The Industrial Revolution in World History

By Peter N. Stearns | Go to book overview
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Introduction: Defining the Industrial Revolution

The industrial revolution began about two and a half centuries ago. It has changed the world. Focused on new methods and organizations for producing goods, industrialization has altered where people live, how they play, how they define political issues--even, many historians would argue, how they have sex.

The industrial revolution was an international event from the first. It resulted from changes that had been occurring in global economic relations, and then it redefined those relations still further--and continues to do so.

This book explores what the industrial revolution was and how it reshaped world history--even beyond the particular societies in which it developed the deepest roots. Industrialization has been the most fundamental force in world history in both the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. Outright industrial revolutions occurred in three waves. The first happened in western Europe and the new United States beginning in 1760. A second wave burst on the shores of Russia and Japan, some other parts of eastern and southern Europe, plus Canada and Australia from the 1880s onward. The most recent unfolding began in the 1960s in the Pacific Rim and, more tentatively, in Turkey, Brazil, and other parts of Latin America. Each major wave of industrialization quickly spilled over into other societies that were not industrialized outright, altering basic social and economic relationships. Because industrialization was a global phenomenon from the first, it helps focus key comparisons: between specific revolutionary processes, such as the German and the Japanese, and between societies advancing in industrial growth and those lagging behind.

The industrial revolution involves fundamental change, but it is an odd kind of revolution. Indeed, some historians take issue with the term itself. This is a revolution that spins out, in any given society, for several decades. In its early stages it may have little measurable impact on overall production rates, which are still determined by more traditional methods of work. Yet the use of new machinery and

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