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The Industrial Revolution is a period of economic transformation in Britain from the 1750s to the 1830s, characterized by the growth of a new system comprising factories, railroads, coal mining and business enterprises using new technologies that it sponsored. The new system operated first on textiles, then spread to other sectors and by the mid 19th century totally transformed the British economy and society, setting up sustained growth; it spread to parts of America and Europe and modernized the world economy. Although localized to certain parts of Britain (the London area was not included), its impact was felt worldwide on migration and trade, society and politics, on cities and countryside, and affected the remotest areas. The growth rate in the British GDP was 1.5% per year (1770-1815), doubling to 3.0% (1815-1831).[1]

An "industrial revolution" (uncapitalized) is the transition from an agrarian economy – where the majority of the population is geared towards subsistence – to an industrial economy with a greater focus on manufacturing. The Industrial Revolution (capitalized) is the name applied to the transition in Britain when the combination of mercantile activity supported by energetic inventors and entrepreneurs brought in new workers to harness the natural resources of coal, iron and water power, thereby creating a manufacturing industry that was dominant in the world. The British Industrial Revolution was soon followed by industrial revolutions in northeastern Europe and the United States, with the U.S. and Germany becoming Britain's rivals in the Second Industrial Revolution after 1850.


English historian Arnold Toynbee introduced the concept in 1884 into English after the French political writer Louis Blanqui used it in 1837[2]. Historians debate the dating of the Industrial Revolution. T.S. Ashton places it roughly between 1760 and 1830. In the early 20th century historians (such as Charles Beard) looking for the social forces they thought controlled history, emphasized industrialization and urbanization. These were forces unleashed by the industrial revolution. By the mid 20th century attention was turning to the broader concept of "modernization," which included industrialization, urbanization, and psychological changes and changes in values. Eric Hobsbawm called it "probably the most important event in human history," but emphasizes the effects were not fully felt until the 1830s or 1840s.[3]. By the late 20th century postmodern historians largely stopped looking for deep explanatory forces, or sharp turning points, and stressed instead complexity and interrelationships. Crafts has emphasized the slow overall growth rate of the economy before 1830, suggesting that a real revolution should have higher rates. The higher rates came after 1830, but only after the industrial system and the new growth-oriented mindset had been well established in numerous sectors. The era is was a decisive point for modern technology, and for the formation of the working class.[4]

Goldstone (2002) argues that many premodern and non-Western economies show spurts or efflorescences of economic growth, including sustained increases in both population and living standards, in urbanization, and in underlying technological change. Medieval Europe, Golden Age Holland, and Qing China, among other cases, show such remarkable efflorescences of impressive economic growth.Yet these did not lead to modern industrialized societies. The distinctive feature of Western economies since 1800 has not been growth per se, but growth based on a specific set of elements: engines to extract motive power from fossil fuels, to a degree hitherto rarely appreciated by historians; the application of empirical science to understanding both nature and practical problems of production; and the marriage of empirically oriented science to a national culture of educated craftsmen and entrepreneurs broadly educated in basic principles of mechanics and experimental approaches to knowledge. This combination developed from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries only in Britain, and was unlikely to have developed anywhere else in world history.

Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy(2000) asks one of the classic questions of history: Why did sustained industrial growth begin in northwest Europe, despite surprising similarities between advanced areas of Europe and East Asia? Specifically he compares Britain and China in depth.

The measures of productivity over the period show major transitions in the manufacture of textiles; the consumption of coal; and the production of iron goods. Coupled with these are the movement of the population from rural to urban environments; and the rapid development and use of turnpikes, canals, railways, steamships and the telegraph. Above all it was the invention by entrepreneurs of the factory as a complex social-economic system that combined financing, engineering, raw materials, transportation and supervised workers as they made a profitable product whose sale in turned fed the expansion of the system.

