The Industrial Revolution was a period of scientific and technological development in the 18th century that transformed largely rural, agrarian societies—especially in Europe and North America—into industrialized, urban ones. Goods that had once been painstakingly crafted by hand started to be produced in mass quantities by machines in factories, thanks to the introduction of new machines and techniques in textiles, iron making and other industries.
When Was the Industrial Revolution?
Though a few innovations were developed as early as the 1700s, the Industrial Revolution began in earnest by the 1830s and 1840s in Britain, and soon spread to the rest of the world, including the United States.
Modern historians often refer to this period as the First Industrial Revolution, to set it apart from a second period of industrialization that took place from the late 19th to early 20th centuries and saw rapid advances in the steel, electric and automobile industries.
Thanks in part to its damp climate, ideal for raising sheep, Britain had a long history of producing textiles like wool, linen and cotton. But prior to the Industrial Revolution, the British textile business was a true “cottage industry,” with the work performed in small workshops or even homes by individual spinners, weavers and dyers.
Starting in the mid-18th century, innovations like the spinning jenny (a wooden frame with multiple spindles), the flying shuttle, the water frame and the power loom made weaving cloth and spinning yarn and thread much easier. Producing cloth became faster and required less time and far less human labor.
More efficient, mechanized production meant Britain’s new textile factories could meet the growing demand for cloth both at home and abroad, where the British Empire’s many overseas colonies provided a captive market for its goods. In addition to textiles, the British iron industry also adopted new innovations.
Chief among the new techniques was the smelting of iron ore with coke (a material made by heating coal) instead of the traditional charcoal. This method was both cheaper and produced higher-quality material, enabling Britain’s iron and steel production to expand in response to demand created by the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15) and the later growth of the railroad industry.
Impact of Steam Power
An icon of the Industrial Revolution broke onto the scene in the early 1700s, when Thomas Newcomen designed the prototype for the first modern steam engine. Called the “atmospheric steam engine,” Newcomen’s invention was originally applied to power the machines used to pump water out of mine shafts.
In the 1760s, Scottish engineer James Watt began tinkering with one of Newcomen’s models, adding a separate water condenser that made it far more efficient. Watt later collaborated with Matthew Boulton to invent a steam engine with a rotary motion, a key innovation that would allow steam power to spread across British industries, including flour, paper, and cotton mills, iron works, distilleries, waterworks and canals.
Just as steam engines needed coal, steam power allowed miners to go deeper and extract more of this relatively cheap energy source. The demand for coal skyrocketed throughout the Industrial Revolution and beyond, as it would be needed to run not only the factories used to produce manufactured goods, but also the railroads and steamships used for transporting them.
Transportation During the Industrial Revolution
Britain’s road network, which had been relatively primitive prior to industrialization, soon saw substantial improvements, and more than 2,000 miles of canals were in use across Britain by 1815.
In the early 1800s, Richard Trevithick debuted a steam-powered locomotive, and in 1830 similar locomotives started transporting freight (and passengers) between the industrial hubs of Manchester and Liverpool. By that time, steam-powered boats and ships were already in wide use, carrying goods along Britain’s rivers and canals as well as across the Atlantic.
Banking and Communication in the Industrial Revolution
In 1776, Scottish social philosopher Adam Smith, who is regarded as the founder of modern economics, published The Wealth of Nations. In it, Smith promoted an economic system based on free enterprise, the private ownership of means of production, and lack of government interference.
Banks and industrial financiers soon rose to new prominence during this period, as well as a factory system dependent on owners and managers. A stock exchange was established in London in the 1770s; the New York Stock Exchange was founded in the early 1790s.
The latter part of the Industrial Revolution also saw key advances in communication methods, as people increasingly saw the need to communicate efficiently over long distances. In 1837, British inventors William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone patented the first commercial telegraphy system, even as Samuel Morse and other inventors worked on their own versions in the United States.
Cooke and Wheatstone’s system would be used for railroad signaling, as the speed of the new steam-powered trains created a need for more sophisticated means of communication.
Though many people in Britain had begun moving to the cities from rural areas before the Industrial Revolution, this process accelerated dramatically with industrialization, as the rise of large factories turned smaller towns into major cities over the span of decades. This rapid urbanization brought significant challenges, as overcrowded cities suffered from pollution, inadequate sanitation, miserable housing conditions and a lack of safe drinking water.
Meanwhile, even as industrialization increased economic output overall and improved the standard of living for the middle and upper classes, poor and working class people continued to struggle. The mechanization of labor created by technological innovation had made working in factories increasingly tedious (and sometimes dangerous), and many workers—including children—were forced to work long hours for pitifully low wages.
In the decades to come, outrage over substandard working and living conditions would fuel the formation of labor unions, as well as the passage of new child labor laws and public health regulations in both Britain and the United States, all aimed at improving life for working class and poor citizens who had been negatively impacted by industrialization.
The Industrial Revolution in the United States
The beginning of industrialization in the United States is usually pegged to the opening of a textile mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, in 1793 by the recent English immigrant Samuel Slater. Slater had worked at one of the mills opened by Richard Arkwright (inventor of the water frame) mills, and despite laws prohibiting the emigration of textile workers, he brought Arkwright’s designs across the Atlantic. He later built several other cotton mills in New England, and became known as the “Father of the American Industrial Revolution.”
The United States followed its own path to industrialization, spurred by innovations “borrowed” from Britain as well as by homegrown inventors like Eli Whitney. Whitney’s 1793 invention of the cotton gin (short for “engine”) revolutionized the nation’s cotton industry (and strengthened the hold of slavery over the cotton-producing South).
By the end of the 19th century, with the so-called Second Industrial Revolution underway, the United States would also transition from a largely agrarian society to an increasingly urbanized one, with all the attendant problems.
By the mid-19th century, industrialization was well-established throughout the western part of Europe and America’s northeastern region. By the early 20th century, the U.S. had become the world’s leading industrial nation.
Effects of the Industrial Revolution
Historians continue to debate many aspects of industrialization, including its exact timeline, why it began in Britain as opposed to other parts of the world and the idea that it was actually more of a gradual evolution than a revolution. The positives and negatives of the Industrial Revolution are complex.
On one hand, unsafe working conditions were rife and environmental pollution from coal and gas are legacies we still struggle with today. On the other, the move to cities and ingenious inventions that made clothing, communication and transportation more affordable and accessible to the masses changed the course of world history.
Regardless of these questions, the Industrial Revolution had a transformative economic, social and cultural impact, and played an integral role in laying the foundations for modern society.
Robert C. Allen, The Industrial Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007
Claire Hopley, “A History of the British Cotton Industry.” British Heritage Travel, July 29, 2006
William Rosen, The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010
Gavin Weightman, The Industrial Revolutionaries: The Making of the Modern World, 1776-1914. New York: Grove Press, 2007
Matthew White, “Georgian Britain: The Industrial Revolution.” British Library, October 14, 2009