north and west.
Technological change also made possible the growth of capitalism. Factory owners and others who controlled the means of production rapidly became very rich. As an indication of the economic growth inspired by new technologies, purchasing power in Great Britain doubled and the total national income increased by a factor of ten in the years between 1800 and 1900.
Such changes also brought about a revolution in the nation’s political structure. Industrial capitalists gradually replaced agrarian land owners as leaders of the nation’s economy and power structure.
Working conditions were often much less than satisfactory for many of those employed in the new factory systems. Work places were often poorly ventilated,
over-crowded, and replete with safety hazards. Men, women, and children alike were employed at survival wages in unhealthy and dangerous environments. Workers were often able to afford no more than the simplest housing, resulting in the rise of urban slums. Stories of the unbelievable work conditions in mines, textile factories, and other industrial plants soon became a staple of Victorian literature.
One consequence of these conditions was that action was eventually taken to protect workers—especially women and children—from the most extreme abuses of the factory system. Laws were passed requiring safety standards in factories, setting minimum age limits for young workers, establishing schools for children whose parents both worked, and creating other standards for the protection of workers. Workers themselves initiated activities to protect their own interests, the most important of which may have been the establishment of the first trade unions.
Overall, the successes of the technological changes here were so profound internationally that Great Britain became the world’s leading power, largely because of the Industrial Revolution, for more than a century.
David E. Newton