Steam engine

The coal-fueled steam engine was a decisive factor in the Industrial Revolution, providing cheap, controllable power vastly superior to power from oxen, horses, and competitive with water mills. The first cost-effective steam engine appeared after James Watt, repairing a Newcomen steam engine, noted that 80% of its energy was lost by the alternate heating and cooling of the cylinder. In 1769 Watt patented a separate condenser, which made it possible to keep the cylinder hot, an air pump to exhaust the cylinder after each stroke, and a cylinder head to force the piston down by steam instead of atmospheric pressure. Many other inventors in the next 100 years perfected elements of the steam engine. Their challenge in maximizing the power output was to use high temperatures and very high steam pressures, without having the engine explode.[5]

Success in building larger, more efficient engines meant that the cost of energy fell steadily. Entrepreneurs found uses for stationary engines in turning the machines in a factory or the pumps at a mine, while mobile engines were put into locomotives and ships (where they turned paddles or, later, propellers). The use of water power was growing too, so that in 1830 steam mills and water mills were about equal (at 165,000 horsepower each); by 1879 Britain obtained 2.1 million horsepower from steam engines, and 230,000 from water.[6] In 1831, the Glasgow area, with a population of 200,000, operated 328 steam-engines. Sixty were on steamboats; the largest steamboat was only 387 tons and it had two engines, each of 110 horse-power. The other engines were used in the 107 cotton mills, many of which contained several. The average engine had a 26 horse-power output. Other industries were just starting to use the new engines.[7]


For centuries the spinning of fibers into yarn and the weaving of yarn into cloth had remained a manual operation. In England, for example, women and children, working at home, combed cotton with wire brushes and spun it by hand; the father then wove the cotton on a hand loom. Output was expensive and consumed locally. Most of Britain's cloth was home-made from wool in the West Country, Yorkshire and Lancashire. 1702 a critical turning point occurred when Thomas Cotchett and George Sorocold built a silk mill powered by a waterwheel at Derby. Their mill was probably Britain's first factory, for it was a single establishment with complex machinery, a source of power and accommodation for workers.

Machine productions was the answer; it would be faster, cheaper and more uniform in quality; the machine was needed to made large scale marketing possible. Textile machines were invented and improved in Britain to increase the speed of spinning and weaving. The first key innovation was the fly-shuttle, invented by John Kay in 1733. On the hand loom the operator pulled the shuttle carrying the woof from one side of the warp to the other. Kay used hammers which propelled the shuttle back and forth between the warp threads. In 1764, James Hargreaves invented the spinning jenny, which increased productivity per worker by a factor of eight.

In 1761, the Society for the Encouragement of Arts and Manufacturies offered a prize of £50 for a spinning machine that could turn fiber into yarn and replace the hand-operated jersey wheel. Numerous inventors tried their hand; in 1768 Richard Arkwright (1732-92) employed John Kaye, a clockmaker from Warrington, to help build wooden models. In 1769 they invented the water frame, which passed the carded cotton between successive pairs of rollers, each pair in turn revolving with greater velocity, so that a great number of threads of any degree of fineness and hardness could be drawn. The spun thread was now strong enough to be used as warp. At first he relied on water power, but as the machinery grew more complex he turned to steam engines for power. Arkwright made a great fortune from his patents. While his role as the main creator of the factory system has been exaggerated, Arkwright was remarkable in his ability to adapt other people's techniques, raise funds from investors, and persevere with his vision of a mechanized textile factory. His Arkwright network of mills across Britain employed over over 5000 workers by 1782. [8]In 1779 Samuel Crompton combined the Hargreaves and Arkwright ideas into the "muslin machine" (or "spinning mule") which could spin yarn for making muslin (until then imported from India). Originally known as the muslin wheel, or hall-in-the-wood wheel, In 1785, Dr. Edmund Cartwright invented the first power loom, which mechanized weaving operations and eventually developed into the modern power loom. In 1794, Eli Whitney, an American, patented the cotton gin, which separated the cotton fibers from the seeds, making short-fiber cotton grown in America the major raw material for the first stage of the industrial revolution. Between 1781 and 1791 imports of cotton into Britain quadrupled, reaching 100 million pounds in 1815 and 263 million in 1830, and kept growing until the supply was cut by war in 1861.[9] In 1811 Britain saw more than 5,000,000 spindles at work, of which 310,500 used the Arkwright principle, 4,600,00 that of Crompton's mule spindle, and 156,000 that of Hargreaves's jenny.

