Industrial Revolution

Industrial Revolution, term usually applied to the social and economic changes that mark the transition from a stable agricultural and commercial society to a modern industrial society relying on complex machinery rather than tools. It is used historically to refer primarily to the period in British history from the middle of the 18th cent. to the middle of the 19th cent.

Nature of the Industrial Revolution

There has been much objection to the term because the word revolution suggests sudden, violent, unparalleled change, whereas the transformation was, to a great extent, gradual. Some historians argue that the 13th and 16th cent. were also periods of revolutionary economic change. However, in view of the magnitude of change between 1750 and 1850, the term seems useful.

Dramatic changes in the social and economic structure took place as inventions and technological innovations created the factory system of large-scale machine production and greater economic specialization, and as the laboring population, formerly employed predominantly in agriculture (in which production had also increased as a result of technological improvements), increasingly gathered in great urban factory centers. The same process occurred at later times and in changed tempo in other countries.

The Industrial Revolution in Great Britain

The ground was prepared by the voyages of discovery from Western Europe in the 15th and 16th cent., which led to a vast influx of precious metals from the New World, raising prices, stimulating industry, and fostering a money economy. Expansion of trade and the money economy stimulated the development of new institutions of finance and credit (see commercial revolution). In the 17th cent. the Dutch were in the forefront financially, but with the establishment (1694) of the Bank of England, their supremacy was effectively challenged. Capitalism appeared on a large scale, and a new type of commercial entrepreneur developed from the old class of merchant adventurers. Many machines were already known, and there were sizable factories using them, but these were the exceptions rather than the rule. Wood was the only fuel, water and wind the power of these early factories.

As the 18th cent. began, an expanding and wealthier population demanded more and better goods. In the productive process, coal came to replace wood. Early-model steam engines were introduced to drain water and raise coal from the mines. The crucial development of the Industrial Revolution was the use of steam for power, and the greatly improved engine (1769) of James Watt marked the high point in this development. Cotton textiles was the key industry early in the Industrial Revolution. John Kay's fly shuttle (1733), James Hargreaves's spinning jenny (patented 1770), Richard Arkwright's water frame (1769), Samuel Crompton's mule (1779), which combined the features of the jenny and the frame, and Edmund Cartwright's power loom (patented 1783) facilitated a tremendous increase in output. The presence of large quantities of coal and iron in close proximity in Britain was a decisive factor in its rapid industrial growth.

The use of coke in iron production had far-reaching effects. The coal mines from the early 1700s had become paramount in importance, and the Black Country developed in England at the same time that Lancashire and Yorkshire were being transformed into the greatest textile centers of the world. Factories and industrial towns sprang up. Canals and roads were built, and the advent of the railroad and the steamship widened the market for manufactured goods. The Bessemer process made a gigantic contribution, for it was largely responsible for the extension of the use of steam and steel that were the two chief features of industry in the middle of the 19th cent. Chemical innovations and, most important of all, perhaps, machines for making machines played an important part in the vast changes.

The Industrial Revolution did not in fact end in Britain in the mid-1800s. New periods came in with electricity and the gasoline engine. By 1850, however, the transformation wrought by the revolution was accomplished, in that industry had become a dominant factor in the nation's life.

The Worldwide Revolution

France had in the 17th and most of the 18th cent. kept pace with Britain, but it later lagged behind in industrial development, and the British victory in their long-standing commercial rivalry kept markets away from France. The revolution did not make the rapid progress that it did in Britain, but after 1830 it developed steadily. The railroad and improved transportation preceded the introduction of the revolution into Germany, which is conventionally said to have accompanied the formation of the Zollverein; industrial Germany was created after 1850.

The United States made some contributions to the early revolution, notably the cotton gin (1793) of Eli Whitney. But the transformation of the United States into an industrial nation took place largely after the Civil War and on the British model. The textile mills of New England had long been in existence, but the boom period of industrial organization was from 1860 to 1890. The Industrial Revolution was introduced by Europeans into Asia, and the last years of the 19th and the early years of the 20th cent. saw the development of industries in India, China, and Japan. However, Japan is the only country of E Asia that may be said to have had a real Industrial Revolution. The Russian Revolution had as a basic aim the introduction of industrialism.

Its Effects

The Industrial Revolution has changed the face of nations, giving rise to urban centers requiring vast municipal services. It created a specialized and interdependent economic life and made the urban worker more completely dependent on the will of the employer than the rural worker had been. Relations between capital and labor were aggravated, and Marxism was one product of this unrest. Doctrines of laissez-faire, developed in the writings of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, sought to maximize the use of new productive facilities. But the revolution also brought a need for a new type of state intervention to protect the laborer and to provide necessary services. Laissez faire gradually gave way in the United States, Britain, and elsewhere to welfare capitalism. The economic theories of John Maynard Keynes reflected this change. The Industrial Revolution also provided the economic base for the rise of the professions, population expansion, and improvement in living standards and remains a primary goal of less developed nations.


See F. C. Dietz, The Industrial Revolution (1927, repr. 1973); T. S. Ashton, The Industrial Revolution (1948); W. O. Henderson, The Industrialization of Europe, 1780–1914 (1969); J. W. Osborne, The Silent Revolution: The Industrial Revolution in England as a Source of Cultural Change (1970); R. M. Hartwell, The Industrial Revolution and Economic Growth (1971); P. N. Stearns, The Impact of the Industrial Revolution (1972); B. Bracegirdle et al., The Archaeology of the Industrial Revolution (1973); R. C. Allen, The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective (2009); W. Rosen, The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention (2010); C. R. Morris, The Dawn of Innovation: The First American Industrial Revolution (2012).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Industrial Revolution: Selected full-text books and articles

The Industrial Revolution By Lee T. Wyatt III Greenwood Press, 2009
The Industrial Revolution, 1760-1830 By T. S. Ashton Oxford University Press, 1997
The Industrial Revolution in World History By Peter N. Stearns Westview Press, 1998 (2nd edition)
The Industrial Revolution By Arnold Toynbee Beacon Press, 1956
A Myth Shattered: Mises, Hayek, and the Industrial Revolution By Woods, Thomas E., Jr Ideas on Liberty, Vol. 51, No. 11, November 2001
The Industrial Revolution in France, 1815-1848 By Arthur Louis Dunham Exposition Press, 1955
The Industrial Revolution and the Demographic Transition By Khan, Aubhik Business Review (Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia), Spring 2008
Events That Changed America in the Nineteenth Century By John E. Findling; Frank W. Thackeray Greenwood Press, 1997
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 8 "The Industrial Revolution, c. 1860s-1890s"
Progress and Poverty: An Economic and Social History of Britain, 1700-1850 By M. J. Daunton Oxford University Press, 1995
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 5 "Diversities of Industrialization"
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