Industrial Revolution

THE INDUSTRIAL Revolution is one of the most dramatic events in modern world history, an event which has more or less influenced all nations of the world in one form or another. The Industrial Revolution began in the late-18th century in England, UNITED KINGDOM, in a region of the country known as the West Midlands—the largest city today in this region is Birmingham.

The Industrial Revolution is characterized by the rise of industrialization, a process of industrial, social, and economic changes that revolutionized societies from agrarian to industrial. Central to this change is the development of technology that allows for the process of manufacture to occur, that is, the changing of raw materials into finished goods (often in factories) for sale in the marketplace. To simply define what is the Industrial Revolution is problematic, but in simple terms, it may be said to be the application of powerdriven machinery to the process of manufacturing products.

Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution must be viewed as a revolution, not in the political sense of the word, but a revolution in that fundamental changes occurred as a result of its existence, particularly in the social and economic structure of countries it affected. The changes that brought about the Industrial Revolution in Enland occurred in a gradual manner and can be seen in the previous decades and centuries before fundamental change happened. Thus, the Industrial Revolution was the consequence of a long period of change prior to the application of power-driven machinery within the process of manufacture.


The Industrial Revolution began in the late 18th century in England. As to the precise date of the event, historians have been unable to provide an answer. Regardless of people’s perspectives, what has been widely noted is that from the end of the 18th century, fundamental social and economic change occurred in England and subsequently other places, which included a dramatic rise in national population sizes, brought about by changing birth and death rates; a more rapid growth of existing towns and cities, particularly capital cities; the appearance of new social classes related to people’s position as owners of industry or as workers in the industrial process; and developments in transportation and networks of communication.

For the Industrial Revolution to have happened, historians have noted a number of significant changes in society. These have included developments in agriculture, such as the adoption of new systems of cultivation and the invention of new machinery which allowed for an increased supply of food, and the development of new machinery in industrial production from increases in knowledge that were mostly the result of practical experiences and informed empiricism.

These new machines that greatly affected industrial behavior included, by way of example, machines like the flying shuttle (John Kay), the water frame (Richard Arkwright) and the spinning jenny (James Hargreaves). Coupled with this particular development were inventions in other areas that were also applied to modern industry.

For instance, Thomas Newcomen’s steam engine, first used to help pump water out of mines, and then James Watts’s 1763 steam engine opened the door for steam-powered machinery in the workplace. Steam providing the power for machines that previously had used water as a source of energy. Such inventions helped bring about a dramatic rise in output, in turn stimulating further industrial growth and wider social and economic change.

For the Industrial Revolution to have happened, historians such as Michael Zell have noted an important economic/industrial stage immediately prior to the onset of industrialization. This stage of development, a “putting-out” industrial phase commonly referred to as proto-industrialization, is widely accepted to be the phase of modern economic development that preceded the Industrial Revolution proper.

Proto-industrialization can be characterized by two very distinct features: First, the spread of domestic manufacturing in rural places linked previously remote family groupings to not only regional but national and international marketplaces; second, rural manufacture became so widespread in geographical extent, plus so economically and socially powerful, that it helped push economies toward industrial manufacture in the factory situation, a situation associated with capitalist economics and production in urban centers.


Historians have also been puzzled as to why England became the first nation to be affected by the Industrial Revolution. Despite much fervent discussion and writing on the subject, no one single answer has been produced; instead, a number of suggested reasons have been proposed.

In a general sense, both the economic and political contexts were suitable for rapid societal transition but also a number of other factors were significant. These include the abundance of natural resources that could be used as raw materials in the industrial process (e.g. coal and iron ore); the availability of capital to invest in modern industry; a growing marketplace in part based on domestic population growth, foreign trade agreements, and the expansion of the British Empire; the availability of people to work in factories, many of whom were to migrate from the countryside into existing towns and cities; and people of sufficient intellectual capacity—that is, as managers of industrial units—but also people of ideas who could create new machines, workplaces, systems of industry, etc.


One of the places known as the “cradle of industry” in the West Midlands region of England is the county of Shropshire. Despite being one of the most rural parts of England, it was in Shropshire that a number of industrial firsts happened, probably as a result of the abundance of raw materials (iron, coal, lead) in the area. For instance, within the area of Coalbrookedale is Ironbridge, where the world’s first bridge to be erected of iron was built. The bridge (built in 1779 by Abraham Darby from a design by Thomas Pritchard) helped bring about improvements in iron smelting that formed an important element in the early phases of the Industrial Revolution. Today, the value of Ironbridge is demonstrated by its World Heritage Site status (given by UNESCO).

Central to the Industrial Revolution was the growth of the factory, a large industrial building within which goods are manufactured. Although the world’s first factories were not in England, the establishment of thousands of factories as part of the process of industrialization, some of which employed thousands of people, was central in bringing industrial change. The absorption of large numbers of workers into the factory was not a smooth process, as it involved a new labor routine within the workplace. In addition, some workers in England were so aggrieved by free market principles and the introduction of machinery in the workplace, in that it was a threat to their position of labor, that they destroyed equipment.