In 1751, Britain exported £46,000 of cotton cloth; by 1800 this had soared to £5.4 million and by 1861 to £46.8 million. The cloth made for cheaper and better quality clothing, and was in demand across Europe and the world.

The United States followed the British lead, using stolen blueprints and illegally immigrating engineers. Samuel Slater (1768-1835) of Rhode Island pulled American cotton-spinning technology by constructing carding, drawing, and roving machinery, and by determining the operating and gearing ratios necessary to use water power. By 1850 the American had built their own industrial revolutions around textiles, and use of abundant water power in new England.


see Railway History

Coal mining

see Coal Mining: History The fuel problem was severe. Wood was scarce--the forests were gone. Water power required fast-flowing rivers of the sort that were abundant in America but uncommon in Europe. Horses could be used, but the efficient solution was fueling steam engines with coal, of which the island had an abundance. Before 1750 miners worked in shallow digs with few safety devices; floods, cave-ins, and gas explosions were omnipresent threats. Productivity was low. Even before Sir Humphry Davy invented the safety lamp in 1815 ways were found to detect the presence of choke damp, carbon monoxide, and coal dust; ventilation of mines was improved; systems of siphoning and continuous pumping were installed to rid the mines of water; and improved methods were introduced for sinking shafts. An early use of steam engines was to pump water out of the mines; the first locomotives pulled cars of coal out of the shafts. In 1700 2.5 millions tons of coal were mined; in 1800 10 million tons; in 1861 57 million tons.[10]


see Steel industry, history

Iron was so durable that it became the preferred metal for tools and equipment until displaced by steel after 1860.[11] Britain had iron ores but lacked a process to produce iron in quantity until in 1760 John Smeaton invented a blast furnace that could smelt iron both quickly and cheaply. His invention used an air-blast produced by a fan run by a waterwheel. In 1783 Henry Cort introduced the puddling, or reverberatory furnace, in which the final product was a pasty solid instead of a liquid. It was rolled into balls, squeezed and rolled to eliminate the impurities, or slag. The result was malleable iron in large quantities. The greatest of the early ironmasters, John Wilkinson (1728-1808) invented new machinery to process the iron. In 1779 the first cast-iron bridge was constructed across the Severn; in 1790 the first iron ship was launched. By 1830 Britain was producing 700,000 tons of iron a year; the amount quadrupled a quarter-century later, with centers in Scotland, South Wales, and Staffordshire. Railway builders were the chief customer. In 1847-48 they bought 3 million tons for rolling-stock, bridge building, and station building for 2000 new miles, plus the demands of the 3000 previously built miles of railway. [12]

Social impact

The technological innovations of the Industrial Revolution came many decades before their impact on society was visible. An early response was mob attacks on textile mills from "Luddites", who were opposed to the mechanised system which brought unemployment to those involved in hand-spinning. Lancashire mills, particularly, incurred trouble and many were destroyed by fire.[13] Historians of the emergence of a working class consciousness however point the 1830s and 1840s, and study complex causes, such as the demand for greater participation in society and politics sparked by the Napoleonic wars and the rise of Methodism. Major demographic changes became visible starting in the 1840s.[14]

Standard of living

Historians have for a century vigorously debated the impact of the industrial revolution on living standards, wages, and (more recently), the heights and weights of workers.


