Industrial Revolution


During the Industrial Revolution (ca. 1750-1850), Britain was transformed into the world's first economy dominated by mechanized production. This transformation was the culmination of centuries of agricultural and technological innovation dating back to the later Middle Ages. From the late nineteenth century onward, industrialization diffused rapidly across the West and other parts of the world.

In the Early Modern age, Western Europe emerged as the world's most advanced region in various respects (e.g. agricultural, economic, technological). One factor was Europe's wealth of natural advantages. Thanks to generous rainfall, the continent features an abundance of forests and arable land. Minerals (including coal and iron, the essential raw materials of the Industrial Revolution) are also plentiful, and the European coastline enjoys rich fishing grounds.A281,K290-91

In terms of elevation, the northern half of Europe is mostly low and level, while the southern half is generally high and mountainous. In terms of climate, the western half of Europe is chiefly temperate (due largely to the warming effect of the Gulf Stream), while the eastern half is mainly continental (due largely to cold winds from the Asian interior and Arctic); Eastern Europe is also drier than Western Europe. These simple geographic facts gave Western Europe (especially the northern part) a major advantage in agricultural productivity, as well as general ease of living.A282

Agricultural Revolution

During the Early Modern age, Western Europe experienced a massive population expansion driven by steady advances in agricultural technology, including crop rotation, new fertilizers, improved strains of plants and animals, improved tools, expansion of arable land (via felling of forests and drainage of wet areas), and reorganization of land (into clearly-defined private parcels, which allowed individual farmers to experiment as they liked with farming techniques). Advances were particularly strong in England, which by the end of the Early Modern period led the world in agricultural productivity. English innovations radiated across Europe and over the Atlantic.A283-4,A345

This agricultural progress is sometimes referred to as the Agricultural Revolution, even though it took place gradually over centuries. Regardless of terminology, the Agricultural Revolution was a vital prerequisite to the Industrial Revolution, given that an industrial economy demands great numbers of factory workers. Rising agricultural productivity provided this urban workforce, both via sheer population increase, as well as decline in the proportion of the population required for agricultural labour.

In the Modern age, agricultural output soared with the development of mechanized farming. Moreover, consumers suddenly enjoyed a much larger range of food choices (at unprecedented low cost) thanks to modern shipping and storage methods (notably canning and refrigeration), allowing many products to be quickly and cheaply transported across the globe. After the Second World War, productivity was boosted again by the Green Revolution, in which high-yield crops (particularly rice and wheat) were developed, along with chemical fertilizers and pesticides.K290-91,K462-63

Industrial Revolution

An "industrial revolution" is the transformation of an economy based on agriculture, hand-manufacturing, and commerce (the principal sectors of pre-industrial economies) into one dominated by mechanized manufacture. The first such revolution occurred in Britain ca. 1750-1850. Industrialization spread to France and Belgium (toward the end of this period), then to Germany, the United States, and Japan (in the late nineteenth century).2

Britain was a favourable environment for industrialization, given its relatively free and stable society (including economic freedom, which allowed capitalism to flourish), ample supplies of coal and iron, and enormous colonial export markets. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the great majority of Britain's population was rural, and manufacturing was done by hand (either in private homes or small workshops). Industrialization moved the site of production to large factories, and caused Britain's urban population to soar.B254-55,K292-93,3,6

The first major industry of the Industrial Revolution was cotton textiles. (Textile, aka cloth or fabric, is produced by weaving thread, which is produced by spinning fibre.) The speed of textile production was increased many times over, first via clever hand-powered devices (e.g. the spinning jenny), then steam-powered machines. Subsequent major industries included iron, weapons, chemicals, and furniture. The overall technological transformation enabled by industrialization can be summed up in two phases: the age of iron and steam (ca. 1750-1900) and the age of steel and electricity (ca. 1900-present).3,4

Two critical American contributions to industrial production were interchangeable parts (invented by American arms manufacturers) and the assembly line (developed by American meat-packing plants), both achieved in the nineteenth century.6,7

Social Effects

The social transformations of the Industrial Revolution were, inevitably, profound. Rapid urbanization engendered crowded, dirty living quarters for the working class, whose harsh labour conditions were often endured for more than twelve hours a day. Child labour was widely exploited, and wages were poor, especially for women and children. Industrial pollution threatened both human health and the natural world.6

Yet over the long term, wages and working conditions improved, as did health and living conditions. Much of this came down to government intervention, including work and safety regulations, building codes, pollution control, municipal water and sewage systems, garbage collection, and other public services. Wages and working conditions were also improved by unions, which by ca. 1900 had become a major force throughout the industrialized world. Consequently, most citizens of industrialized nations have shared in the material benefits of industrialization, albeit to widely varying extents.A349-50,6

1 - "Technology", Encarta 2004.
2 - "Industrial Revolution", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed February 2010.
3 - "Industrial Revolution", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed February 2010.
4 - "Building Construction: The history of building construction", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed March 2010.
5 - "Steam engine", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed February 2010.
6 - "Industrial Revolution", Encarta 2004.
7 - "History of the organization of work", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed May 2010.