The Luddites, as they were known, and their movement gained such notoriety in early-19th century England that machine breaking became a capital crime. Many of the first factories in England were placed in rural locations so as to deter possible Luddite attacks.


Inside factories in the 19th century, laborers worked long hours for low pay, often in dangerous conditions, so as to maintain mass production (the production of large amounts of standardized goods) and industrial output. The development of the factory system was assisted by numerous technological developments at the end of the 18th century and further inventions in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Developments in machinery able to create power as well as the creation of large looms allowed manufacture to be more efficient. In terms of industrial Britain, the cotton factory was the most common factory type, within which cotton was produced. Raw materials from the Americas and the Caribbean, produced under conditions of slavery by workers taken from Africa until the 19th century, helped allow Britain to produce much prosperity, although this wealth was firmly kept within the hands of the factory owners, who would often invest their profits into establishing more factories. As a consequence, huge industrial empires were created in Britain and also in other countries.

The effect of the Industrial Revolution has been felt worldwide. At first the effects of the Industrial Revolution spread from England across Europe and into Northern America. However, even in Europe the dates at which different countries industrialized differed because of the influence of localized circumstances. FRANCE, for example, despite being geographically close to England did not industrialize until maybe 60 to 70 years after England (in the mid-19th century). SPAIN, too, did not start to industrialize until this time. GERMANY by this time already had a highly advanced industrial economy.

In other parts of the world, countries did not begin to industrialize until the 20th century. Many of today’s economic powerhouses in Asia, such as JAPAN, CHINA and TAIWAN, did not industrialize as such until the mid-20th century. In the case of China, industrialization and economic development did not start in earnest until the change of economic policies by the communist national government toward the end of the 20th century.

The effect of the Industrial Revolution has been to accelerate existing previous social and economic trends. In the case of England, as the first industrial nation, a number of these trends will now be discussed, and the consequences of industrialization also given some attention. The growth of industrialization in England at the end of the 18th century brought massive societal upheaval in the following decades. For example, the national population began to increase markedly. Existing towns and cities also grew dramatically. In England the demographic change was particularly pronounced, but all countries that have experienced industrialization at some time have also experienced marked population growth and urban growth.


With the increase in the national population came a significant increase in the urban population of England and Wales, partly because of the location of factories in urban places so as to utilize economies of scale (land, labor and capital). By the middle of the 19th century (1851), England and Wales already had the majority of their population residing in urban centers.

While the growth in urban populations is an important consequence of industrialization, the changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution established a removal of the medieval or preindustrial urban hierarchy in England and Wales. Places, such as Norwich, Exeter, Shrewsbury, Cambridge, Canterbury, and York, urban places with long established histories closely associated with the church, were pushed down the urban hierarchy because of the sudden surge of people living in industrial places. Additionally, these places resisted industrial pressure and did not industrialize in the late 18th century. So, although large in size and still of national importance, they were demographically surpassed by other places (that is, those that did industrialize). Whereas prior to industrialization settlements like Norwich and York were at the top of the urban hierarchy in terms of their demographic size, by as early as 1801 their relative importance was declining and by 1851 a new urban hierarchy based on industrial towns and cities at the top was firmly in place. By 1851 industrial places such as Sheffield, Newcastle, Bradford, Hull, and Leeds were positioned at the upper echelons of the urban hierarchy.


A noticeable consequence of the Industrial Revolution was that it allowed already large urban centers to markedly increase their demographic size and urban regions to appear for the first time. Across Western Europe, for instance, capital cities grew dramatically. London increased its population size from 1.1 million to 6.6 million people between 1801 and 1901. By about 1900, there were approximately 150 large cities (of 100,000 of more people) in Europe whereas in 1800 there had been about 20 places of this size.

The marked shift in urban living has been the source of much investigation, and a number of reasons have been given as to how the Industrial Revolution influenced such change. These include the need to have concentrations of labor in areas close to raw materials where factories would be based (e.g., the Ruhr in Germany), the need for marketing finished products at places with access to rail or water (e.g., Liverpool in England, Hamburg in Germany and NEW YORK, UNITED STATES), and finally the tendency for banking and financial institutions to base themselves in existing political and cultural centers (e.g., PARIS and LONDON).

Examples of urban regions that developed in 19th century Europe include the Ruhr (Essen, Dortmund, Bochum, Dusseldorf) in Germany, and the West Midlands (Birmingham, Coventry, Wolverhampton) in England.

To refer back to British industrial society, the early decades of the 19th century witnessed major changes to the economic, political, social, and aesthetic values of Britain as a consequence of industrialization, urbanization, and demographic transition, which were reflected in the changing appearance and form of urban land. Urbanization not only affected the building industry but virtually swamped the administrative practices and building codes that had safeguarded the urban environment, as resultant chronic overcrowding, poverty, inadequate sanitation, dirt, and disease were to testify. These were not unusual occurrences, but now they occurred on a scale never witnessed before. In terms of housing much change occurred as well. In order to capitalize on the rush of migrants into towns and cities to work in factories, speculative builders hastily erected poor quality houses within which worker families would reside, and about 99 percent of houses erected in London in the 19th century were done so speculatively.