Japan was the first Asian nation to undergo an industrial revoltion. Sponsored by the state from the 1860s, it copied European models, bringing in machinery and experts. The agrarian sector was capable of feeding the growing population, and provided a steady stream of workers to the fast growing industrial cities. Japan's industrialization grew rapidly after 1890, stimulated primarily by internal demand, and financed primarily by internal capital. It first developed a large textile industry. It had some coal and increased its production, but demand outran supply, so overall Japan became an importer of coal. It imported iron ore from China.[15]

Further reading

see the longer guide at Industrial Revolution/Bibliography

  • Ashton, T. S. The Industrial Revolution, 1760-1830 (1948)online edition
  • Berg, Maxine. The Age of Manufactures, 1700-1820: Industry, Innovation and Work in Britain (2nd ed 1994)
  • Checkland, S. G. The Rise of Industrial Society in England, 1815-1885, (1964).
  • Clapham, J.H. An Economic History Of Modern Britain 1820-1850 (2 vol 1939) vol 1 "The Early Railway Age" online
  • Clark, Victor S. History of Manufactures in the United States: 1607-1860 (1916) online at
  • Deane, Phyllis. The First Industrial Revolution (2nd ed 2003) excerpt and text search
  • Horn, Jeff. The Industrial Revolution: Milestones in Business History (2007). 190pp. ISBN: 978-0-313-33853-3; basic textbook
  • Hudson, Pat. The Industrial Revolution (1992)
  • Jones, E. L. The European miracle: Environments, economies and geopolitics in the history of Europe and Asia (2nd edition; 1987). excerpt and text search
  • Landes, David S. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor (1998)
  • Mantoux, Paul. The Industrial Revolution in the Eighteenth Century: An Outline of the Beginnings of the Modern Factory System in England (1928, 1961) online edition
  • Mokyr, Joel, ed. The British Industrial Revolution: An Economic Perspective 2nd ed. 1999 online edition
  • Olson, James S. Encyclopedia of the Industrial Revolution in America (2001)
  • Pomeranz, Kenneth. The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (2000)
  • Rider, Christine, ed. Encyclopedia of the Age of the Industrial Revolution, 1700-1920 2 vol (2007)
  • Rosenberg, Nathan, and L. E. Birdzell. How the West Grew Rich: The Economic Transformation of the Industrial World 1986 online edition
  • Rostow, W. W. The world economy: history & prospect (1978) online at ACLS e-books
  • Snooks, Graeme Donald, ed. Was the Industrial Revolution Necessary? 1994. online edition
  • Stearns, Peter N. The Industrial Revolution in World History (1998), social history
  • Usher, Abbott Payson. An Introduction to the Industrial History of England (1920) 529 pages online edition

See also


  1. Berg (1994) p 15, following estimates by C.H. Feinstein, "National Statistics, 1760-1920", in C.H. Feinstein and S. Pollard, eds., Studies in Capital Formation in the United Kingdom, 1750-1920 (1988) table X.
  2. Usher (1920) p 247; Toynbee, Lectures On The Industrial Revolution In England
  3. Hobsbawm 1988, p. 46
  4. Berg and Hudson, (1992)
  5. John Lord, Capital and Steam Power 1750-1800 (1923) online
  6. Nicholas Crafts, "Steam as a General Purpose Technology: a Growth Accounting Perspective." Economic Journal 2004 114(495): 338-351. Issn: 0013-0133 Fulltext: Ebsco; Crafts also estimates that all technological innovations, including steam engines, accounted for about 18% of British economic growth from 1780 to 1830, and 31% from 1830 to 1870;
  7. Clapham 1:156
  8. Karen Fisk, "Arkwright: Cotton King or Spin Doctor?" History Today 1998 48(3): 25-30. Issn: 0018-2753 Fulltext: in Ebsco; R.S. Fitton, The Arkwrights: Spinners of Fortune, 1989.
  9. Pomeranz 275-78
  10. Nef (1932); A Robert Lindsay Galloway, A history of coal mining in Great Britain (1882) online edition
  11. Small amounts of steel were produced before the 1860s, but it was five times stronger than cast iron.
  12. Clapham 1:425-28
  13. Frank Peel, The Risings of the Luddites, Chartists & Plugdrawers (1888) online edition
  14. Berg and Hudson, (1992)
  15. William W. Lockwood, The Economic Development of Japan: Growth and Structural Change, 1868-1938 (1954)