Significantly, these houses were packed together, often close to the location of local factories, in highdensity fashion, which exacerbated social tensions and problems. Disease, for example, was often rife in working people’s districts, and often epidemics of diseases such as cholera would kill thousands. Houses were erected without any sanitation, maybe one outside toilet for an entire street, and without any adequate water supply. Water had to be gathered from local rivers or from water pumps located nearby, but the quality of urban water was far from perfect, as water used for drinking also contained various waste materials.

By the late 1830s and early 1840s, British governments at both the local and the national level were forced into finding solutions for the poor environmental and moral conditions in which people lived. The unfolding of such rational approaches to the urban form marked a fundamental change in the comprehension of the association between social and economic growth and the urban environment, a consequence of the development of the understanding that the urban conditions created under the forces of industrialization and urbanization were not conducive to salubrious living for not just many urban dwellers but a large proportion of the populace.

However, despite such knowledge, the wage structure, and so the working classes’ ability to compete in the housing market, had to be strangled in the capitalism system in order to underpin national economic prosperity, which was the basic cultural bequest given to Britain by the Industrial Revolution. Slum housing, which was to be found in every town and city in Britain, was therefore an unfortunate though imperative byproduct of culture and its economy at that time.

The dynamics of any proposed Victorian public involvement thus had to improve the plight of the poor— that is, improve the quality of life for people living in the cheapest and worst housing—without encroaching upon society’s cultural machinery for creating and maintaining its wealth, that is, capitalism. This was achieved through intervening in the housing market by introducing rules to improve the quality of new privately built houses. Therefore, as much as environmental improvement was about improving the plight of individuals, it was also about maintaining the capitalist machine that the Industrial Revolution had helped establish. Such a situation has been highlighted, for example, by government reports from the 1840s, which show the thought that unhealthy workers were not able to fully contribute their economic worth to industrial production. A healthy person could work more and better so it was in the nation’s economic interest at least to keep people healthy. For an insight into living conditions in England at the start of the 19th century refer to Friedrich Engels’s Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844.


The social system produced by the Industrial Revolution can be characterized by a significant number of working people engaging in industrial labor, working in sometimes large-sized industrial units (factories) owned by a single person or a small group of individuals. Philosopher Karl Marx wrote extensively on the development of capitalism and the social tensions it created between the main two social groups that he called the bourgeois, the owners of production, and the proletariat, the industrial workers who were viewed largely as being commodities and not as people by the factory owners.

The relationship between the bourgeois and proletariat, and Marx’s views on their association, has been greatly influential on wider social and political thought since Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto in 1848. The ideas of Marx were greatly influential upon political revolutions such as that instigated by the Bolsheviks in early-20th-century RUSSIA and upon governments in countries such as CHINA, CUBA, North KOREA and parts of Eastern Europe in the 20th century. It can argued that Marx’s influence upon the Chinese communists in the 20th century was such that it allowed the Industrial Revolution to occur later in the country than would have happened otherwise.

It has been shown that the Industrial Revolution influenced all aspects of society. Developments in other areas of society also affected the industrialization process. For instance, while brief mention has been given to the significance of technological developments, such as the steam engine, these developments also assisted industrial growth by other means. If the steam engine is taken as an example, its development also allowed by the start of the 19th century transport developments via the invention of the steam train. The invention of the train not only allowed greater speed of movement around regions and countries, thus assisting the migration of people from one place to another, but it also helped establish a network of communications between places that were previously isolated from each other. Therefore, industrial markets could open up, raw materials could be speedily brought from one area to another, and finished goods taken to the marker place at a much quicker speed than before.

With regards to developments in rail, Britain again took a leading role. By as early as 1830 Liverpool and Manchester, two of the largest cities at that time in England, were joined by rail line. At this time the first passenger station in Manchester was opened. Steam engines were also developed by the British in boats, which allowed for quicker travel between Britain and the American continent and the quicker import/export of goods and raw materials. Such developments naturally did not hinder industrial progress.


Toward the end of the 19th century, developments and societal change, particularly in Germany, have been called a Second Industrial Revolution. Changes within the chemical, steel, petroleum, and electrical industries from the 1870s mark the start of the second industrial transformation, a new phase of industrial and social development.

Whereas Britain was the cradle of the first revolution, Germany was the cradle of the second. Within Germany from the 1870s, much technological and social change occurred. Market prices, for example, were controlled by cartels, investment was plowed into advancing matters of science, and new technologies utilized in the production process.

While the second phase of the Industrial Revolution had the same social problems that were evident during the first period—for example, low wages, poverty, crime, unemployment, and the major element of workers engaging in industrial production—what may be noted as being wholly different about the two phases is their sources of power. While wood and coal were employed as means to generate steam power at the end of the 18th century and start of the 19th century, by the start of the second industrial period (from the 1870s), power was being generated by electrical motors and combustion engines.